Sue Carr – The Science of Living

Sue Carr – The Science of Living

In 1997, Sue Carr  stated that ……

200 years previously, 80% of the cost of a building was allocated to constructing the external fabric and creating an architectural presence.

By the late 1990s the situation had changed dramatically –  less than 15% was spent on the envelope, 40-50% on services, while 35-40% is invested in the fitout.

Therefore, in a contemporary society, the interior is not an ‘add-on’ but is a significant component

As the interior (and associated services) account for such a significant percentage of the construction, (approximately 85% ) the onus is on Interior Design to take a leading role in research, practice and education to generate immediate and long term change.”


Sue Carr is an interior designer, educator and indefatigable promoter of the benefits of good design, she has worked throughout her career to raise the profile of Interior design as a worth-while and recognised profession.

She has been long recognized for a contemporary aesthetic with a strong focus on detailing and her practice is one of the most respected design firms in the country.

Sue co-founded the architectural and interior design firm Inarc in 1971 and worked with Denton Corker Marshall in 1992 before founding her own design practice Carr Design Group in 1994.

With a career spanning more than four decades,  Sue is synonymous with the evolution of interior design in Australia and her work is admired and sought everywhere – from New Zealand to the US.

Sue’s story is incredibly fascinating from how she nearly donned a lab coat for a life amongst test tubes and Bunsen burners, to how she managed to convince a generation of architects that being an interior designer did not mean she was there to do the curtains and cushions.

For Sue design is a balancing act: –  technology v materiality / transient v timeless / heritage v future / connectivity v sanctuary – the designer’s role is to navigate these opposites to provide cohesion and clarity, and spaces that are engaging at a human and tangible level.

Sue has observed, and often anticipated, great changes in the way people live their lives.

sue carr portrait


Honors & Awards

Associate of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Founding Member of the Australian Design Academy
Fellow of the Design Institute of Australia F.D.I.A
Hall of Fame, Australian Women’s Network / 1999
Hall of Fame Member, Design Institute of Australia / 2006
Recipient of Gold Medal, Interior Design Excellence Awards / 2010


The Science of Living

‘Because I had a scientific background, I was always interested in structure and form, and in the way detail is expressed,’ Sue explained. ‘How the parts fit together is important to me. “A singular idea is the power of a great project. It is the feel of the space that is important – the sensory and emotional experiences that give people a sense of ease and well-being.

Sue sees that in essence, Interior Design really can be thought of as ‘ the science of living ’.

the science of living



About Sue Carr



Born 1944, Melbourne

Her maiden name was Sue Franklin

Her father was a chemist, her mother was a fashion designer/milliner, and as a young girl Sue struggled between her conflicting passions: science and art.

Sue was brought up in a family with a strong scientific bias, and she spent her school years imagining a life filled with Bunsen burners and lab coats.

“I remember when I was a little girl I wouldn’t get dolls, I would get chemistry sets,” she said smiling. “I would sit down with my dad at night, with all these test tubes, mixing up all sorts of stuff.”


1953 -1962  School Education

ruyton girls school kew melbourne

Ruyton Girls School, Kew, Melbourne

Sue said …  ” I came from a family divided by art and science, and as such was encouraged to consider the option of a career in either field. The overwhelming feeling at this time was that a career in science was the logical and professional path.”

In her last year of high school Sue reluctantly dropped her arts subjects to focus on the sciences and maths.

Throughout school, I only ever imagined that I would be pursuing a life in science, so I reluctantly dropped arts to concentrate on a science pathway. ”

Unlike Europe or even the United States at the time, Australia was not yet ready to embrace the importance of design or support a creative culture that could offer designers the necessary opportunities to develop the industry to its full potential.

1962 On the front lawn



1963 – 1967 University

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology – Diploma of Interior Design



Sue initially enrolled in the Applied Chemistry course at RMIT University.

However her longing for a more creative and expressive vocation urged her to quickly explore other options once at university.

I had all the pre-requisite subjects required to transfer into architecture. The logical connection between my mathematics and science background and the architecture course being offered at RMIT was something I couldn’t ignore. I remember in the last three months of the term, I raced into the Architecture Faculty , which was across the road, and just kept climbing the stairs until I got to the very, very top- which is where the then fledgling Faculty of Interior Design was temporarily located.

The interior design studio at RMIT was tasked with unravelling the science of how we live and interact with one another in the environments that surround us.

Sue said ….. What captivated my attention as a young student was in part the unique approach of blending the science of everyday living with the art of producing beautifully designed spaces. ”

Interior design was original and different and new, it was a room full of possibilities and potential. I just thought, this is fantastic, so I managed to talk them into taking me in,

I immediately realised that I wasn’t meant to spend my life wearing a lab coat, and that there was a logical connection between my maths/science background and the art … I loved the course. I went from standing in a laboratory to making models. It was so much fun. It was like going back to kindergarten.”

It was a decision made on the spur of the moment and on that I have never regretted.

After 2 years she received a scholarship to complete the Interior Design course.


On reflection, Sue believes that over the duration of her career, it was this diversity of arts and science that helped shape her career success.

Her analytical mind would continue to explore how the science of living would help interior design projects e.g. Sun movement or spatial elements



1968 –  Post Graduation work

When Sue started her professional career, the Australian design climate was very different.

Interior design jobs were virtually non existent in Australia in the 1960′s, so Sue commenced working for her RMIT building construction lecturer, at his small architecture firm in Carlton, Melbourne.

I wasn’t qualified as an architect, but on day one of the job, I was asked to go off and do this job an alteration to a residence in Parkville–and I really didn’t know what had hit me! It was literally sink or swim and fortunately the project was a success.  It was a wonderful experience.

I think the fact that I started in a small architectural firm actually shaped the way I think about interiors, it’s about space, form and light, all the tactile issues and subliminal parts rather than the obvious or the superficial

She continued to sharpen her interest and understanding in structure and form, specifically the relationship between architecture and interior design, and in the way detail is expressed.

“Even today the way in which we work is very respectful of architecture, and form and space, and how light and the breezes work. All those intangibles are really what we care about.”

One of her more difficult tasks was trying to explain this to her clients.

Often they asked why an interior designer was involved before the building was even constructed, suggesting that her work couldn’t possibly begin without the architects having completed theirs.

Most were under the impression that interior designers were in control of choosing curtain fabrics and cushions and other adornments.

Thankfully, Australian design culture has leaped forward since then and Sue now finds this has become a much smaller part of her job with each passing year.


A couple of years later, I thought it was time for me to work as an interior designer and work on larger projects.

So I joined a much larger firm in Collins Street, and began working as an interior designer ( one of the few interior designers to be employed in an architectural firm )

My friend was leaving to go overseas, so I slotted straight into his position.

I spent a couple of years with them working on corporate fitouts and other large projects. But as so often the case, the firm put political and commercial agenda well ahead of design merit.

“Interior designers weren’t well regarded and they were really just thrown the crumbs.

The architects were the godfathers and we just got the things that they thought they might need to fiddle with, and that frustrated me enormously.”


Equally challenging was imparting an aesthetic that was totally out of sync with the time.

The ’70s was all shag pile flooring and laminated bench tops and I was interested in textural qualities and the interplay and effect of natural light.

At university I discovered the Scandinavian aesthetic, and learnt about the great works of Tadao Ando and Luis Barragán, which influenced my design thinking and spatial understanding.

Our work is perceived to be essentially timeless and I guess it’s because we don’t use styles, finishes, materials, concepts that are particularly fashionable.

What it made me realise, was that I think differently, and if I wanted interior design to advance in Australia, I needed to go out on my own.

It was about trusting myself and knowing I could achieve a successful balance between commercial reality and creative excellence.”

The lack of appreciation sparked a lifelong commitment to promote the benefits of good design and raise the profession’s profile.

Even today Carr is still active in design education, whether it be through her long association with RMIT, her participation in judging awards or her membership of the institutes.


1971 – Inarc Design

Carr Images_Vola 19.09.14013 copy

INARC – Murphy Street, South Yarra, Melbourne

In 1971, when she was 24, Carr with a colleague she had met at her previous firm, opened INARC Design (interior architecture), occupying a small office space in Murphy Street, South Yarra – right at the commencement of a disastrous recession in Australia !

As her first client brief for a law firm didn’t proceed Sue was forced to do simple laundrettes / kitchens etc projects to survive.

We worked on anything we could find, We did a lot of corporate work because there was quite a lot happening in the field at that time, in Melbourne

In the beginning there were only two of us running INARC, and we just managed to get by. But like most new businesses, we were doing all the work ourselves – from cleaning the bins to the bookkeeping.

“It was fun and it was a great place to be, but it was tough.

We hadn’t realised that we were in the middle of recession and life was really hard. But then, of course, if you can get through those tough times it means that when things return to normal you just think, ‘Wow this is fantastic’.”

However it wasn’t long till INARC had their first employee.

While it was challenging getting jobs, equally difficult was imparting an aesthetic that didn’t correlate with the latest fashions.

Remembering that Sue strongly believes in Scandinavian style and the International modernism concepts, a design direction she has pursued since university, without digression.

Although today words such as pared back, understated and monochrome are used sometimes too liberally by designers, in the ’70s it was different.

I had so much trouble in the early days,” Carr says. “I was completely out of sync with the time, and many times I thought I’d have to close down because no one likes what I do.

It was such hard work trying to convince people of anything because it was so completely different. I guess I have a lot more synergy with [Gen] X and Y than I do with my own generation.”

Carr continually rebelled against trends and fads, staying true to her design integrity, and the ambition paid off.

On INARC’s  5th birthday in 1976, we had grown to a firm of 10 people, and by our 10th in 1981 we had grown to 50 “.

Carr Images_Vola 19.09.14043 copy

At that stage it was the booming ’80s and INARC was designing many large-scale commercial projects –   including the fit-outs for BHP, Hewlett-Packard and a complete revamp of the Savoy Park Plaza Hotel.

Carr Images_Vola 19.09.14045 copy

interior design magazine issue 18 1989


interior architecture and design issue 24 1990


Throughout the 1980’s, Inarc continued to grow and things looked bright.

But then, almost overnight, the recession of the early 1990s left many architects and designers out of a job.

Work just disappeared overnight, as interest rates quickly soared to around the 18% level and credit lending was reined in

I’ve been through 3  x recessions and that one affected me the most,” Carr said ,“It’s because we were a very big practice and we had gone through those booming ’80s and had won incredibly large projects. To have to let some of your team go is probably the worst thing that can happen in a business sense.

It was like you had to really close that chapter and deliberately shut the door and open a new one. There is no way I could keep going, doing what I had done in the past … it was a deliberate time of change.”


1991 – Denton Corker Marshall International / INARC  JV

dento corker marshall 1985

john denton (l) , bill corker + barrie marshall (r)

The recession ‘we had to have’ dramatically diminished the size of the company in the early ’90s and at that point I decided to team up with Denton Corker Marshall.

With DCM, I had the opportunity to work on buildings as a whole- so it made more sense to me to pursue collaboration rather than work in isolation“.

1994 Citibank Banking Chatswood_01

During this period, Sue completed two of the company’s most technically innovative projects:  the Citibank automated (teller less) bank branch in Chatswood, Sydney, and the head offices for the Australian Stock Exchange, in Melbourne.

Both projects applied new technologies, and the result was a revolutionary approach to banking.

It was a real benchmark for that time,” Sue said “We were given the opportunity at a limited competition to put forward ideas of a new stock exchange and we won that competition against big firms … The model which we created here in Melbourne was a first, and it has been copied throughout the world in various ways.

1991 Australian Stock Exchange Melbourne_01

1991 Australian Stock Exchange Melbourne


1994  Sue formed Carr Design Group

carr design studio

In 1994 Sue officially launched Carr Design Group – now one of Australia’s leading architecture and interior design firms demonstrating a capacity to push conventional boundaries.

“In the beginning I had so much trouble, partly because no one understood what an interior designer does. Many thought we were just stylists who decide on the curtain fabrics, rugs, cushions and other adornments. Thankfully Australian design culture has come a long way since then.”

The firm’s recognised focus lies in powerful and considered thinking delivering benefits through longevity of design


She attributes the company’s success to her team of  35 young architects and designers, which includes director of commercial interiors Dan Cox and director of architecture Chris McCue

Carr Design established an architectural division, within the firm in 2002.

In 2011, Chris McCue joined as an trained architect with interior design expertise


Chris McCue

Carr Design Group have three core specialisations to address design for work, home and leisure – each discipline benefits from the knowledge, research and testing of the other.

With an impressive portfolio of clients – including the Adelaide and Sydney Hiltons, The Westin Melbourne, Norton Rose Fulbright, The Boston Consulting Group, Austcorp, Australia Post, Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club, Willow Creek Vineyard, Savills, Transurban.

Sue’s drive and commitment to excellence in interior design shows no signs of abating.

Sue’s understated, timeless approach to design is evident through their many commercial and residential projects, which have been celebrated with countless awards and media recognition.



For Sue, every project stands apart, and each is a response to site, client, brief and budget.

There is no cut and paste in this office, what we do is all mainly bespoke.

People say they know our work, but I can’t ever think of a job where we have repeated it before. We’ve never done that. And in many ways that’s what drives the business. Everything is always a new client, a new opportunity, a new location, a new time in life. We’re always learning things that are completely different and exciting.”

I am in the studio with everyone else and I am hands on with most projects . The team is fantastic at maintaining this incredible energy, enthusiasm, optimism and sense of excitement with every project. Everyone is very open and generous with sharing ideas and experience.

The interior designers and architects all work collaboratively on a broad range of projects: this can be anything from a commercial fitout, to a multi-residential apartment building, to a modular design for Intermode – an innovative boutique housing provider managed by her son Nick Carr.

sue and nick carr

sue and nick carr

Over the years Sue has employed a team of graduates who have contributed an enormous amount to Australian design; indeed some of them are now regarded among the best designers in Australia.

I feel strongly about the importance of encouraging the Australian designers of tomorrow to produce informed judgments about the crucial role of interior design in shaping and building functional yet beautiful interior environments that enhance our living, working and recreation spaces.

“We have an undergraduate program that’s been running forever, we love to teach and we love learning as you learn from young people. ”

They have such optimism and there are some great young people in this business … I couldn’t even imagine how many people we have trained over years [who have] gone out and done great things in Australia and overseas. And when you have trained a lot of people over time it really helps the profession.



A Paper given to Interior Architect students in 2010 by Sue Carr

Curtin University / 2010  / Interior Architecture Faculty

The Role of Interiors in Contemporary Australia – Interiors a Passionate Pursuit

permeable boundaries


Interior design has the power to make a positive difference to the environment that surrounds it.

As interior designers we have a large role to play in the creation of an ecologically sustainable future.

The key principles of cross ventilation, natural light and the correct orientation are priority considerations in the planning and design process and can have a massive effect on the energy efficiency of the built environment.

We need to ensure that every home or office design follows sustainable guidelines and that designers continue to specify healthier environmentally friendly options. When this effect becomes multiplied throughout the urban fabric of our cities it can have a profound affect on the environment.

Environmental sustainability can no longer be a specialist area of our workforce, employed only when a client’s budget or desire allows. It must penetrate every part of our business by being at the top of the list of priorities and at the forefront of our decision-making process.

Combining good design with environmentally conscious decisions is just another step in the evolution of the profession, and probably its most important one to date.

This is especially true for a country that has the potential to be devastated by climate change.

Fortunately Australia’s diverse landscape has provided the catalyst for the formation of our own distinctive Australian style. Our culture and iconography are instantly recognisable the world over because of the enviable natural settings in which we live.

Our design outcomes as a result should reflect the uniqueness of Australia’s environmental and sociological landscape. Our nation is in a process of constant change; it is a dynamic and vibrant society with boundless energy. If the design
industry is to remain relevant and achieve its purpose, innovation must thrive, we must continue to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo.

The physical manifestation of this energy can be experienced in our specific brand of architecture and interior design. By using local materials designers emphasise the sense of place and create an intimate connection to our region.

Our extensive use of light is testament to the breathtaking clarity and strength that only the Australian sun provides.

But perhaps the most identifiable and cherished quality is our ability to provide a strong connection to the landscape, creating an unspoiled transition between the natural and the built form.

These exceptional qualities are distinctive and should be used to encourage the formal expression of a local design identity.

The development and documentation of a contemporary Australian style will drive design and construction creativity in the same way it has done for the Dutch and the Italians before us.

We must highlight design that balances the ideals of architecture against local climate, social and commercial realities, design that embraces renewable resources, emphasises light and shade, space and orientation.

Australian interior design is finally coming of age.

The Australian designers of tomorrow need to produce informed judgements about the crucial role of interior design in shaping and building functional yet beautiful interior environments that enhance our living, working and recreation spaces.

It is my constant intention to expose and involve myself and the team of people I work with to ideas and concepts underlying the design of architectural interiors, including influences from related fields of design, the social and behavioural sciences, the environment and the fine arts.

This is an important part of the process if our industry is to continue producing fresh, valuable ideas.

The opportunities presented to us as interior designers are infinite; people will always require spaces to inhabit. As interior designers we have the unique opportunity and inevitable responsibility of defining those spaces.

The future will see designers called upon to have more technical knowledge in specialised areas, possess strong skills to work as a team, work more closely with related professions and accept greater responsibility and accountability for the protection of the natural environment.

I am incredibly lucky to have been able to turn a passion for design into a lifelong career.

As our personal lives become increasingly interconnected with our work, knowing that each day will bring a whole new set of opportunities and possibilities in a field that I am passionate about and enjoy is extremely rewarding.

I hope that each person who enters the world of design is lucky enough to approach their work with the same vigour. It will not only ensure the continued strength of the design industry but foster a greater Australian design culture which will result in the further development of creative and functional solutions to future design problems.

As a nation who didn’t recognise the term interior design less than 50 years ago we certainly have come a long way. However there is always room for improvement and never a moment for complacency.

There will always be a need for a greater level of understanding and an increased willingness to accept the value of good design so that it may become part of our national psyche.

The challenge in coming years will be to continue the growth of the industry, to encourage the interior design discipline to strive for greater standards and look towards the endless opportunities presented to us as a profession for creating innovative solutions for everyday living. As the world evolves so do the challenges that face it, and so must the designers who create within it. In contemporary Australian society, most human experience is played out within an interior environment.

However, it is a very Australian trait to long for and take pleasure in being outdoors, for the sense of open air and sky and for the escape it offers. This reflects the reality that so much of life is spent within interior spaces that fail to inspire or connect to us in any way.

Our key role as interior designers is to create environments that respond to the people who exist within them; to provide a quality of living that offers opportunities to approach everyday activities in a new and interesting way.

In order to create informed design solutions and meet the contemporary expectations of our profession, practitioners need to understand that which is beyond the technical elements of construction and decoration.

However structurally solid or aesthetically pleasing it may be, an interior design project cannot claim to be successful if it does not relate to a sense of place or fails to consider the needs of people.

The profession of interior design has continued to expand its focus in recent years to ensure these major considerations are being taken seriously. This has occurred in part because of the growth of the Australian design industry in general. The interest and attention it now receives is a reflection of Australia’s maturing cultural identity.

Thankfully a greater public awareness of the benefit of good design has increased respect for the important contributions of the design industry across all disciplines. These are important steps towards creating an innovative and sustainable future for a nation whose economy and lifestyle is increasingly dependant on good design.

Design is no longer seen as a cottage industry in this country. Across the nation the calendar is bursting with awards, competitions, exhibitions, public lectures, product launches and festivals which provide innumerable opportunities to celebrate and showcase design to an increasingly design-literate population.

There may be varying approaches and degrees of engagement across the nation but all states are now showing a serious commitment to design.


Design Philosophy

With increased awareness and understanding come greater expectations of our level of expertise and the quality of our delivered outcomes. This has created a stronger sense of responsibility among interior designers and contributed to building the reputation of interior design as a worthwhile and recognised profession, one that works along side architecture, not beneath it.

Until quite recently architects designed a project with little or no consultation from interior designers. As a result interior designers were forced to work within the strict confines of predetermined plans which ensured that the structural reality of the building dictated the spatial outcome of the interiors.

The problem with this set up was that the connection between the role of the interior designer and the architect was almost non-existent. The ephemeral, the emotional and less tangible elements of a design therefore become secondary
considerations dictated by an architect whose focus is rightly directed elsewhere.

Today good practice allows for interior designers and architects to work collaboratively rather than autonomously to design a project, making decisions from an exterior and interior point of view simultaneously in order to create the best possible outcome for the project as a whole.

One of the most important considerations, especially from an Australian context, is to ensure the transition from interior to exterior space is not a jarring one. A smooth transition across the interior-exterior threshold is an increasingly important part of what we do, especially in a country where our relationship with the outdoors is treasured.

More people want to incorporate traditional indoor activities into their outdoor spaces, blurring the line between the two with the aim of creating an almost seamless transition. It would be impossible to achieve this idea without the collaborative efforts of interior designers and architects.

In my work each design project is influenced by each member of the team.

Interior designers and architects work together on a project to ensure that the expertise from both disciplines is employed to offer the best possible solution for each design problem. This results in an examination of the fundamental elements and theories of architectural design practice, providing a platform from which to create distinct, responsive, functional and dynamic environments for living.

These ideas shouldn’t just be limited to the home environment.

We are increasingly spending more and more time at the office. Unfortunately the design reality for most workers is a small glass cubicle or a sub standard open plan set up. Not a lot of thought has been given to the fact that workplaces should assist employees to perform the functions of their role.

The type of office environment we work in can have a profound impact on the way we think and the way we shape ideas. Unfortunately, many corporations are scared off by preconceived ideas about the budget required to address this issue. It is part of our responsibility as designers to inform our clients of the long term benefits of a project.

Many are surprised when we highlight financial benefits, not only to running costs as a result of energy efficient design, but also to the human cost. If we can demonstrate the long term cost savings by addressing issues of productivity and employee well being, then we are moving a step closer to getting the project approved.

Moreover, clever use of colour and intelligent space planning can deliver highly functional workspaces for a surprisingly low outlay.

In this way, workplace design is much more than just finishes and aesthetics. Workplace design must work to attract the right people and assist them in doing their jobs more efficiently. Those in decision-making positions relating to new office locations or fitouts should be encouraged to view office design as a key productivity tool. Interior design must consider the science of understanding how people interact with each other and create spaces that get the most out of these complex interactions.

Workplace design is now rightly recognised as a major contributor to business performance. The high performance workplace of the future is about well being, comfort, innovation, interaction and sustainability.

Research has highlighted that contemporary workplace improvements can significantly increase an employee’s level of commitment, motivation and job satisfaction. And all this before we even touch on the concept of special branding, the process by which an organisation’s values and mission are represented within the constructed interior environment.

The value of creating a space that both inspires staff and sends a clear message to stakeholders should not be underestimated.

Part of our responsibility toward a design-savvy future is to ensure that these ideals can be accessed by everyone. There’s no point creating intelligent design solutions for the home and office if they aren’t within reach of the majority of the population. I’m sure my vision of delivering good design outcomes to more people is a shared one; in this way we can all benefit from advancements made.

Good design also helps the whole idea come full circle as it provides a platform from which to promote the message of what good design can achieve.

It truly has the power to positively change the state of mind and the attitudes of the people it surrounds.

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