The interior designer turning small spaces into major statements

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Darren Palmer, a talented and charismatic interior designer, seems of late to be planting a firm imprint into the collective design industry consciousness with his clever and chic design aesthetic. Interest in the man’s work has continued to grow since his print debut coup in leading interior’s publication ‘Belle’ magazine in 2008, followed by runner-up status in Channel Nine’s design series Homemade in 2009. As almost a regular these days on the reality television circuit, Palmer was considered an obligatory phone-a-friend when the contestants of this year’s top rating renovation show ‘The Block’ needed his expertise to secure the ultimate prize.

Although not yet a design icon, we’d better watch this space. Palmer is quickly gaining speed in producing a unique blend of design that is appropriately fitting an alternate market to the masses, probably much due to his [until recently] bachelor status and the need to be creative in re-inventing his own small-scale living quarters whilst managing his ever-increasing design profile in this country. 

Recent publications have highlighted his innate ability to work with the smallest spaces to get the best leverage out of every square metre. When other established interior design firms have their acres of work adored in all the major design publications, Palmer is versatile enough to be able to tackle work on the same grand scales but also be humble enough to be realistic about the state of many urbanites living without the luxury of space. Interpreting Darren’s message here seems clear – form must follow function in every alcove within every an inch of it’s often very compact life.

Adam Scougall caught up with Darren to pinpoint his design ethos on modern cosmopolitan living.



Hi Darren. You’re getting quite a bit of exposure now in various realms and deservedly so. Tell us about your background and what’s lead you to your success?

I grew up in central Queensland in the 1980s so I was living in pretty much a design void. I did however have the pleasure of growing up in a peaceful and very natural environment. I always wanted to make houses for people when I grew up, though was far too relaxed with my studies to become an architect, which was the original goal.  I studied, instead, graphic design and visual arts and worked quite successfully in advertising in the late ’90s before establishing my own graphic design and web company in early 2000s. While I enjoyed the creative side, my heart always lay with interiors, reading interior mags for leisure and automatically redesigning every space I entered. I figured I should probably change careers when I was 27, hence my move into interior design. 

Where is your business based and which areas you are currently working in?

My business operates out of a fantastic old warehouse in Surry Hills, Sydney.  It’s a great space filled with like-minded creatives. It’s got high ceilings, old worn wooden floors and big New York loft-style windows.  I love it. It’s light and bright and has a great vibe. I focus more attention work-wise on the eastern suburbs of Sydney, with projects from Coogee to Pyrmont and everywhere in between. I do take work on wherever a project requires me; I just seem to attract an inner city market.

What would you say are your career highlights to date?

My first job I ever did was featured in ‘Belle’ magazine which was a wonderful start. It’s the job that allowed my mentor to see my work and it was also my home for several years so that was fantastic. The irony of that is I am now married with a son, two dogs and a cat, so my one-bed bolt hole doesn’t cut it unfortunately and I’ve had to move on. Apart from realising my own dream homes and creating those for my clients on a regular basis – which is always still a massive buzz – I’ve also been fortunate to be part of the reality TV design genre on the consulting and judging sides. I was on ‘The Block’ this year as guest judge and design mentor and a few years back was on a similar show to ‘The Block’, except we did 16 houses in 8 weeks instead of four – a fantastic challenge and learning experience. I started the year being named as one of ‘Belle’ magazine’s ‘Mood Makers For 2011’ and I am ‘GQ’ magazine’s contributing editor of interiors which is a great honour. And being interviewed by you ‘Cream’ the icing on the cake!

In some of your recent work, you’ve highlighted that you can achieve a blueprint of luxury elements [normally only seen in larger residential dwellings] in relatively tiny apartments underwhelming in square meterage. Can you tell us a bit more about how you achieve this?

I begin projects, especially small space projects, by assessing the floor plan, and looking for wasted space. It’s a fact-finding, problem-solving mission I guess. I look at all the things, small or large, that are hindering the property, whether they be poor finishes, planning issues, unsightly elements… The space solutions are my priority and I look at ways that I can get more from every nook and cranny. If you have high ceilings, I’ll look at ways to get usable storage from the voids above cabinets, if you have a poky bathroom, I look for ways to free up floor space, clean up lines, and install more storage. I have a very practical approach to design and see it firmly as function first. I look at how the space is to be used and by whom and what inclusions need to be made and then I play Tetris with the space until I can get as many or all of those requirements squeezed in. That’s the fun part of my job as I love spacial challenges. Sometime I have to be creative about how things fit together. Often in ways that aren’t done by others, which requires thorough explanations to tradespeople and suppliers. It often means a little more work and cost, but always means that the client will get a space that works in a way and contains things that they may not expect, and you may not see from the outside. I really love hidden surprises and mechanisms that allow more usability.


How affordable is interior design these days for regular people wanting their ordinary digs to be transformed into the modern havens we’ve seen in your work?

An interior designer is very affordable if you think about what a good interior designer can do for the value of your property. I have worked on a project where the client spent $150K and made $800K profit. I’ve worked on a job that the client spent $300K and made $600K profit. My fees are a small percentage of that initial spend [generally between 10 and 15%] but with the expertise that I bring to adding value to property, the client gets a massive return on investment. If you could double your expenditure wouldn’t you think that paying the expert that assisted you to do so is an investment worth making? 

Do you have any general advice for anyone living in a smaller space who is contemplating renovating or enlisting professional design help?

When it comes to renovating a small space, like a one-bedroom apartment I have just completed early this year, the key is to build in as much storage as possible so that you have as little furniture as necessary. I squeeze every last bit of storage space out of a property as I can, then make it beautiful and sometimes multi-functional, like a storage unit that is also a bench seat for example. Clean, tidy lines and lots of floor will give you the impression of space. Mirrors work a treat, and be mindful of available light and how you have to work with it. Have a vision that is driven by an idea. Concept-driven design, just like concept-driven advertising, has the most impact and will be the most valuable. The first thing to think about though is how the space needs to function and who will be using it. That will dictate all of your design questions, and the solutions.

Is there anything coming up that you want to tell us about?

I’m currently doing quite a bit of lecturing and teaching to a bunch of different companies though the most current is a master class at Coco Republic Design School. I really love getting in front of people and sharing ideas and I’m really looking forward to this session as [the project is] a one-bedroom bachelor pad which I think is beautiful and terribly ironic. So it should be a entertaining chat as well as hopefully informative. So, yeah, I’m really grateful for all the great opportunities I’ve enjoyed and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.