Interview with esteemed interior designer turned artist

Desmond Freeman

June, 2021

Once the Federal President of the Design Institute of Australia in the 1980s and founder of one of the leading interior and museum design practices in Australia, Desmond Freeman is now an artist, author, and professor. Asia Designers Directory catches up with Desmond to reminisce about his interior design career and find out what he has been busy with.


Can you tell us about your background and what made you pursue Art?

Throughout my interior design career, I always found that my ability to produce quick sketches for colleagues or clients was a great advantage in terms of communication of my ideas in a very efficient manner. This became, if you like, whether in commercial interiors or museums, an illustration to accompany the briefing or presentation conversations or submissions.  The nature of the sketches more often than not, conveyed the concept or details while leaving the client some room to comment without feeling they had paid for a finished and rendered drawing.  My current artwork, supporting what I have called ‘The Great Cities’ project is the culmination of all those years of drawing. I am working in pen and ink, drawing and painting buildings and streetscapes from some of the great cities of the world. So far, I have published these some 180 pictures in three books on Venice, Paris and Rome. The most recent book, ‘Desmond Freeman Rome – Impressions in Ink’ is due to be launched in Sydney on 8 July 2021, published by Images Publishing. This will coincide with an exhibition entitled ‘The Grand Tour’ at a Sydney gallery presenting some 57 pictures from Venice, Paris and Rome.  The next project is a collection of my drawings of New York City to be published in 2022. I have spent considerable time in all these cities and it gives me great satisfaction to produce these pictures.


You established one of the leading interior and museum design practices in Australia, and served as Federal President of the Design Institute of Australia in the 1980s. How do you think the interior design landscape has changed since?

I am delighted to see that the regard for interior design has changed beyond recognition since the early 1970’s when I commenced my career.  When I say ‘regard’ I am referring to the heightened respect of other professionals in the design and building fields as well as the vastly increased demand for the inclusion of qualified interior designers in diverse project teams. So too, in smaller projects, clients can see all around them the impact skilled designers have on domestic and small commercial projects leading to sometimes astonishing results. I am also gratified to see qualified interior designers filling vital roles in allied project types such as, museum and exhibition design, transport interiors, retail design, automotive design and colour prediction across a wide range of disciplines.  Commercial and domestic expectations of the interior design profession have increased enormously. Thankfully, the standards of responsibility required of the interior designer have increased in many jurisdictions where legislation demands higher accountability for their actions. Access to an ever expanding range of building and furnishing products demands designer’s attention as does the pressure to conform to changing regulation on sustainability. In order to comply with environmental regulation in most advanced economies, the interior designer is now required to be prepared to think in a different way and to be more and more inventive in the way she or he conceives design solutions and in the way they are delivered to clients.     



How would you describe your style and where do you draw inspiration from in your early career when information was not as widely accessible?

My early career was shaped by working in London for a number of years after graduating from the Royal College of Art. Not only was I introduced to the very latest styles in furniture and furnishings but I was given a deep appreciation of the importance of heritage interiors as a major field of interior design. At the same time, after many hours spent in the Victoria and Albert Museum just near the Royal College, I developed a love of museum and exhibition design in what was to become one of the major elements of my design career. As a consequence of these experiences, I brought back to Australia a strong desire to gain practical experience in contemporary interior design, heritage interiors and of course, museum and exhibition design or as it became known ‘interpretive design’. I have been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work in all these fields with clients as diverse as hospitals, prisons, shopping centres, aged care facilities, museums, expo pavilions, visitor centres and some significant domestic projects in many countries around the world. I cannot say that I have a particular ‘style’ as such but rather hope that I have been able to satisfy each brief in a way that was functional, visually appealing, cost effective and which created an appropriate environment for healing, for work, for pleasure, for education or for relaxation.     


Apart from a stellar career in interior design, you are also an author who was awarded the Gold Medal in the Fine Arts category of the 21st Annual Independent Publishers Book Awards in New York City for Desmond Freeman Venice – Impressions in Ink. What inspired this 88-page on pen and ink drawings of architecture of Venice book?

I had embarked on a series of drawings of one of my favourite cities, Venice in 2014. As the drawings mounted up, it occurred to me that I should publish them in book form along with quotations from famous painters. writers, philosophers and poets. My wife is a medieval historian and I asked her if she would undertake the text research for the book to which she agreed. We have now published three books of my pictures and her text selections, the latest is ‘Desmond Freeman Rome – Impressions in Ink’ and I am working on a fourth on New York City. Pen and ink drawings in black and white and full colour has become my favourite medium and I can easily become lost in a drawing for hours on end. One of the most significant differences in this work to my interior design career is that I have become the client – no more briefs, no more compromising, no more endless meetings just me and the art materials – a blank sheet of hand made paper and my imagination. Of course, I could not do what I am currently doing without the years of rewarding experience as an interior designer behind me.   


You have been commissioned for artwork on diverse commercial interior design projects such as embassies, hospitals, expos and even prisons. As an interior designer and artist, what is the creative process like?

The interior design creative process can best be summed up as ‘problem solving’. The designer is presented with a series of issues in the brief – whether it is a written or spoken brief and it is his or her challenge to solve those problems. The problems may be in constraints of space, of budget of time or all of these together. With experience in observing problem solving while training or in the early years of a career the designer can apply solutions in a balanced manner to the brief at hand. The designer’s repertoire is gradually built up by seeing as many different types of interiors as possible, by critical analysis of the essence of various styles, by learning from senior colleagues how to approach problems and of course, by participating in design team activity. Failure can often come from an inability to function as part of a team – demanding recognition for having done it all on one’s own.

Once, through experience, the designer appreciates the wonder of the design process, the way forward is much simpler and rewarding. The designer is then equipped to deal with more and more complex briefs, responding to other consultants involved in the project and to more demanding clients. The design process is only successful when its order is respected. That is to say when ‘concept’ precedes ‘design development’which then precedes ‘documentation’ and reaches finalization in ‘supervision’ of the implementation of the design.  To attempt to jump for example, from ‘design concept’ to ‘documentation’ invariably compromises the design process and will result in a less than ideal solution.     


Can you tell us about your upcoming projects and endeavours?

My current focus is, of course, on my New York City collection of pictures and the subsequent book.  I am also preparing for a large exhibition of the work of my three City series books (Venice, Paris and Rome) in Sydney in July and another exhibition in October this year. A great deal of my time is spent raising funds for a cancer charity in the area in which I live. To my great delight I am introducing a higher design standard to the graphics for the organization through the work of my son, Nicholas who is a freelance graphic designer in New York City.

I feel that my interior design career is now behind me except for the teaching which has become entirely digital. I recently wrote and recorded a series of 14 videos on museum design which I hope will soon be available to design students in Asia. I also feel very honoured to have found ‘design’ as my career and can honestly say that I never regarded it as ‘work’ – it was a total pleasure even on those more difficult days.

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