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Mirror Image by Smac Studio


When Shona McElroy, principal of Smac Studio, learned she’d been nominated for an Australian Interior Design Award she froze in shock. “I was just so overwhelmed to see my name next to designers I’ve idolised for years,” she says. In fact, she stood still for so long that one of her colleagues gently checked she was okay. “I needed some time to process!” At only 28 years old, McElroy is one of the youngest interior architects shortlisted for this year’s Best Residential Design prize. The project she entered, Mirror Image, has been described as “ambitious” and “complex” by Madeleine Blanchfield, an acclaimed architect and a specialist judge for this year’s awards. “Smac Studio treated small spaces, such as the powder room (pictured further down) as opportunities to do something artistic, original and thought provoking,” says Blanchfield. “The material palette was rich and the use of colour, pattern and texture was very engaging.” Located in Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs, Mirror Image is a semi-detached house owned by a family who gave McElroy enormous creative freedom. And while the curvaceous powder room she somehow fit under the stairs has garnered a lot of attention, the entire home is indisputably thoughtful and beautiful.

McElroy naturally gravitates towards modern design with a touch of old-world Europe - as seen in the Venetian plaster finish on the walls of the powder room below. Moody and encapsulating, this space is intended to evoke a cave of wonders, particularly when the Petra sconce by Christopher Boots shines its rose-quartz glow. To avoid making it feel wedged under the stairs, McElroy used flexible plywood to embrace every possible curve in the space - even the ceiling is a perfect arch with no wall lines. “It’s small and windowless, so I thought rather than trying to brighten it up with white paint I’d lean into the dark, tactile side of things,” she says. Unable to fit in the floor-to-ceiling mirror originally planned, McElroy pivoted, adding two semicircular corner mirrors reflecting each other. “It’s become quite a playful space with that little optical illusion,” she says.

During the design and building phases, the Elba marble staircase at the entrance (pictured below) took priority over all else. To make it work in a home only 4.8-metres wide McElroy and architect Gary Meyers performed some geometric acrobatics, shrinking the powder room and entrance vestibule, as well as reconfiguring the upstairs - not that you’d ever know there was a compromise looking at it now. “We thought the staircase was going to be the hero, but now everyone keeps going on about the powder room,” says the owner.

Despite the fuss over the powder, the staircase remains one of the owner’s favourite spaces. “It looks amazing,” he says. “From the beginning we wanted a sense of entrance, we didn’t want people to just walk through the front door into the living area.” By leaving space for artistic lighting by Christopher Boots and a sculpture by Tom Corbin, McElroy achieved a formal entrance with ‘wow’ factor that sets the scene whenever a guest arrives. She also introduced natural light by adding a void between the skylight and the stair. “Sunshine now bends around that curve really nicely,” she says.

While all the chatter about the powder room is understandable, it would be unfair to ignore the cantilevered Esmeralda quartzite kitchen island. Suspended by a steel internal support, McElroy designed the bench to comfortably accommodate four people sitting face-to-face. “Spaces should be conversational,” she says. The stone is jewel-like and took many months to source. “It’s got depth and character, but it’s also quite airy. Kind of ethereal,” says McElroy. Being quartz, it’s also incredibly hardy. “We’ve spilled red wine all over it and it just wipes right off,” says the owner.

The stone on the island is carried through to the stove area, where it frames the solid burnished brass rangehood. “The quartz has a kind of bronze veining that echoes the rangehood,” says McElroy. “This zone makes me think of an antique necklace worn with a sage green dress.”

To bring more natural light into the kitchen McElroy moved the stove against the shared wall, creating space for a three-metre-wide floor to ceiling window. “The mirrors on the shaker cabinetry are also important,” she says. “They extend the space and reflect landscaping by Dangar Barin Smith.” Ingeniously, behind those mirrors is a mini butler’s pantry (complete with power points) hiding appliances and their messy cords. It’s impressive in its practicality, but the room still packs a dramatic punch via a bold Gervasoni brass lamp. “It’s so thin that it ripples in the breeze,” says McElroy, “like a fabulous broad-brimmed hat you’d wear poolside.”

McElroy is passionate about art and believes it brings personality to a space, so Anya Pesce was commissioned to create something bold and reflective for the living room (pictured below). Appearing metallic but actually made of perspex, the 3D wall sculpture pulls focus and injects levity into a palette that is otherwise neutral.

Interestingly, Smac Studio has a thing about circles - as evidenced in powder room mirrors, the brass pendant light and velvet cushions pictured above. “Circles are a fun shape,” says McElroy. “Velvet can be a bit serious and old-fashioned, so I made the pillows round for a little bit of celebration.” The home’s owners often host big gatherings requiring extra seating, so that’s where this bench comes in. “People often think things have to match,” says McElroy. “They’re like, ‘I love velvet so I’m going to do a velvet sofa and occasional chair and cushions.’ But if you use one material like that over and over it cheapens the space. I like to completely juxtapose elements with their opposites, for example, the soft velvet of this bench seat next to earthy brass and hard marble. That way no single material is overpowering in its richness.”

The owner of this home has just booked Smac Studio for three of his upcoming property development projects - which we look forward to seeing in next year’s Australian Interior Design Awards. “I’m kind of an intense person, I always want to improve and be better,” he says. “In my job I see a lot of beautiful houses, but this is the first time I’ve been satisfied with what I have. I come home and think, "There’s nowhere else I’d rather live."


Interior architecture and design: Smac Studio (Principal Shona McElroy)
Styling: Claire Delmar
Photography: Anson Smart
Architecture: Van Rooijen Meyers Architects (architect Gary Meyers)
Landscape architecture: Dangar Barin Smith
Construction: Airth Building

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