The force of his sheer friendliness hits you first, and then comes the disarming effect of his model good looks and dazzling smile. Well, this is a given, as the former dancer was a model before he became a much-lauded wunderkind in the world of design. I tell him I did an internet search on him and the irrepressible Jamie Durie replies, quick as lightning, “Did that hurt?”
Authentic self-deprecation aside, the fortysomething of Sri Lankan and Australian lineage has achieved a degree of media omnipresence, though perhaps not as ubiquitous as the grande dame media magnate, Oprah Winfrey, on whose show Durie has appeared.
“I’m having a very fun, wonderful life. I’m blessed,” he quips guilelessly in between sips of peppermint tea.
“I love what I do: It honestly doesn’t feel like work to me.”
Horticulturalist, environmentalist, designer, author of no less than nine books (“My tenth is on the way actually,” he cheerfully interjects) Durie wants to create things, to inspire people and to pass on some of his energy to anyone who’s interested in design. Such a person would be fortunate as the founder of Durie Design is the recipient of multiple awards, including six consecutive Logie awards for Most Popular Lifestyle Program and five gold medals at various garden and floral shows, including one from the Chelsea Flower Show.
“I consider myself a designer first and foremost,” he shares, having known, at the precocious age of seven, that designing was his first passion as he created cubby houses and built tree houses with cantilevered decks. “I’d go inside and decorate them, and create these homes away from home.”
The family – including his younger brother – lived “close to the bush” and Durie was instinctively fond of building his boyhood cubby houses into the rocky outcrop, and this goes some way in explaining his consistent design theme of blending sustainability and a healthy respect for the natural state of the outdoors and, incorporating design around these factors, rather than overshadow them.
It was during his modelling days with photographer James Houston in Santa Fe, New Mexico with its mud homes and adobe houses, “when it really clicked for me,” he gestures emphatically, hazel-flecked blue eyes firing up at the memory, “and I knew it was a calling I needed to attend to.”
He bolstered his credibility with a four and a half year study of horticulture, design and landscape that earned him a tertiary qualification. “I just had to go back and study. It was a big culture shock for me to go back to school at the age of 24!” he laughs.
And glancing through his portfolio of design work is akin to a visual feast of colour and Zen-infused luxury. His creations – of the team at Durie Design – sit in and around residences and resorts that seem other-worldly in that one might have to work three lifetimes to afford a space designed by Durie.
Design work took him to resorts in Indonesia and hotels in the Middle East. “It was an absolute rollercoaster,” he chuckles, recalling, too, how his media career took off in parallel tandem.
(He is credited with an impressive roll-call of 52 primetime TV design shows in 22 countries.)
And it is easy to see why, as Durie’s designs are ageless.
Durie recognises that proverbial nest builders are unbound by age or tradition in such circumstances, keeping the momentum on innovative concepts steady. And he easily digests what he sees as inspiration and modifies it to suit the client’s desires.
He neither shuns nor worships the spotlight but he concedes that the primetime TV exposure gave his design work the voice it needed. He’s been described as a ‘world-class landscape designer’ and an ‘outdoor expert’ who reimagines spaces with an eye for colour, sophistication and functionality.
“I think I’m more Asian by heart – and this is not a suntan!” he quips jocularly, gesturing offhandedly to his dusky forearms. And then he adds, spontaneously,
“I was made in Penang, actually. Conceived there,” he grins, the deep grooves around his eyes doing nothing to lessen his effusive charm.
“So I have a total Malaysian connection. It’s the tropical architecture, the people – I’m just more connected to people this side of the planet,” he murmurs.
“Architecture, horticulture and outdoor design all go hand in hand,” he shares, “especially here in the tropics, because we are so good at living indoors and outdoors.”
He is quick to point out indoor spaces that contain natural materials such as wood that have been designed with materials from the environment and inspired by it. This may be an accidental, unconscious act by some, but for Durie it is deliberate, and done with much love for both design and a genuine eco-consciousness.
“This is how I design –
I try to blur the boundaries between the indoor and outdoor, and make people feel like they’re being nurtured by nature, from top to bottom, whether they’re inside or outside.”
He takes his love of nature and designs stand-alone products that reflect this. He shows me a Japanese cedar soaking tub that was designed for “a celebrity client” that he loved so much he replicated one for his personal resting space.
But what is interesting in his designs is how he has woven his conscience into them.
“A lot of people get mixed up in my celebrity and they forget I am, foremost, a designer,” he grins good-naturedly.
He shows me pictures of a resort he designed, the customised furniture dotting said resort and a water feature he designed for the Hayman Island furniture range. He finds inspiration from natural beauties such as aboriginal totem poles and fishing baskets, and even water drops, around which he is designing lighting features for a project in KL “that I’m not allowed to talk about!” he shares, the statement punctuated by hearty laughter.
Two aspects become clear: the inspiration by nature and by wonderful extension, the use of natural, sustainable materials. This is a consistent choice that dominates Durie’s quick mind. “This wood,” he says gesturing to a furnishing, “is a composite wood made with rice husks. It has an environmental credibility about it. And it’s so dense,” he adds, “which means you’re not chopping down forests to have beautiful furniture.”
His lines are clean and simple, and it is a welcome counterpoint to the metal-and-leather decadence of past decades when excess and a flashy lifestyle seemed to override good design sensibilities. Durie grins in agreement. I also point out his designs give off a softer vibe. Was this deliberate?
“The Dalai Lama once said to me, in 2008, ‘we are coming into a generation of awareness’,” he intones, “and during the Eighties, we had this fascination with all things shiny and black and leather and steel, and we’ve moved on from that, 30 years on, and now we’re drawn to this, to beautiful tactile pieces that have nature about them and in them.”
Durie was obviously ahead of the curve, having followed his instinctive feel for a then-budding demand for more natural design and furnishings, “but it took a while for me to get my message across.”
Would he say his design sensibilities are completely dominated by a respect for nature? “Totally,” he replies emphatically. “You get me one hundred per cent.”
You might find him taking an aerial shot of an island where the bars of sand create a natural design, and Durie will replicate and imprint it into a water feature on a marble terrace, or be so moved by the “white sinuous lines running through the turquoise ocean” on White Haven beach that boasts the “whitest sand in the world.”
But he understands that designs have to be timeless, such as outdoor lounges built into the sand, and as much as he and his team exercise their best endeavours to create items that are as sustainable as possible, a limiting factor is whether materials can keep up with the demand for sustainable design and furnishings. “Architects and designers need to be more sustainably-minded,” he avers, “so we are the ones that set the demand. What we suggest, our clients demand, and then the forces of supply and demand come through.”
Durie’s designs have received a rare “pat on the back” from Greenpeace in recognition of the fact his range of furniture is completely FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) in Australia. “All our wood comes from managed forests.” It is testament to his persistence of the last decade to instil this level of consciousness within the design industry.
This is as heart-warming as the revelation that Durie finds inspiration in culture or in sandstone paving that was destined to be discarded, which he will rescue, break up into smaller pieces and gently restack into a basket, fill with earth and in which he’ll plant a native species of flora.
Surely, creating beauty out of something unwanted is more than a skill; it seems, to me, to speak of recognising that the beauty has been – figuratively – under our noses all along, and it’s up to us to decide to work with it, or destroy it in favour of artifice. It is gratifying to know Durie is one of many choosing the former.