Tina Engelen and Will Fung of Co-Ap

Spirited Sydney designer Tina Engelen reflects on lessons from the past and the intrigue of fresh challenges in Co-Ap, a new collaborative partnership.

Age and experience have seen interior designer Tina Engelen reassess the take-no-prisoners attitude with which she once approached her projects. She speaks with a hint of embarrassment when she recalls the adversarial, bristling-to-take-on-the-establishment attitude she and her former business partner, architect Ian Moore, had when they arrived on the Australian design scene in the mid-’90s. “We were those young people who were like, ‘We want change!’ and we would bang and bang and bang on until we got it. Ten years on, it leaves you exhausted!”

In the eight years since interiors and architecture studio Engelen Moore was dissolved, the designer has stayed out of the limelight, keeping busy on projects with her new design partner, architect Will Fung. Their studio, Co-Ap Collaborative Architecture Practice, based in Sydney’s Potts Point, is almost ‘anti-brand’, and perhaps the antithesis of the carefully marketed machine that was Engelen Moore. “You won’t have read about us for five years. We’ve been quietly working away and figuring out what we believe in,” says Engelen. “We’ve been brewing,” adds Fung. 

Time to reflect has given the duo renewed appreciation of beauty found in the meeting of old and new. “There’s always going to be a purity to our work but we are more willing to layer and keep layering,” says Engelen. This is shown in their recent extension and refurbishment of a two-storey terrace in Sydney’s inner-west.

The owners asked for an Engelen Moore-like scheme – cuboid and ultra-minimal – but got something quite different. The new extension unfolds along the length of the site to take in a series of split-level spaces and pocket gardens. The twisting structure is a response to the challenging nature of the site, which is double length, narrow and has a natural topography that dips then rises at the back. “For us, the hardships are excitements,” says Engelen. “We use the difficulties to inform the building and uniqueness comes from them.”

The largest complication stemmed from an eight-metre heritage wall along the site’s entire north boundary. It shadows the site year-round but also protects from harsh northern sun, prompting Fung and Engelen to explore European-style architecture. Where a series of fibro and metal outhouses stood is now a 10-metre glazed-glass gallery space, or loggia, linking the TV room to a second, larger pavilion with kitchen, dining and living areas. In the living area, full-height glass panels form the walls while hinged timber panels fold out to cover the giant windows. Skylights that run along the southern edge of the house above the living area capture the light all year round.

The use of colour, including a rich burgundy red, and textures of raw wood and heritage brick may surprise those familiar with Engelen Moore’s stark grey and white, but is indicative of Fung and Engelen’s desire to head in a different direction. “Colour is so important to us. I am now anti-gray,” Tina explains. “I wanted to take that heritage red and make it fresh again by teaming it with something else to make it sing." 

Engelen’s strong design ethic is partly the result of a childhood spent shadowing her parents, founders of high-end furniture import business Dedece, on trips to Europe. Her family home was an Alvar Aalto-inspired Modernist house. “I soaked it up,” she says. “Our house had yellow doors, red door handles and Marimekko curtains, always mixed with solid materials, timber and ceramics. It was like growing up in a Derwent pencil box.”

As an interior design student in the mid-’80s, she was caught up in the fun and energy of Sydney’s early design push. It was the same era that produced Dinosaur Designs and she says life was free and easy. 

“Sydney was an exciting expressive place to be. It was all funny hairdos and home sewn outfits.” By the early '90s she had completed internships with Burley Katon Halliday and begun working on interiors projects alongside Danny Venlet and a young Marc Newson as Daffodil Designs. “I worked with fabulous people, you don’t start out angry. You are a salmon swimming up the river and there is a point where you just need to make change.”

Change was definitely what Engelen Moore got. The work of the interior design and architecture firm proved hugely influential. From the mid-nineties to early 2000s, their signature hard-edged minimalism came to dominate architecture and interiors not only in Australia but internationally. Their style has been endlessly mimicked, so it can be difficult to comprehend just how radical their pared back approach was coming on the back of the excesses of the 80s and the post-modernist emphasis on pastiche. 

“We were very much learning from the 1960s when people we are lot more modest and lived simply. You knew your climate, you could cope with your climate. We wanted to talk about breezes and living indoors and outdoors.” Architect Harry Seidler proved a huge influence. Engelen had lived in the 1963 Seidler designed apartment building Ithaca Gardens in Elizabeth prior to relocating with her husband and son to the apartment the family still occupies in the Engelen Moore designed apartment The Grid.

“Although that Seidler apartment was a modest little box was all about how a space feels rather than how it looks. We talked a lot about how you have to get the foundations right before you can put make up all over it. It was back to basics.”

As part of Engelen Moore, she produced work that came to define an era of Sydney design. “We were building for our generation. It was like catching a great wave.” Almost three decades on, Engelen remains a pillar of the design community. “I used to be Miss Modern Milly; Miss new, new, new. I am glad now that there have been people who have fought against that. There have to be different expressions from different times. We learn from the past.”

This is an extended version of a story first published in Vogue Living July/August 2011. For a PDF of the original story click here. For more information, visit www.co-ap.com.