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Melbourne architect Pete Kennon on his people-first design philosophy

RUSSH has long lusted after the spaces imagined and then actioned by Kennon, the architecture and interior studio helmed by Pete Kennon. Kennon is responsible for the homes of Jane Scandizzo, Elyse Knowles and Raes on Wategos owner, Antony Catalano, along with the soon-to-be Ritz-Carlton on the Gold Coast which will lean more upbeat than peaceful beachside retreat. As Pete Kennon tells RUSSH, his philosophy is always people first.

But before the architect studied his trade, it was art that caught his eye. Emboldened by the audacity of Damien Hirst, and other artists, architects and self-starters he found in his university library, Kennon found the nerve to follow his creative ambitions. And so, Kennon was born. What began at a kitchen bench in 2019 has evolved into Melbourne studios with a team of 20 people, and this year Kennon will make its international debut.

Below, Pete Kennon talks about his childhood home in country Victoria and how each project begins with a gut feeling. Find our conversation, below.

What’s the first thing you want people to know about Kennon?

Kennon is an architecture and interior practice. We’re also interested in exploring other artistic pursuits so it feels and operates like a creative studio that can produce anything.

We design private homes, along with luxury hotels, and the studio is currently working on some other larger commercially driven projects. The studio has founded hospitality and retail interior projects, so we love speciality projects there too.

We’re not precious about the size of a project – I’m drawn to people first and if a project feels right.


Can you tell me about how your business came to be?

My family have always said that I wanted to do things my own way, so I guess that’s what’s happened.

I was interested in art first, I loved the art world and would paint a lot during university, it was a self-expression which I was lucky that other people would buy.

I’d watch art auction houses and trace sales of contemporary works. I remember when Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark sold for $12 million the year I left school and it shocking the world. In hindsight, that sale made me consider that being a creative could also have a commercially viable career.

I started studying architecture and would find myself spending days in the library researching artists, architects, and people with creative visions. It was a process of finding what I was interested in and having the freedom to self-teach in my own way. I’d read a lot of books, magazines and listen to podcasts.

I was enchanted with stories of people following their own ambitions, both creatively and in business. It made me realize that creating a start-up business is not unlike the vision of an artist; it’s about following your ideas, beliefs and creating something from nothing.

The difference is, the best businesses need to solve a problem to succeed, whereas artists can remain abstract. My work is somewhere in the middle that must do both.

Kennon opened formally in January 2019 at the kitchen bench, it’s now grown to a team of 20 with projects all over Australia. We have had interest internationally this year with opportunities in the US, so we’re heading over there in June to dip our toes in the water.

The studio environment is one where everyone feels able to contribute – it’s collaborative, we promote entrepreneurial thinking, through the lens of an artistic vision. There is always an insatiable search for beauty and elegance.

Do you remember the first time you were struck by a space or architecture in general? What was it?

My interest in architecture comes from the house I grew up in in country Victoria.

If I close my eyes, I can remember the feeling of being in the house, the materials and the light qualities. That house is a large part of my identity and is what drives the process when designing private residences for other people.

Other than this, I tend to like old buildings where the interior spaces and architecture are one sculptural piece. I’m attracted to buildings that feel permanent and that carry rich history and legacy.


Take me through the design language and philosophy at Kennon?

Architecture exists as a form of expression for that time and place, we don’t follow a particular style or language continuously.

The piece that binds the work is that our philosophy is based on understanding people first. The way we need human connection to each other and to place. The spaces are prioritizing for how you want to live and imagining how you want the users to feel.

If you have the means to custom design a home, then it should provide for the best possible way to live a happy and healthy life for you. When designing a hotel for example, we design for a different energy. The outcome is different although the process is the same. The same applies for retail where the space needs to reflect the DNA of a brand.

This type of process means that ideas can be found anywhere. Other mediums such as art, music, film, furniture, and fashion are all threads of inspiration. There’s a broad interest and an expansive outlook, we will very rarely start a concept by looking at other buildings.

Can you tell me about a project that feels quintessentially Kennon?

Every project of ours looks different to a degree, however there are similarities in techniques. We don’t imprint our style on other people, it’s about uncovering the opportunities within the projects and creatively resolving an outcome to suit.

There are design rules that remain in the work – we have a refined and often restrained approach to the use of materials architecturally. I prefer singular material palettes which then rely on the layering of interior details, furniture, and art to complete the space.

There’s a kind of stealth luxury, previously when some of our interiors have been photographed it can appear quite minimal. The craft is the ability to make a highly detailed environment feel soft and warm through the control of light, volume, and space. It’s something that is best felt through experience, not photography. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to execute spaces that feel equally masculine and feminine.

It’s special when most clients call a couple of weeks after moving into their new house and say how overwhelmed they are by how calm they feel/how they are feeling better and it’s often something they can’t explain. It’s not one element, it’s thousands of micro design decisions that create the whole.


Describe what a normal day looks like for you?

This year I've liked slower mornings. Waking with the sunlight, stopping for coffee on the way to the studio and avoiding any emails or answering the phone before 9am. The studio is split into teams by project types with private residences and larger developments being separate. I bounce between both and make the design decisions; this keeps me active and on my feet for most of the day and the mind busy. It’s high energy and lots of client interaction. Each day is always completely different.

This year I’ve tried to clear banks of time each week for no meetings or calls too focus on design and have time for thinking about other things.


What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

To be patient. The best advice in life also applies to business. Do what makes you happy.

pete kennon

When dreaming up a new project, where do you start?

To listen first, to understand and to question why we are doing this project.

If it’s a private residence, it’s personal, so we talk about the client’s experiences with the homes they’ve lived in and their story. The solution is personalizing a project whilst also referencing where the property is contextually and geographically.

It’s like a portrait or biography in some ways. I like to learn about the people, then architecturally try to push the project into a progressive new version of what they ever would have expected.

Larger, less personal projects take a similar path however it’s a strategy based on demographic analysis for the users.

Most of all, a project starts with a gut feel. Sometimes it comes instantly, other times it needs development and can come to you at random times – like the middle of the night. Jørn Utzon designed the Sydney Opera House lying on a beach in Hawaii looking up at the clouds.


We heard you may be working with Raes on Wategos soon. Can you tell us about this project?

We have several projects in Byron that will soon surface, and yes something in Wategos that is completely wild. Think a contemporary building inspired by traditional European castles.

What's your involvement with the upcoming Ritz-Carlton on the Gold Coast?

We’re currently designing a new Ritz-Carlton on the Gold Coast. We’re taking the entertainment and energy of the Gold Coast nightlife as our concept. It’s not a resort for relaxation and retreat, it’s designed for having fun and experience-based hospitality with a vibrant energy.


Tell me about Being Sensitive. What are your plans for this aspect of Kennon?

I think being sensitive is a superpower. To understand more deeply and to take in more information from other people and environments. Being observant. It's a superpower but it can also be volatile.

I liked that the two words together are meaningful, and the words are also important on their own. Being is the human experience or the human body. Sensitive was drawn from the architectural phrase ‘a sense of place’. This was the theme I wrote a thesis on and we’re developing into a creative platform for the studio; where theory and practice meet. There are ideas to move it into something more tangible that we can share soon.

Are there any architects or artists that inspire you?

It’s revolving and always changing, on the coffee table right now is a book about Christian Dior’s mother's house in the south of France, as well as The Houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, Horst P. Horst's Photographs 1931-1986 and Francis Bacon's Portraits and Heads.

Local artists Nathan Hawkes and Kenny Pittock are doing amazing work and worth collecting now in my view. Jerry Lorenzo is also in a league of his own and very inspiring to me.


In 2023 I’d like to see less… and more…

We have eight projects finishing in the next eight months so there’s lots ahead this year. We’ve been silent for a while, so this year feels more like the launch of the practice which is exciting.

In addition to planning a big fivey-year party, 2023 is about less work for me, finding the right balance and making time for other personal pursuits and people.


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