Bureaux co-founder Jess Walker on her architecture journey, core design tenets and doing it all

Detail-oriented, meticulous and passionate about design in all its forms, Jessica Walker is a renowned architect and so much more. Bureaux, the firm she started in 2010 with business partner Maggie Carroll, stands apart from the rest of the industry for the way it tackles its projects from all angles, encompassing the interior design and all the finishing touches to make the architecture of a home or a commercial space come alive.

Walker’s hard work has seen her carve out a niche for her business, which has seen Bureaux responsible for designing some of the most impressive homes in the country.

Here, she discusses sustainable design, guilty pleasures and why there really are no shortcuts in her line of work. 

I grew up in a house where we were always making. Both my parents are makers, my dad did industrial design and my mum is a fashion designer. My playroom was dad’s workshop, playing in-between the bench saws and drills and my mum’s industrial sewing machines. 

My parents spent years cycling around Europe after they graduated university. They went there with nothing and embarked on a huge adventure, living in tents, getting odd jobs along the way. But a couple of years into it, they fell pregnant with me, and so I was born right in the middle of the trip. They had me in Switzerland which is where they happened to be at the time and then they just kept going, I think for another nine months. Still cycling, still staying in tents, and they would strap me onto their fronts. It’s pretty wild. So I feel like that spirit of adventure and imagination is just in my DNA.

I’ll never forget the night I met two architects at a party. After high school I was actually planning on studying medicine. But during that summer, I chatted with two architects from New York who told me how much they loved their jobs. It was so aspirational, these grown up people talking about their work like that. And it was like a switch for me. Overnight, I realised that actually, architecture might be a better fit. It really was like a light bulb moment. I feel so lucky to have found my ‘thing’ so early. Not everyone does.

There are no shortcuts in this line of work. I studied for eight years, undertaking a Masters after my architecture degree and when I came out of school, the GFC meant that there really were no jobs for architectural graduates. It was demoralising. So I did my own thing for a few years and then Maggie [Carroll] and I started Bureaux, still in the midst of an economic slump. We took on all sorts of crazy jobs, anything we could get our hands on. It was challenging but it was fun, and it pushed us to our creative limits. Those days really set us on our course of wanting to do more than just architecture. We also loved interiors and events and those things that can work perfectly alongside architecture, so that’s what we’ve done.

People often assume that, because we’re women, we’re interior designers, which we’re not. We’re registered architects. So, one of the biggest challenges for us has been defining who we are and being able to hold on to our passion for interiors while having the confidence to say, ‘yes we’re architects but we do it all’. 

Very few practices in New Zealand combine architecture with interiors in the same way we do. A lot of our friends, some of New Zealand’s most successful architects, don’t want to do interiors because they see them as a distraction from their core business. Whereas we see them as something that adds to the work we do. In most of our projects, our criteria for taking on a project, is us being able to do everything from A-Z. So we do the architecture, we do the interiors and the soft furnishings and often even take over the finishing touches, like crockery and bed linen.

Having been in business for 10 years now, the biggest change we’ve seen is a consciousness about the environment. It has become a major global issue, and is widely accepted as something that we, as architects need to take some responsibility for. We’ve struggled with it because our clients are not necessarily that interested, but we really need to be championing good practices in that area. 

Sustainable design is not about composting toilets or solar panels on the roof, it’s about good design that lasts. There are so many more complexities to that idea than just the obvious ones. 

What makes New Zealand unique in terms of architecture is the lack of people here and conversely, the underdevelopment. You get these phenomenal opportunities to start from scratch in areas like Britomart, an amazing precinct that I remember not being there. There are so many opportunities for meaningful urban development that, in more densely-populated cities, just couldn’t happen. 

I am a total architecture geek so it’s hard to pick my favourite buildings. But outside of New Zealand, I love Peter Zumthor’s work in Switzerland. His buildings are total perfection. Thermal Vals specifically is an earth-shattering experience. My other favourites are in the States. When I used to visit my brother in LA, I would go to places like The Schindler Kings Road House and the Sheats-Goldstein Residence, and then last year, Maggie and I went to Fallingwater just outside Pittsburgh. I get the most excited by those early, mid century modern houses, and I definitely pull inspiration from them for my own designs. 

Warmth, tactility and layering are my three core tenets when designing. I love a layered, multi-dimensional interior. With our buildings we are always really focused on the materiality. How things feel to touch and smell, and of course warmth, so that spaces don’t feel cold and empty. My husband would call me a maximalist, he always goes on about the ‘tings’ I have everywhere. So it really is a reflection of what I love too. 

Replica furniture is an absolute no for us. Or replica anything, really. And although it can be really hard to be original and new in design, at Bureaux, we tend to go for timeless rather than on trend and try to always find something new, even when we’re looking elsewhere for inspiration. 

Maggie [Carroll] really is my great life partner. I was incredibly lucky to find her because there’s just a magic that happens between us when we sit down to design together or discuss ideas with a client. I trust her completely and she is one person who, in all aspects of my life, I know will be honest with me and I think that’s really important. 

We’ve had some incredible people offer up advice and guide us as our business has grown, like Pip Cheshire and Marsh Cook and Lindley Naismith and Jane Aimer who have been so generous with their time and have been really candid about their own businesses. They broke the ground for us to do what we’re doing now. And even the generations below them, like Tim Hay and Jeff Fearon — Maggie worked with them for a time before we set up Bureaux and they’ve been really supportive. The architecture and design community here, particularly the bubble I’m in, is unique in that it’s incredibly collegial and for that, I’m grateful. 

Mike Thorburn is someone I really admire in business, I just love what he has created at ECC. He has cultivated this wonderful culture of generosity and warmth, and over the last few years I’ve watched Andy and Richard [his sons] really come into their own. Now, I can just call them if I need something and they’ve been given agency to just own that business and take it beyond what Mike did. It’s a testament to Mike’s business that he is able to relinquish some of that control because it’s not easy. 

I want to feel equally nourished and fulfilled by both my business and my family. Happiness is something that is really important to me and so I’m conscious about how I achieve a work-family balance that is going to make me happy. You can bump up ambition or wealth or looking good or all sorts of things on your list of priorities. But for me it’s happiness in work and at home. It is a challenge sometimes but it’s something that I’m constantly working on.

90s RnB, in the bath with a book and maybe a little tequila is my favourite way to relax if I’m feeling quite frazzled. 

I want my legacy to be about the clients and their children and their friends whose lives have been enriched by the homes we’ve created. Those stories are the ones that matter to me. We get clients calling up all the time saying how much they’re enjoying the spaces we’ve made for them and it means so much. That’s why we do what we do. 

My children think I’ve done a pretty good job designing our new kitchen at home, which is nice. “It’s a pretty good job, Mum,” they say. But in all seriousness, it’s great that my kids think it’s cool that I work and I hope that they will take something from what I do. 

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