Since starting my tentative blogging journey, one of the things that has constantly amazed me is the diversity of talented people living have here on the Sunshine Coast. Creative talent is an uplifting thing to have - and to share - and I admire everyone that I have had the joy of interviewing, all for differing reasons. However, one universal aspect that truly inspires me is the journey that has lead them here - all unique, each with their own set of twists and turns. The decision to pack up one’s life, sometimes traveling half way around the world in search of something better, is not an easy one to make. It requires courage, determination and a degree of sacrifice, but most importantly, it requires faith - and an unwavering belief in your gut instinct. Sarah Waller is one such lady.
For someone who originally heralds from the UK, Sarah has nailed what living on the Sunshine Coast is all about. Owner of the eclectic homewares emporium in Noosaville, Coco & Bliss, and an acclaimed building designer with her own thriving practice, Sarah has a design philosophy and style that encapsulates coastal living. Since opening Coco & Bliss little over a year ago, Sarah has gone from retail strength to strength due to her fresh, stylish and predominately local product on offer. Her window displays (often conceived by her talented daughter) are a delight, and her attention to detail teamed with solid customer service has generated a loyal following. As a building designer, Sarah has established an acclaimed practice here on the coast - Sarah Waller Design - which has consistently delivered stylish bespoke designs to clients from all over the state. She comes across as being the kind of woman who needs to be creatively challenged and thrives in the process of it all - whether it be sourcing a new product for her retail store, creating a new display, or constructing a new build for a growing family.
Eight years ago when Sarah’s gut instinct told her that there must be something better out there, she did the courageous thing and took the plunge. Her journey may have had it’s twists and turns, but Sarah’s drive, enthusiasm and passion makes her story to date an inspiring - and uplifting - one.
What’s your Sunshine Coast story Sarah? What originally brought you here?
Originally I’m from the UK. I’m a qualified Architect, I studied Architecture in Birmingham and then I did a Masters degree at the Royal College of Art. While at the Royal College of Art I was working alongside Fashion Designers, Interior Designers - just a really good blend of creative people. So from there, I worked in an architectural practice - I was accepted by the first practice I wrote to and I ended up working there for seven years, eventually becoming the Projects Architect and an Associate of the practice as well. I worked mainly on one building which was the Queen’s Stand at Epsom Racecourse where I was lucky enough to meet the Queen and go to Buckingham Palace by Royal Appointment!
We have two children, two girls, and we just thought “there’s probably something better out there”, so decided to look into migrating to Australia for a complete life change. We didn’t know anyone here so it was really a fresh start for us. We stumbled across Noosa and just thought ‘yep, we can do this’, so we upped sticks, sold everything and closed everything down - we had businesses back there which we closed - and then we arrived in Noosa eight years ago. Really, Noosa for us is just a nice place to bring up the family. We’ve learnt to step back in terms of our work and as well as restructuring our business and our business philosophy, because it’s a little bit quieter than London!
What is your design background, and what was it that inspired you to become an architect?
I qualified at the Royal College of Art. Back in the UK I’m a registered Architect however here there’s no reciprocal arrangement so, technically, here I’m a building designer but I have the structural qualifications from the UK. My training was very intense and I’m very much a design-based architect and, hopefully, from what you’ve seen of my work, you can see the flair that I can offer with design.
A lot of people have said to me "my goodness, you’ve really grasped Queensland living", because, obviously, it’s totally opposite in the UK! In the UK, you’re talking all about small rooms and being very introverted, keeping all the heat in. Here it’s the opposite. You’re thinking about ventilation - Nature doing it’s business with all the winds and breezes blowing through. Yes, I’ve been complimented a few times on how well I’ve embraced the coast living!
How would you describe your design style?
Actually, I feel my architecture is really very strong. It’s not feminine in any way, it’s all about planes and solidness and strength - lots of light - embracing natural light. When I work with a client I spend an awful lot of time on the brief because I really want to get into their lives. I’m not designing a house for myself. I’m not a precious architect where I force my own style and my thoughts and the way I want to live, on them. It’s the biggest investment that they’re ever going to make so I think it’s important for me to really understand how they live. So I produce quite a detailed document where I’m really analysing what the clients are looking for. Then we analyse the site and look at the sun path; the breezeways; the views and the aspects. Every house is very bespoke to its setting and to the family. I don’t just reproduce the same layout for different families and say, “this is what you’re having” type of thing. I really get them involved in the design process because I think they should enjoy it. It’s something that alot of clients have said in the past - they’ve been so stressed designing a house and building a house, but I say to them “let’s enjoys this - let’s work as a team”. It’s not like buying a car where you trade it in after two years time. You’ve got to make some really big and seriously expensive decisions. Then from the brief I take them through a design-sketch stage, then it goes onto the computer and into CAD drawings, and from there I produce these amazing 3Ds that are photographically good. Some of those images on my website are actually 3D – they’re renders. People can get quite emotional when I produce them. Suddenly, instead of just a two-dimensional drawing - just lines on paper - they can see it’s a home. They can even put their own car on the driveway! To the client it’s just amazing. It makes it all click but I say to them, “look, we use these as a design tool, not a fait de com plait”. They can be involved in that 3D and if they want to move things - change things around, change colours - then that’s the time to do it rather than when the house is built and then they’re disappointed or something is wrong or in the wrong position or the wrong size! From there I just carry on with lots of the technical information. I work closely with the clients, choosing the last minute element in the house. And I see the interior and the exterior as one - I don’t separate so I offer the interior finishes. I don’t particularly go into soft furnishings and things like that but I’m able to because I think my design background encompasses a bit of everything! I try to, sort of, guide the clients that the interior always should relate to the exterior; that flow should be seen.
How did Coco & Bliss come to be?
Coco & Bliss came about because, as you know, the Coast has been a bit lean with work over the last couple of years. About a year ago, I didn’t have any projects on. I’m one of those people who needs to be busy - needs to be creative - and so my husband said “well, what are you going to do?” I’m unemployable in another architectural firm because I have my own style, and my own client base, so he said “why don’t you open a shop?” So, within a week, I had signed a lease - he said “well, are we going to talk about this?” and I said “Oh! I though you told me to open a shop so I’ve done it!” I’ve tried to create a little design emporium that is all about me. I only choose things I would sell or I would wear or I would have in my house. I don’t want to sell things just because they’re commercial, and I think I’ve got to just put myself out there as being something a little bit different from all the other interior shops that are around. My point of difference is that a lot of the product I designed myself and I’ve had made by local artisans. I really try to source locally handmade. Probably half of the product is now locally handmade, so that sets me apart because I work with these local artisans, developing ideas. A lot of the product is exclusive to us, and that’s what people really like - especially the visitors, because when they come to Noosa, they like to take away something local, and the locals like to support small local. So in terms of buying, I probably buy half of my products at Trade Fairs and the rest we try to source locally with designers.
Are there any designers/artisans/crafts people that you’re particularly loving at the moment? Any Blogs that are your particular favourites?
It‘s a bit difficult because I haven’t grown up here; haven’t been educated here, so I don’t really follow a lot. I’ve come from a totally different place so ask me about English Architect and English Designers, I can give you heaps! I’ve sort of come here, not that I’ve been introverted, but I haven’t been heavily into what everyone else is doing. I’ve just been trying to do my thing; what I think is right. Whereas, if I had studied here, I think it would have been entirely different because you would study other architects and their designs. Locally, there’s some great designers around who do some really good work. I’m trying to make my style and my brand stand out on its own.
What’s your preferred social media choice?
If I had time, I would love to read a blog but, at the moment, I’m working fourteen-hour days… I’m lucky if I brush my hair and clean my teeth! I’m just so, so, time-poor at the moment.
I’m on Instagram, but I’m a little bit slack with Instagram at the moment. On Facebook we have about six and a half thousand followers, so I work really hard to build that audience and to create a following. I’ve actually done a lot of research into how Facebook works, as to what time to post, what content to post, and I don’t try to saturate it with product, product, product. I try to make it engaging, fun and social which is obviously what it’s all about. Then I drop in something that we’re selling or promoting, so it’s engaging your audience really, with Facebook.
Also, Pinterest. Pinterest is becoming really popular with my clients, so I ask my clients to pin if they see something that they like and then that is really important to me. That’s a really good design tool. It’s something I’m really going to encourage my clients in the future to do. Start Pinterest boards. Just in the last month, I’ve really started to focus on that.
Juggling the practice and the shop must be a mammoth task but I have to ask - do you have any plans additional lines of business you are keen to pursue? Perhaps a Sarah Waller home wares range??
Juggling is really difficult because I’ve got two school-age children who do lots of sport and lots of after school activities. I’ve got a very supportive husband who does lots of the running around - lots of cooking and shopping. Because I don’t have any family here either - we’re on the other side of the world from our family - it isn’t easy most of the time. He’s also very busy being in construction as well. We do, often, work together and that’s how we met. It’s just always worked very well for us ... We just try to do the right thing by each other - juggle where we can and do the right thing by the girls.
Yes, I’d love to develop a range but, I think, that’s further down the line for me! The shop’s obviously very new – it’s not even a year old yet – so my priority is getting the shop established and building it from there.
Finally, what are the best things about being your own creative boss?
I’m just creative full-stop. I can’t stop myself. I just need a challenge! Whether I’ve got work on or not I’m always fiddling, making, sticking, glueing, cutting. Like in the shop, we all make a lot of the things in here, the components. Yes, I think if you are a creative person you do need an outlet for it in one direction or another – it makes you happier because you can see something by the time you’re at the end of it.
Another thing with the shop, we pride ourselves on customer service. I’m a great believer in it. It doesn’t cost you anything to smile and engage people. A lot of people come into the shop because they just like the experience – they like the music, the candles burning – it’s a really nice atmosphere and quite often they come in to just be here – they don’t come in with the intention of buying but want to browse around for ten minutes. It’s just engaging with people and making them feel comfortable that they can come in here without purchasing - and then they do often turn around and purchase at some point. It’s about making the customer feel like they can come in and browse anytime. It’s really important with the girls who work here, and myself, that the customers are well looked after and feel comfortable.
Fav Sunny Coast retail outlet/s?
I don’t really have time to shop! It’s very difficult. When I do shopping, I do shopping on a very big scale at the Trade Shows so I’m buying 20 of this 30 of that. That gives me my shopping fix!
Fav Sunny Coast cafe/restaurant/foodie paradise?
We do like to treat ourselves to eating out quite a bit. Love Bistro C, down on Hastings Street. That’s one of our long-term favourites.
Fav Sunny Coast weekend routine?
If I had a weekend, which I don’t at the moment because I’m working seven days, my ideal scenario would be to get to the beach!
Fav Sunny Coast icon/landmark?
I love the beach and I love Main Beach – I try and go down with just a book and make myself relax...
Fav Sunny Coast hangout?
I’m afraid there isn’t much ‘hang-out ‘ time! I just seem to hang out at the shop at the moment! I’m so busy with the architecture work, which has all come from the shop - from people engaging with what I do - so the shop has become a showcase for my work. I’m continuously giving out lots of business cards - if I get one of those ten turning out to be a project, then it’s worth it. Brand – Sarah Waller!
Coco & Bliss is located at Shop 4, 8 Thomas St, Noosaville - for some retail inspiration you can try the website or Facebook page. For bespoke building design and project management you can view a selection of Sarah's work at Sarah Waller Design.
Headshot and coloured glasses, architectural shots and exterior shot courtesy of Sarah Waller :)