Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

Steve Johnson is a Perth-based kitchen, bathroom and laundry designer and the Director of Retreat Design. We caught up with him to find out more about the design process, his inspiration and his advice for anyone undertaking a new project

1. Tell us about the sort of work that you do, and what it’s like being a designer?

We’ve got two sides – the new build and the renovating market. The new build market is working with interior designers architects and builders – a different facet to renovating: where you deal with the client and specifying on designs to come up with an outcome. The new build market is quite laid out and streamlined; the work follows a process. And if you’re renovating, it can sometimes be an opportunity to work in a more fluid and creative way. You might think “What if I take that wall out?” and then you see what you’re left with. It’s very exciting.

We also design for multi-residential – we finished a project in Claremont last year which involved 95 apartments. I would say that around 70 per cent of our business is renovations and 30 per cent is new build, with the odd multi-residential thrown in from time to time.

We also help the client choose the products that go into each project – our cabinetry is our core business and we also sell everything else associated with that cabinetry. It’s the sink, the tap, the appliances, the internal drawers, the systems, the lighting – it’s everything that revolves around the design. Many of the products are those that we sell ourselves – for example, the cabinets are all Italian but we might choose to combine them with Caesarstone from a local stonemason.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

Being a designer is a creative job, we primarily try and understand the client, while getting into the client’s head to fulfil their needs. It can be a roller coaster – some days you’re on fire and you love it, other days everything’s just not going as anyone expected. Its really all about understanding, and we use a range of tools to help us demonstrate our concepts and the vision to the client, and ultimately that’s what we deliver. We deliver a plan and that’s the designing process – so they know what they’re getting. I love how every day is different – we can do a $13,000 kitchen one day and a $150,000 kitchen the next.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

2. What attracted you to becoming a designer? What do you like most about what you do?

I grew up in the UK and Grand Designs first started while I was growing up – so some of my inspiration came from Grand Designs when it first launched in the early 90’s. Thats what brought me into this whole transformation process; It’s quite inspiring when you look back on projects you’ve done previously, like Lake Monger – where you see the empty space and then you see what you’ve developed it into.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

3. What is your business philosophy?

It’s a complicated business, buying product from overseas, shipping it and installing it in people’s houses. There’s a whole remit of costs, and it’s important we run the business successfully because we wouldn’t be here otherwise. If we didn’t enjoy what we do though, we wouldn’t be here, and I think that’s what keeps us motivated and is what’s most important to our overall success.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

4. Where do you take inspiration from – what inspires your particular style?

We’re definitely more modern skew, but our style first and foremost comes from our clients. Yes, we have our favourite styles, and we work to those, but its mostly driven by the client.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

On the other side, its also driven by the manufacturers – our manufactures are Italian, and they’re driven by fashion, and trends, like the Milan Fair’s kitchen exhibitions – and ultimately much of this comes from the fashions in clothing and the wider design world.

Being in Australia, we’re always a little bit behind on things coming from Europe, but all the new trends – like matt black, fingerprint proof finishes, and all the new technology that drives what we do – all of this comes out of Europe.

5. What advice would you give to anyone entering the planning stage of a kitchen, bathroom and/or laundry renovation?

I think there’s a lot of research that needs to be done. Functionality needs to be number one. You can have the best looking kitchen but at the end of the day it needs to work for you. If it doesn’t work, it causes frustration and you no longer enjoy what you’ve created. When we start with the client process, it’s all about functionality as well as what frustrates you and what you can improve.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

We direct and advise, but we make sure that they get the fundamentals right – what is your cost, what is your functional need of the space and how do you want it to look. So these are the three core considerations, but the most important one is function.

6. What do you think are some of the average renovator or consumer’s most common misconceptions around these sorts of renovations?

I think there’s a lot of media like The Block where people believe that they can turn a room over in a week. Most people don’t always think like that but they still tend to think it could be quicker. At the end of the day a project always follows a process and involves tradespeople who aren’t always on tap, but you are driving a process and if there are any delays you can’t just go on to the next step.

New builds take a bit longer and we work on the builder’s timeline, which makes it somewhat easier, but renovations need to be delivered in a systematic process. So it’s important to have an open discussion with the client about these issues and making sure that they are aware if the process gets delayed.

7. What are some of the emerging trends you’ve most recently noticed in your field? How do you think this affects yours or your client’s vision, and how do you think this will change going forward?

Trend-wise, kitchens used to be primarily in their own room and now everything’s open plan. Fridges are a great example – they used to be in the middle of a room but now they’re hidden behind doors as living rooms and kitchens all blend together. The integration of appliances is probably the biggest change over the last 10 years. They’re becoming smarter and sleeker and cleaner and handleless cabinetry is becoming much bigger. Unless its classic style, 80 or 90 per cent of our kitchens are modern and would be handleless with a groove or push system (electric or manual) and clean lines.

Expert Advice: Steve Johnson, Designer (Retreat Design)

So the two biggest trends I’ve noticed are handleless kitchens and integrated appliances, with the cabinetry flowing into open plan living or dining areas, whether its just a piece – like when copper flows into these areas as well through grooves and light fittings, and tapware, all of this starts to blend across a room and what I call “red thread” is created.

8. What’s next for you?

We’re thinking of a second showroom. We are currently north of the river in Perth, and we’re thinking of expanding south of the river too. We’re always looking out for new products and there are some great products – high-end brands – that we’re thinking about incorporating into our range.

We’re also looking at expanding our collection with some new styles and new manufacturers. As a supplier, you’ve always got access to a range of collections in case a client has a particular style – because its not really about what I want, its always about what my clients want. When I look at the suppliers, you can often determine the style based on the products that they have in their collection and what they like to use.

See more of Steve’s projects at

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