Designer Profile: Adelaide Bragg
Adelaide Bragg was actually once my boss - rather recently in fact! In 2019 I moved from Sydney to Melbourne in order to run her homewares brand, Bragg & Co. Since working for her she’s remained in my life as a friend and mentor, and I couldn’t be more grateful for this. Adelaide works like a woman. She instills kindness, femininity and empathy in her workplace and in her work itself, as Interior Decorator to some of Australia's most high profile families. Some of my happiest times have been when working for her. She’s taught me so much and I hope that in this interview she may teach you a thing or two as well…
“I started very much as a country girl. When I went to Sydney I was so young and so naive…” Like many farm girls Adelaide was sent to boarding school in her early teens, in her case in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Given she was from Scone, a beautiful and sleepy rural town in NSW, Adelaide was used to serene country life and got a shock being made to move to the city, three hours away from her family home. “I was only 12 when I went to boarding school… It was so hard, so hard, Charlotte! I cried every time I came back after holidays, even in my last term in year 12. I was absolutely pathetic.”
As we discuss Adelaide’s boarding school beginnings, I ask whether she was creative, one imagines a girl like her excelling in the arts, “No, I did no art at school. I couldn’t draw or anything… I went to a very academic school, which is just so not me. But it taught me to be very organised, very driven, and very hard working. At my school there was also an expectation you’d go on to other studies and do well in life. So in that sense it was very good for me. Had I gone to a less academic school I probably wouldn’t have achieved what I’ve achieved.”
“I didn’t grow up with pretty things, I didn’t own a doll or anything. Instead we had puppies and ponies and the garden was a big part of my life. The garden, and flowers in particular, are where the creativity started for me. I used to have a flowerbed of my own where I could plant whatever I wanted (though I’m sure my mother fine-tuned it a little). Flowers were a big part of my life, anything delicate and pretty. I think country girls appreciate things like that which maybe city kids don’t notice…”
Adelaide and her two brothers during their childhood in Scone, NSW.
“After I left school I was supposed to do a business degree, but I took a gap year and worked on the property at home - and in that discovered I quite liked earning money. I realised I didn’t want to go to university - also I didn’t drink or party like everybody else, the uni thing was not for me.”
It was her love of flowers instead, that lead to an interest in studying floristry. She was so dedicated in fact that she found herself a job at the Laura Ashley store in Double Bay in order to pay for the flowers needed for her course. Ironically though, it was this choice which lead her to realising that floristry wasn’t her calling either - rather, design was. “Floristry then was very structured, whereas I liked looser garden flowers. Ultimo [an industrial suburb on the edge of the city] where I was studying was also so dingy and dark at the time. Overall floristry school in the mid-80s was pretty hideous - they taught you how to do things like casket covers and those A-frame flowers you still occasionally see.”
Meanwhile things at her side job were improving. “Originally I was struggling being on such a modest wage, and then Laura Ashley offered me the management role and I started to immerse myself in the interiors element of the store and forgot about flowers for a while.” She loved working at Laura Ashley. A brand that at the time was taking the world by storm and really one of the only places selling stylised products across multiple categories. “I loved all of the coordinating - this goes with that, etc. It was a hugely successful and beautiful store too, partly because it was the only international product really available at that time.” But like all good things, her spell at the Double Bay store came to an end when the company was sold and rather lost its charm as it became bigger and more corporate.
Adelaide found herself back in the country, without work in the city. This suited her fine though, as she needed her country fix. “I loved life in the city as much as I loved life back home in the country… I still do.” It turned out that things in Sydney were being taken care of though, as her friend’s mother met the manager at the Colefax & Fowler Queen street store one day, and suggested she hire this sweet country girl called Adelaide. Adelaide got the job.
“When I went in to work there I was so not sophisticated… I felt like a clumsy foal in this beautiful store. I immediately bonded with Martine Burns though, who was fresh from London and newly appointed as Managing Director. Martine took me under her wing, she was an extraordinary teacher. She gave over her knowledge with great generosity - and I’ve always kept that in my mind. I try to recreate and do that with the girls who work for me. I think a lot of other creative people often want to keep everything for themselves. But teaching is very generous, and it creates great people working for you.”
“I try recreate and do that with the girls who work for me. I think a lot of other creative people often want to keep everything for themselves.”
It was both Martine and the brand itself that really taught young Adelaide everything. “I very much learnt the Colefax way. The method - everything had contrast binding or piping. There was always something odd in terms of colour. One odd piece of furniture or accessory in a room, etc.” It was that perfect yet somehow imperfect method of decorating that formed Adelaide’s own style. “My design formula was undoubtedly set by my time working there, along with my upbringing amidst beautiful country homes. Still when I scroll through Instagram now, whenever I see a Colefax image I stop, and then I realise the image belongs to Colefax, and then I think ‘that makes sense, no wonder I like it!’”
Around the same time she frequently had lunch with her cousin and schoolfriend, Gretel Packer. During these catch ups they’d occasionally discuss the prospect of starting a business together. And it wasn’t until a friend joined them for lunch one day that he heard their conversations and encouraged them to go for it. And so they did. Gretel and Adelaide put up $5,000 each and almost immediately the business started to flow. “We were young and brave and had nothing to lose… We set up a little office in Double Bay and had an opening party which everybody came to.”
An early interior by Adelaide Bragg,, circa 1991.
“We just worked away, of course we had periods where it felt very hard, as all young businesses have, but we kept going. Eventually we grew and moved to a larger space. Our friends were running a small accessories business upstairs in the same office… Everyone who’d come and work with or around us would leave pregnant - our workplace was fountain of fertility even then.” I can attest to the fact that the fountain of fertility trend has lasted - when I worked for Ads three out of ten staff were pregnant (not to mention working for Adelaide Bragg & Associates is a flexible haven for any working mother!). “I loved the office with a whole lot of people in it, and I loved the children coming in.”
"My dad gave me a small piece of advice when I started - all he said was pay your bills on time, as they’ll always put you to the front of the line, and if you can’t do something employ the best person to come in and do it for you.” After a period of working in a partnership, Gretel relocated to the UK and Adelaide carried on with the business. “Gretel had been the business side, I was the creative, suddenly I was doing everything - some parts of it not particularly well! I was living alone and working from my home. I was becoming exhausted.” This is when Sue Sylvester came in to advise her (still a trusted member of the AB&A team). “Up until then it’d been random people coming in and out to casually help but Sue said to me ‘If you want the business to grow, design is where you need to concentrate, and otherwise you need to employ others in order to grow.’ I wanted the business to grow too - I was hugely ambitious.”
Inevitably she would soon meet the person she was meant to be with, which brought about her next hurdle, getting married and moving to Melbourne! “At the time the business was really thumping in Sydney and I had five girls working for me. I always think if I’d stayed in Sydney I would have a much bigger business by now. I even foolishly thought I could go back to Sydney post marriage but I’d become pregnant on my honeymoon.” I was married and pregnant and I literally closed the business with only one client to go to in Melbourne.”
She soon set up a little home office in Melbourne whilst in the process of closing up shop in Sydney. “I was sort of pretending to be based here whilst still running the office in Sydney. I was very, very settled in the Eastern Suburbs, and also hormonal and pregnant of course. I have to say I hated Melbourne at the beginning, to the point where my husband and I almost moved back to Sydney together. I basically let all the foundations of my life go in a month.”
Interior by Adelaide Bragg, before relocating the business to Melbourne.
“I literally had to rebuild the business. We renovated a house in South Melbourne and worked out of it at the same time. Melissa Balzan was working for me by then. Melissa was saintly - how she put up with me I’ll never know. I had just had a baby and would be sitting there in meetings expressing milk - and then two years later my next baby arrived! It was hard having a newborn, a new business and a new life, in a new city. Luckily I did have an aunt, a grandmother and a few friends in Melbourne from the get go though, and my husband, of course!”
The GFC followed her second son, but her business was saved by client Darley, who contracted Adelaide to do all of their offices, horse studs and guest houses. “That saw us through the GFC and the birth of my three children. We were very lucky. I remember weeks before my third son was born we were unpacking the Royal Sydney Golf Club project… I never really took maternity leave - my sons were all born on the weekend. I’d always literally worked up until the Friday and then had the baby on a Saturday or Sunday. Melissa was often one of the first people to see the babies!”
"When my youngest son turned five I made a conscious effort to crank the business back up again. In the interim I’d done smaller jobs along with the projects for Darley. I remember consulting Sue Sylvetser again, and she helped me rebuild. It also took me about 10 years to crack the Melbourne market, and really to settle myself. I had been warned too - a wise old uncle had told me that Melbourne was tough to crack in advance. For a long time I had more work in Sydney despite being Melbourne based.”
Naturally the business did grow and she now has a team of five working for her again, including four designers and an office manager. “My designers are good at encapsulating my vision. I’m also quite hands on and I think in doing projects together my girls learn what I like. Their creative thoughts and sense of style inspire me too. I love to see my designers thrive and grow. I am proud of the work environment I’ve created. I love being a part of that and being able to support these women.”
I can attest to the fact that Adelaide has created a wonderful work environment, complete with tea-parties, baby-showers, birthdays, a beautiful office in which to work and even a safe space for occasional tears (in my case many - sorry, Ads!).
“I believe design ability is innate, it runs off pure instinct first. I have a strong visual memory, and equally a strong vision when going into someone’s home. I know instantly upon walking into a client’s house what I’m going to do. I’ve learnt to trust that too. Colour, palette, and texture drives a lot of my work from the get-go and I run with that. I don’t think you can learn creativity, you can only fine-tune it and make those skills stronger. At the end of the day I love my work. It fills me with such energy and happiness, as well as alignment and content. It does something to me, it changes my heart rate. I need it in my life. I’m sure if I wasn’t doing interiors I’d be doing something very similar.”
“I don’t think you can learn creativity, you can only fine-tune it and make those skills stronger.”
From growing her business twice, moving permanently interstate and working on huge jobs for high-profile clients, Adelaide has always been busy. “I still struggle with the concept of success, despite being very ambitious. Apart from a happy family life this business is my identity.” Her connection to her business, which is now over 30 years old, has always been central to her life - making the 2020 pandemic especially difficult. “March last year was terribly hard - who would have thought?! Within three or four weeks things were flattened. Last year felt more different than the other times I’d scaled back as there was no control or choice from me.”
Image from the 2019 Bragg&Co campaign shoot.
“Last year was wonderful in some ways though. I had no idea I’d be able to work from the country in Scone, from an iPad and run this business. I actually had the most creative year ever really. I was able to go back to the core of what I really love - and what I really love is fabric!” Adelaide’s textile obsession of course started at Laura Ashley, was honed at Colefax & Fowler and is evident in every Adelaide Bragg & Associates interior since. “People like Tigger Hall have the most extraordinary service where you can create custom fabrics which I’ve been exploring with her.” She has revisited her design method too, “I need that perfect space in my life. I need to allow my eye to rest.”
She says she now spends more time on concepts and allows herself space to dream again. “I spend a lot of time in the car, often driving huge distances like from Melbourne to Scone. These moments allow me space to think and dream. For me a lot of creativity comes outside the office. That downtime last year has enabled me to reflect and think of what I’m really about, who I really am.”
“I am so lucky though, along with my career I have a very full family life too. When I had children I never lost the desire to keep working, though sometimes I wish I’d spent a bit more time with my youngest. That’s the only thing I’d change. I also couldn’t have done any of this without my husband.”
Image from a recent Adelaide Bragg & Associates interior.
“2021 for us is very strong. We have beautiful work in the pipeline, along with some work that takes us out of our comfort zone. One project is actually quite contemporary and has a lot of bold colours and hard edges. I feel very energised about everything that’s happening or about to happen. I do think the broadening of design references means I’m interested in other looks now… In 2018/19 we invested a lot in PR and Bragg & Co, now it’s time for the fruits of that investment.” Adelaide is finding the silver-lining of the pandemic driven border closures and shipping delays and beginning to invest in more Australian-made pieces for her clients as well. “Some pieces being made here now really are world class.”
I ask her to give me one piece of parting advice: “Charlotte, the harder you work, the luckier you will be.”
As told to Charlotte Dallison in May 2021.