If you don’t know Matt Woods by name, chances are you’ve seen his work.
Bloodwood, Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar, Devon Cafe in Surry Hills and Barangaroo, Dessert Kitchen, Allegra Dining and another 30 or so venues feature in Woods’s portfolio, making him one of Sydney’s most prolific interior designers of hospitality spaces.
In 2015, Woods won Best Restaurant Design at the Eat Drink Design Awards for Waterloo restaurant Beccafico.
In 2017, design bible Mezzanine included him in its “top 20 under 40” list, declaring him the disruptor of the Sydney hospitality scene.
“That was a huge compliment to me,” says Woods, who strives to be noticed for being different. “I don’t want to conform to an expectation or a particular style, and I definitely don’t want to reproduce the latest fad.”
Woods spent his childhood in Sydney before moving to the Central Coast with his family when he was 14. At 20, he spent a year in Europe and then, in 2001, completed a degree in industrial design at the University of Newcastle. Since 2002, aside from a three-year stint in the beachside suburb of Tamarama, he has lived around Newtown and Erskineville in the inner west – a community he loves.
His style is anything but faddish. Woods has built a business around designing intelligent and functional spaces, driven by simplicity and sustainability.
His first design was for Bloodwood, now a Newtown institution. Eight years on, “It has become a part of the Newtown fabric,” he says, nominating it as one of his favourites designs – with a caveat. “I’ve never been 100 per cent happy with any of my finished works,” says Woods, a self-confessed perfectionist. “The day I walk away from a project thinking that I can't do better next time is the day I change careers.”
Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics, inspired his design for Redfern teahouse The Rabbit Hole. “The art itself is a celebration of the beauty of imperfection, rather than [imperfection being] something that should be hidden,” he says. It’s a concept that fits well with his overall approach.
Against a backdrop of exposed brick, whitewashed walls and large, north-facing windows, Woods installed a chandelier made of tea bags by artist Valeria Burgoa, a kintsugi bowl display and a crushed-tile mosaic for the service area.
He repurposed salvaged materials from old projects, including the now-closed Beccafico, in his design for Allegra Dining in Waterloo.
His fit-out for Sydney’s first outpost of Hong Kong cafe chain Dessert Kitchen featured Australian timber, including Tasmanian oak and reclaimed stringybark, white bricks and caramel-coloured cushions.
His current projects include Popla, a new restaurant in Bellingen from the Bloodwood team; a new rooftop bar at the Quarrymans Hotel in Pyrmont; a first-floor extension to a house in Enmore; and La Flor Sagrada, his friend Alvaro Flores’s new tattoo shop in Melbourne.
Not surprisingly, the work keeps flowing in. “I have several handshake agreements with cafes and restaurants in a couple of different spots around Sydney, and am in conversations to develop a flagship coffee shop for a well-established Sydney coffee in Japan,” he reveals.
He is also developing a range of cafe furniture – an expensive venture, he says – and recently contributed a piece of work to the 26 Original Fakes exhibition at Melbourne Design Week. Woods’s contribution to the show, which will travel to Sydney later in the year, was titled You Can Polish a Turd – a criticism of the replica-furniture industry in Australia.
It’s a lot of work for a one-man band. Woods takes care of all aspects of the business. “I answer the phone; I respond to the emails; I draw the concepts and the details; I liaise with the builders, engineers, town planners, tilers, joiners, painters, real estate agents. I send the invoices, I book the stylists, organise the photo shoots, speak to the magazine editors, write the copy for the awards entries.”
His first love is illustration. “At least 70 per cent of my working week is committed to drawing, and it’s actually the part of the job which still brings me the most satisfaction,” says Woods
Woods believes an effective hospitality space hinges on authenticity. He has no interest in creating “movie sets”, which means rejecting anything fake. “My architectural approach is about unearthing an individual site’s inherent beauty,” and responding to its strengths and constraints, he says.
Good lighting design “will make or break the rest of the interior” says Woods, who also recommends investing in at least one piece of quality original furniture and factoring in often-overlooked acoustic design. “I’m a sucker for raw and hard surfaces, but there is no doubt that in recent years a lot of these types of venues are popping up and the reality is that they are noisy as hell.”
To counteract the “immensely wasteful” nature of the construction industry, Woods has put sustainability at the centre of his work. He started a Masters in Sustainable Architecture in 2009, but left with a post-graduate certificate when his business took off. “There is no excuse for designers not to be implementing sustainable practices and approaches,” he says.
Where possible, the materials he uses are local (“to support Australian industry and reduce the energy requirements associated with transportation”) and sustainable (reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber, energy-efficient lighting, volatile organic compound-free paint).
“I’m always looking for ways to retain existing site features,” he says. , He tries to avoid adding superfluous elements to a project, even air conditioning, favouring the incorporation of passive heating and cooling options instead.
Woods’s commitment to sustainability doesn’t finish with the venue’s construction. Its entire life cycle must be considered. “I’m increasingly designing for the end of a project’s life and its deconstruction,” he says.