In Conversation with Tim Ross

He may be best known for his work on TV and radio (at different times hosting both the number one breakfast and drive shows in Sydney) but comedian Tim Ross has also always had a passion for architecture and design. Writer Tiffany Jade spoke with Tim about his natural propensity for mid-century design and the many doors it has coaxed him through.

Over the last 11 years, Tim has performed his live Man About the House show in architecturally significant buildings and homes all over the world. Turning each venue into a temporary theatre, Tim and musical partner Kit Warhurst perform sold-out shows in buildings designed by a who’s who of Australian architecture, including Harry Seidler, Robin Boyd, Glenn Murcutt, John Wardle, Clare Cousins and Roy Grounds.

On 26th November, Tim and Kit will perform in Mori House, owned by Neometro Director Jeff and his wife Mariko and collaboratively designed by Aires Mateus and MA + Co. Ahead of this event, writer Tiffany Jade spoke with Tim about his natural propensity for mid-century design and the many doors it has coaxed him through.

In Tim Ross', Designing a Legacy, he visits the Ball-Eastaway House, a home designed by Glenn Murcutt. Photography by Caroline McCredie

Tim Ross (TR): My parents bought a block of land to build a weekender in the early 1960s. They built the house and loved it so much that they moved from the city full time. But it was pretty primitive. It was septic tanks, gas bottles, tank water…and as kids we watched the houses grow around us. We had next door neighbours but otherwise it was pretty much the bush. There were wallabies around, koalas in the trees, snakes in the sandpit that Dad had to kill with a spade. So it gave my brothers and I a pretty deep connection to the bush and being in that landscape meant we tended to notice the houses around us. They were the only things to look at outside the colours of the bush. It gave us great freedom as kids but all that space became quite alienating when I became a teenager. I became attracted to density and just wanted to be in the city where the action was.

Tiffany Jade (TJ): So when did you leave?

TR: When I was 19. I moved out and that was it.

TJ: Fast forward and you became really entrenched in Australia’s comedy landscape. What was the catalyst for the shift towards architecture and design?

TR: 20 odd years ago I bought by house. A modernist house in Sydney. I’d been a furniture collector since my early twenties and although my tastes changed over time, a lot of what I had was of modernist design and that naturally tipped into architecture.

I really wanted a modernist house.

There were so many of them around then and I was prepared to move anywhere for the right house. We looked at a Ken Woolley house and nearly bought that but then this 1950s house came up. It had terrible furniture in it and had pretty much not been changed since the late 1950s. No-one else wanted it because no-one was buying modernist homes at the time. I happened to have my builder with me, and he said, “mate, it’s more solid than anything else you’re going to look at today,” so I bought it!

Later, it was featured in Inside Out magazine and suddenly everyone was talking more about my house than some of the other stuff I’d been doing which I thought was really interesting. Then by 2009/10, after going to Modernism Week in Palm Springs, I started thinking about the idea of performing in modernist homes. I started working with the Historic Houses Association, I was asked to talk about my home a few times. Before that, I’d wanted to make a TV show about Modernist homes from the 50s, 60s and 70s which I pitched to Foxtel but they didn’t like it.

Kit Warhurst and Tim Ross.

TJ: Too much of a departure from what you had been doing up until then?

TR: Yeah, exactly. So I started doing the shows in houses alongside radio while my kids were small and then finally got the TV show, Streets of Your Town, up by 2016. That was when my career really became architecture and design based.

TJ: A lot of your work tells the stories of people within the context of their homes. How did people begin telling you their stories in the first place?

TR: Oh, I think I just asked people questions. Often, I’d be out at a show, and someone would come up and tell me about their home/their mum’s home/their friend's home. Often people don’t thing much of it but then it might parlay into something much later. I had Kerstin Thompson talk about the Black Dolphin Hotel in Designing A Legacy, but I think I first spoke to her about that back in 2018. About documenting it in some way.

I’m incredibly blessed that 99% of the time, when I say to someone “look I’d really like to make a story about your house,” they say, ‘yes.’

TJ: Do you think that’s luck or do you think that it’s a natural outcome of giving people an opportunity to talk about something that’s really important to them?

TR: I mean, it can be really invasive. People are very house proud and TV can be pretty brutal. We try to be as respectful as possible and I’m always reminding those around me that these people are often my friends. It’s impossible not to develop friendships with these people because they share so much.

'Motel - Images of Australia on Holidays' a book by Tim Ross.

TJ: There is a strong sense of nostalgia that comes through a lot of your design-based work. The stories people tell about their homes are deeply personal and far removed from the vocabulary of architecture yet you often talk about spatial qualities, programming, context etc. What resonates the most? Are the emotional and the pragmatic on equal footing?

TR: Ideally, you want an interesting story and a great house. I mean a beautiful house owned by appalling people is never going to be the dreamiest thing in the world. It’s the mixture of both. Ultimately, if I’m advocating for better design, the easiest way for me to do that in a mainstream environment is to couple that with accessible storytelling. Not everyone can relate to living in a 1950s home, but everyone can relate to living with their parents with their brothers farting on their heads. Otherwise, they’re just YouTube videos with nice houses.

The storytelling is what makes you hang around. More recently it goes beyond that too, to ideas about the role of architecture and our identity. Architecture tends to rattle ahead and wait for us to catch up. Now more than ever, our homes embody stories about sustainability so when you have a bunch of architects who say, for example, “say no to gas” that can be really powerful. It can filter down to their clients and have a huge influence.

Our buildings need to tell another story. Architecture has always been ahead of the curve in narrating culture, landscape, history, society, politics and advancement, so it really becomes about how we can retrofit them to reflect that.

'Motel - Images of Australia on Holidays' a book by Tim Ross.

TJ: Along those lines, do you think we will look back and see that there was an architectural movement unfolding today? One that was reactive to all those stories?

TR: I think since the 1950s we’ve had a pretty good take on the landscape dialogue. What would define this time would be a diverse range of really excellent architecture across the board. I think what will be the most interesting thing looking back will be the different regional styles.

TJ: That historic narrative is a difficult one though isn’t it? The heritage fabric of Australia is rich and when we are adding or altering those buildings, bringing the historic elements up to today’s sustainability standards and beyond is really difficult!

TR: Yeah, it’s really hard!

TJ: But it must push new design methodologies into new eminence simply by virtue of them needing to work so much harder than in a new build. The new becomes responsible for collectively propelling the entire building’s sustainability performance forward.

TR: My house is like a tent! And it’s not going to change.

There’s been general acceptance but it’s pretty absurd that in Victoria especially where it gets cold, things like single plate glass and lack of insulation prevails in so many older homes.

TJ: Why you think architecture affects us so much if we allow it to?

TR: I’m actually fascinated by people who aren’t! There is a guy in our neighbourhood who grew up in our house…a modernist house with a wall of glass across the front…and he remembers it as being dark! I have no idea how that is. Maybe his parents were locking him in a dungeon or something! It’s really interesting!

I think there is something about a space well-lived and well thought out. It’s about consideration and intent. I like lives well collected. I like people who have excellent taste and that’s not about spending money. It’s being able to arrange things beautifully. Find a stick on the side of the road and place it somewhere where it makes sense. Houses tell you a lot about a personality.

I remember my uncles place. He had a ramshackle federation home in Kensington and it just felt like a house full of life. I loved that! You could feel the energy of the home. A lot of that has very little to do with architecture.

So there’s two side to it. You can go into a beautiful home but if it’s too minimal, does it say too much about the architect and not enough about who lives there?

As I get older, my tastes are changing. I’m a little more prone to enjoying the decorative, realising that there are limitations to modernist homes.

Mori House, Photography by Derek Swalwell.

TJ: Do you think it’s just getting older? Or maybe that you are exposed to so much architecture that has been styled, that you know isn’t real. So the authenticity of a well-lived home with decorative elements becomes that much more resonant?

TR: Yeah. The chase for perfection I think is an absurd one. I went to an architects home today. It was a converted terrace with some really wonky moments…partially unfinished…but they had exceptional taste. Some things were done incredibly cheaply with splurges elsewhere. It’s just the thoughtfulness all the way through…I just loved it. It wasn’t perfect, and they were constant apologists for those bits but they were the ones I liked the most. They couldn’t get rid of me!

TJ: How are our homes a reflection of our behaviour? What message do they send?

TR: On a broader point, our obsessions with our homes aren’t doing us any good as a nation. We are putting enormous pressure on ourselves to create homes, entertain in homes, show them off and it’s making us mean spirited. It’s making us lack generosity and it’s making us angry. We’ve painted ourselves into this terrible corner where we’ve somehow decided that this is the thing that unites us.

When we push ourselves to have perfect homes, we want to show them off and then suddenly you have restaurant kitchens closing at 8.30pm. Ultimately, we haven’t evolved past that nation of two chops and three veggies, in bed by 9.30pm because tomorrow we have a big day. We are still behaving in the same way and I think we would have a more cohesive communal feel if we got out of our homes a little bit more.

Mori House, Photography by Derek Swalwell.

TJ: Do you think apartment living combats that a little?

TR: I would rather see better apartments aimed at owner occupiers, not investors. That’s the important thing. More affordable apartments that are suited to how people want to live. If our social housing stocks were where they were meant to be it would remove up to a million people from the rental market, easing that crisis and bringing costs down…although costs can’t come down because everyone has to pay more because of interest rates. The government decided to make mums and dads landlords because they didn’t want to have to worry about housing people so they gave them a tax incentive to house people. But they didn’t because suddenly the rent isn’t covering the mortgage so they put it up to $800p/wk! Everything’s broken.

If we didn’t feel so obsessed by our homes, it would be much healthier. It’s totally fine to make your home your castle but it’s the nature of it. We have an overhang from covid where interiors look like restaurants or hotels and that style designs for a pandemic which is gone now.

TJ: Final question…you have an hour with someone, who you’ve never met before, to get an understanding around designing them a home. What do you ask them?

TR: You ask them how they want to live.

The problem is that often people don’t know how to answer that. They think they want all these things but when you boil it down…what do you actually need and what’s just about impressing people when they come around. That’s the unheralded part of being an architect. No one else will come into your life and ask you how you want to live and that’s a beautiful thing to happen. That’s where the magic is.

Find out more about Tim Ross on his website or Instagram. Interview by Tiffany Jade.