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Story of Origin & Concrete Bespoke

We welcome Duncan McNally from Concrete Bespoke to our Story of Origin Series. A behind the scenes chat with some of the people that have shaped the history and projects of our Practice.

A series that invites our collaborators and community to share their story (or part of it). To take a step back and reflect on how it all came to be. It’s about their evolution. Their trials or tribulations, their transformations and even just the sheer surprise of how they arrived here at all.

We first met Duncan about four years ago when we were working on our HQ, Alexander House and were exploring the ideas around alternate kitchen benches.

Here is an excerpt from a longer conversation with Duncan [DM] and our Principal, Jeremy Bull [JB].

Duncan McNally of Concrete Bespoke
[DM] When I started this concrete thing, it was really random.

I was in the army and soon after, I had my first motorbike accident that properly put me out of shape for a long time. Sim and I bought the apartment in Bondi, and I kind of kept everything together. I couldn't walk for six months, couldn't work for 18 months.

Eventually, I was able to go back to the Army, and I was like, yeah, good to go. I did my physical, did my psych evaluation, and it was all looking up.

And then a week later, I had my second bike accident. That properly put me on my arse.

So again, I couldn't walk for six months. I had my leg in about 900 pieces. I lost everything. I lost my investment properties…everything. But, we were able to keep our place in Bondi. During this time, I was also standing on doors in King's Cross, doing security in clubs. I was selling cars in Rockdale. I hated it.

A mate, DH, he's just like, “You are responsible for everything in your life. And until you can actually sit down and accept that in all the choices you make, everything you do… you're like a point in space and everything you do that's good for you, everything you do that's right takes you to where you want to go and everything you don't, draws you back. And it's the micro things, the small things that you do.”

That stuck with me.

At the time, and this is 13 years ago, I wanted to put in concrete benches in our place in Bondi and I got a quote and I couldn't afford it. So I was like, "Oh, I'll just make it myself." I actually formed them all up in the apartment upstairs because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to carry them up the stairs.
The workshop at Concrete Bespoke

I think that's a nice thing, a beautiful thing about that, it's concrete, but it's pink, and it's got curves, and it's soft, and the way it comes together

Duncan McNally
[JB] Did you have a carpentry trade? How did you form them up?
[DM] No, but I've done a fair bit of building. I worked for a builder. I built a couple of houses with him.

There was a stint where I took a year off. I just laboured, I got on the building sites and just kind of picked it up. I'd not done a trade at all.

I also had some experience when I was 18 working with my Dad. We used to do up the old antique bathtubs and pedestal basins and things, but he and I used to just fight. I couldn't deal with it anymore.

So that’s when I joined first Commando Regiment. It was hectic.
[JB] Physically?
[DM] No, mentally.
[JB] Getting through it?
[DM] It's savage. And I think that was the first time I'd actually ever been proud of myself.

And fast-forward to where I'm now, I set out with this concrete thing, I made these benches in my place. And Sim said to me "Why don't you do that? You're creative." And I was like, "Yeah, righto." And Dad had the factory at Rydalmere, where I'm now, and I said, "Oh, can I have a little corner and start doing a bit."

And then when my leg was busted, I made a chess set. And I was like, "Yeah, that's all right." And mate, I don't know, I don't even know how it happened, mate.

I started in the corner of Dad's factory. I made a few pieces. Sim had a restaurant, she had some customers that wanted a little fire thing outside, and I made that.

And I remember my second job was an island bench for a client in Vaucluse. It just stared down the barrel of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. That was my second job, this curved thing. And it did look amazing. I didn't have a website, everything was word of mouth. I just wanted to do arty one-off bespoke kind of things.
[JB] They’re beautiful. The shapes, the way they come together. I mean, the thing that I just find fascinating is that you can take this material that's hard, and mean, and heavy, and bring it all together. It's so subtle the way that it joins, it looks like it's just so easy. Like our kitchen at Alexander House.
[DM] I think that's a nice thing, a beautiful thing about that, it's concrete, but it's pink, and it's got curves, and it's soft, and the way it comes together, it's like, “Is that concrete!?” There's definitely nothing brutalist about it.
[JB] I think about your work. If I just think about the microcosm of our practice and the influence you have had on our work, I think that there is a responsibility that you have as an artist to ensure that what you do has sustainability and longevity. The material inherently has longevity, but if you can't keep doing it, then I think I would say that within the concept of your responsibility as an artist you need to make it so it does.
[DM] Yeah. If you're not there to make, it's not going to get made, is it?
[JB] No. The end goal is that there is important art that needs to be made. And if you are not going to make it, then who?

Learn more about Concrete Bespoke

Further Reading Explore more from our journal of stories and reflections.

Travel Diary & New York City

Detail of hands holding a brick.

Story of Origin & Natural Brick Co