Caroline Usher: Bali’s go-to restaurant interior designer

Caroline Usher is a New Zealand-raised, Bali-based interior designer, one of the world’s top talents, the go-to for fit-outs that transport you to another realm.

UNO: How did you come to be working as an interior designer?

CAROLINE: My mother was a qualified milliner from London and taught me how make patterns, sew, cross-stitch, embroider, knit and crochet. By the time I was 11, I was designing my own clothes – and my mindset was totally alternative at a very young age, so I designed some pretty bold outfits. Mum used to take me to auctions at a time where quality antiques were in abundance, and I absolutely loved fossicking around the labyrinths of furniture and décor pieces. She used to restore her purchases, then sell them out of our garage.

I went on to work in nearly every facet of the movie business. I started out as a runner, then became an assistant buyer, a buyer, a decorator, a property master and an art director for film, TV and commercials. My career took me to New York, Los Angeles, Thailand, Vietnam and Fiji, and I also ended up in the UK, working at Shepperton Studios. I decided to have a career change because I was pretty much a workaholic. I probably still am, which is why I own Jack Russell terriers – they can keep up with me!

UNO: What brought you to Bali?

CAROLINE: In 1997, I’d been working in New Zealand on a series and took a three-month break to travel to Bali on my own. At that time, it was clean and lush, and had a great party vibe. It was a very sexy, very cool time to be in Bali – I loved it. Years later, in 2007, I was living in London, and after celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday in Singapore, we all piled onto a plane to come down to Bali – and that’s when I decided to move here. Six months later, on May 1, 2008, I moved. I’ve been living here ever since.

It took two years of networking and finding my way, but in 2010, I started working part-time doing marketing, PR and events for a successful chef here. A few months into the contract, I had to design a food stand for him at a culinary festival in Jakarta. The event organisers were supposed to set up the stand, but the chef arrived [at the venue], then called and screamed at me to get on a plane. So off I went – on my birthday – to a city I hadn’t been to before, to find suppliers and create the stand, madly gesticulating all the while to communicate what I wanted, because I didn’t speak the language. I worked 36 hours straight – and it turned out to be the best stand at the show. The chef took me out for a drink after opening night was over, gave me a $1000 tip and asked me to design his next restaurant, which became Mama San. That’s how it all started for me.

UNO: Now you’ve basically designed every happening space to eat or drink in Bali. How did you become the go-to interior designer?

CAROLINE: Mama San really launched me. It raised the bar in Bali at the time. I love to be able to mix different genres and periods into my designs, and it was eclectic and totally different to anything else here. It was also, believe it or not, the first design-focused restaurant that had air conditioning, which was a relief for a lot of expats and tourists.

Since then, I’ve designed many food and beverage spots in Bali and also a restaurant in New Delhi, India; I’ve managed a project in Singapore; and now we [Ushers By Design] are moving into high-end hotels and resorts, as well as continuing our passion for designing restaurants, bars and, more recently, clubs.

UNO: What inspires you?

CAROLINE: I was born in Wellington and grew up in Pukerua Bay, with hills all around, greenery that was beautiful and lush, the ocean and surrounding rocks with loads of paua to harvest and cook at home with butter. It was just the most glorious adventure playground for us as kids. It inspired my imagination so much and I loved spending a lot of time alone wandering and just being with nature.

Tying in with that, colours inspire me in all of my designs. I love playing with them and combining them with texture. Lighting is also a massive inspiration for me, which goes back to my days in the film industry. It just brings everything to life; it creates the ambiance.

UNO: What are some of your favourite materials?

CAROLINE: It probably sounds a bit mad, but I love steel and it’s a big part of my projects. It has strength, but beauty too. Recycled hardwoods are something I also use a lot of, as are custom-designed ceramics, whether for flooring or walls. I use Philip Lakeman Ceramic on all my projects – he totally gets the intricacy of the design brief and works hard to produce the desired results.

UNO: What do you love doing when you’re not designing amazing interiors?

CAROLINE: What don’t I love doing?! I love adventuring into different cultures and immersing myself in their creativity. I love music, food and wine, which is why I love designing food and beverage spaces so much. I love working with world-class chefs, and I understand them really well. They’re talented and work hard, so when our worlds come together, we have a level of understanding. It’s wicked!

UNO: Do you make it home very often?

CAROLINE: Not as often as I’d like to. I have a really cool group of Kiwi buddies here, including hospitality GM Michael Beechey, who’s worked all over Asia for a long time and is a mentor for me; artist Rebekkah Mercer, a former actress who I met on the set of Marlin Bay, a drama series I worked on in Auckland; plus sound engineer Mahi Davies, and DJ and music producer Flic Russell, both of whom I know from Wellington. But I really miss home. I haven’t been back for about two years. I’m aiming to get back this year for Christmas to see my brothers, nephews and nieces, and of course my assortment of long-time friends.

Last time I came home, my brother drove from Cambridge to Wellington to meet me at 7am – now that’s brotherly love right there. We went to exchange some currency and the people behind the counter had such a relaxed vibe about them and were genuinely interested in asking questions and having a laugh. It was really different to where I am in the world now, and I realised at that moment just how much I miss that energy. Everyone I bumped into was just so real. I was reminded what an incredible nation of people we are. Our humour, genuineness, innovation and creativity make me so proud to be a New Zealander.

UNO: What’s next for you on the interior design front?

CAROLINE: Ushers By Design has just been appointed the interior design company for an incredibly exciting resort that will be 100% sustainable and a whole new world. We’re designing a boutique resort on Gili Meno and a massive beach club on Gili Trawagan [in Indonesia’s Gili Islands], and an Italian restaurant that will be launching later this year in Bali’s Seminyak. We’ve also been in talks with a number of international five-star resort companies about projects, and we have a few potential projects in Vietnam, Thailand and India as well. I just keep rocking onwards and upwards with my team, who are ace.

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