Sisters Wilhelmina McCarroll (creative director) and Fleur Sibbel (managing director) are the award-winning design duo behind the Zuster brand – a name synonymous with beautiful, bespoke Australian made furniture. This International Women’s Day, we spoke to Willy and Fleur about their design legacy, interiors trends and what it’s like to be working mums.
Q. How have you brought a new perspective to a family business with a history predominantly founded by men?
Fleur: I said to my son that, “it’s a male-dominated industry.” And he said, “is it?” Because it’s something that we actually don’t acknowledge. We grew up a family of four girls and our father was a builder, and there was no job that he didn’t make us do, like pushing the wheelbarrow, hooking up the trailer, carrying firewood, everything. We did the same as if we were boys. I never carried in my head that I would be perceived differently as a woman. So we haven’t had a lot of obstacles. When we walk into a factory, people take us for who we are, not our sex.
If anything, it’s been an advantage because most of the interior designers and people decorating their homes, the decisions are made by females. And I think us being females has been a massive advantage to our business because Willy is designing for women, especially what we’ve done with the bathroom collection. It’s very much designed by a woman for women that are using the bathroom. And so we’ve been able to add a more feminine flair while having the manufacturing expertise to carry it through.
Q. What are your tips for mums when it comes to running a successful brand while having children?
Fleur: I guess it’s just being really organised. Both Willy and I work four days a week and we’ve always done that. My children are in their 20s now, but throughout the years, we’ve always worked four days. And the time at work is fully focused on work, time at home fully focused on family. So having that life balance is really important.
Willy: And getting up nice and early in the morning to get everything done as well and just being really focused and working really hard when you’re at work and then you have your time off with your family in the evenings. But you’ve got to make every minute count and I think that’s the thing about being a working mother.
Fleur: I think it’s really tricky for working mums because when we have our children, we sort of start the whole guilt cycle too, which is really challenging. So you’re guilty when you’re at work, you’re guilty when you’re not at work. But I think we’ve both learned to really let that go and we really believe in what we’re doing and we love what we do.
And we’ve seen the benefits because we’re kind of through the other side a little bit more and we’ve seen the sacrifices we went through. Often when they’re very small, leaving them is really, really hard. But then we’ve built this business over these 25 years and imagine if we didn’t? If we stayed home?
Willy: But they’ve also watched that and it’s been an example to them of how you can build a business and what you can achieve in your career. And I think they’re amazing lessons for your children.
Q. Does having children influence the design of your products?
Willy: Having children definitely influences your product design because you have to work with being more functional with what you make, more robust with what you design, and I think it’s really important because storage becomes such an important thing when you’ve got a family, and design as well. You want the pieces to be beautiful but you also want them to be really, really functional as well.
Q. What trends are you seeing in interiors?
Fleur: We watch the market all the time and we’re seeing where trends are going and where our niche is. And I think we’re really good at establishing that niche.
Willy: I think trends are changing quicker now. It’s two types of trends that I’m feeling at the moment. There’s a really natural kind of a trend with very organic materials and shapes. And then there’s an eclectic trend, which is putting different marbles together, different finishes, lots of different materials, and keeping it very tonal just in the one colour pattern and scheme.
I’ve ended up with two really creative children, they absolutely love design and they’re actually telling me what the trends are. It’s interesting now they’re teenagers, they’re onto everything, quicker than I am.
Q. What are the challenges many women face getting ready in the morning, and how do you address them?
Willy: I think the challenge of women getting ready in the morning is often time. We’ve got children, we’ve got really busy lives, and we want to actually get ready as quickly and efficiently as we possibly can. I think storage is really, really important because there are so many beauty products on the market and you seem to accumulate so many. And so there needs to be a place for all these products. We’ve worked really, really hard on achieving that and I think we’ve done a good job.
Q. What is your advice for people looking to design a new bathroom?
Fleur: We think it’s a really good idea to create a moodboard and to work out what sort of style you want to go for. It’s quite a stressful process renovating a bathroom and the more organised you are and the clearer vision you have, the better.
Willy: I also think in a bathroom, less materials is better, especially in a small space. It’s a lot more messy to see lots of different materials in one bathroom.
Fleur: And when you’re designing a bathroom, really thinking about how you’re going to use that space and what’s important. Do you need two basins for you and your partner to have a separate space? Is storage really important? What is your dream list? Then you can negotiate with the bank and your builder to make that happen. I think to really go high on your goals early on to create the right experience. Because we do use the bathroom every day.
Willy: It’s definitely a room you don’t want to overlook because it’s actually incredibly important to get it right.
Q. What’s in your ideal bathroom?
Willy: My ideal bathroom would definitely have lots of storage, a nice big bath, lots of beautiful materials.
Fleur: My ideal bathroom is the bathroom I have. I’m lucky enough to have done a renovation and have an ISSY by Zuster bathroom. Storage is really important, and mirrors. I love having multiple mirrors that I can look at. I love just getting ready and being able to access everything in the one footprint. And the bathroom being a really calming space, I think is really important.
Willy: Yeah, a bit of a day spa feel is a really nice thing.
Q. What’s next for your ISSY by Zuster collaboration with Reece?
Willy: Next in the bathroom is going to be Blossom. If I was to describe the new Blossom range in three words, it would be glamorous, decorative, and functional.
Fleur: And we’re really excited because it’s a very beautiful, very feminine collection.
Willy: A little bit fashion-inspired as well. I’ve been inspired by a lot of pattern, so I’ve actually incorporated the pattern into the fronts of the drawers, in kind of a subtle, classic way. When I designed the Blossom range, the element on the front of the detailing, I actually saw something similar in a balustrade, overseas, and then I put it together in a timber form and it just worked out so perfectly. I was so happy.
Fleur: We’re also introducing marble for the first time, so there’s the option of marble handles in both Halo and in Blossom, which is going to be really beautiful, and some very organic shapes. We feel like it’s very on trend with people wanting to go back to more organic shapes and materials. And then she’s designed this series of incredible mirror that are oval, very organic.
Willy: Oh yeah, we’ve done a lot of new mirrors which are going to be terrific. They’re a little bit more decorative than we’ve done before. I think that they’re really going to give the bathroom lots more character too. We’re pretty excited about launching them.
Fleur: And with the collection, we’ve tried to create more of that day spa, hotel experience. Because we know, like us, we’re busy with family and work and our lives are crazy, but we want that amazing experience at home. So when Willy designed the collection, she had that very much in mind. Timber is a very calming material, being a natural material, so having that calming experience, that’s our dream for women.
The timber extends to when you open the vanity drawer, it’s a full-extension drawer, that timber is lined inside the drawers as well, which we haven’t seen in bathroom before. Even with the waste cutout, that’s made in the timber as well. So you get that feeling of luxury and craftsmanship. Someone’s handmade each item, one person makes it from start to finish, and you can feel that, especially living with it day-to-day. You see that the edges of the drawer have all been mortared, it’s all lined, you don’t ever see a screw, concealed drawer runners so you never see any hardware. Down to the very minute details, we’ve really thought of everything to deliver a luxury experience.
When we started the bathroom collaboration with Reece, we both really felt like there wasn’t a good solution on the market that offered storage, that was a beautiful, clean-line design, that had the longevity and the quality, and the day-to-day experience would improve people’s lives. And we really saw that as a niche, and same with Reece too.
We thought about what we would want to do in our dream bathrooms. Lucky we’ve got our dream bathrooms now, but before, we didn’t. And we said, “we’d love to be able to sit and do our hair and do makeup and have a mirror that while you sit you can still see yourself at the mirror, to have the compartments that you can just access your makeup.” We’d talk amongst ourselves and we’d say, “imagine if you could just touch and then a drawer would pop out and all your makeup would be there and how amazing would that be?” And so then Willy designed it.