For Emma Hodges, motherhood brought on new beginnings in more ways than one. While pregnant with daughter Edie, Emma started an Interior Decoration course after working in fashion for years, which eventually lead to her new career path in interiors. A chance encounter to own a readily established business saw her dream to work on her own terms flexibly become a reality, with concrete being the magic material of choice…
“After working for large corporates in my buying days, I knew I wanted to be my own boss and enjoy the flexibility that comes with it. I toyed with the idea of starting something myself and progressed a few ideas but soon realised it was going to take a lot of time (and investment) before seeing any results so decided to focus on looking for an existing business that I could run with straight away. After a lengthy search, SLABS By Design came about when a friend of a friend was looking to sell the business. As soon as I saw the beautiful products I was hooked and knew I had to go for it.”
Specialising in custom concrete furniture, benchtops and bespoke architectural pieces for commercial and residential projects, the beauty of SLABS is all in the detail – so if you thought concrete equalled, well, a whole lot of grey, think again. Custom design means you can choose from a variety of concrete colours, including heavenly pastels and dramatic blues and blacks, as well as a range of terrazzo, marble and granite pieces. This unique offering means your choice of concrete will not only look modern and sleek but also, unlike anything you’ve seen before, eliminating the cookie-cutter feel of many mass-produced furniture and home items.
We were thrilled to chat to Emma and visit her studio in Sydney’s emerging design precinct in St Peters to talk more about her exciting business, how motherhood impacted her career change and why concrete really is such a hardworking, stylish and customisable material for the home in more ways than you could ever imagine…
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family?
My husband and I are originally from the UK, but moved to Sydney over 6 years ago for a change of lifestyle and we haven’t looked back since. We’re both really active and love spending time outdoors and exploring Sydney with our 2 ½ yr old daughter, Edie. We’re very lucky to have a great group of friends over here who are like our adopted family, and most weekends will be spent with them at the beach or on weekends away. We love to travel overseas but also try and see as much of Australia and New Zealand as possible. Tasmania and Uluru have to be highlights for me so far, the landscapes are incredible. Next on the list is Margaret River.
What did your career entail prior to SLABS By Design?
I studied fashion marketing at university in the UK and worked as a fashion buyer for nine years, both in the UK and Sydney. I loved the creative aspect of the job: building ranges, designing and developing products and travelling the world on inspirational trips to the US, Europe and London and sourcing trips to Asia. The work was great fun but very demanding and stressful and I knew it was going to be a juggle once we had children, especially without a family support network around me. So I made the big decision to leave the fashion world and pursue my other passion of interior design. When I was three months pregnant, I started an interior decoration course at Sydney Design School whilst working part-time. I graduated two weeks before giving birth! Crazy I know, but worth it – I just knew from then on that interiors had to be my next career path.
How did you become involved in SLABS By Design?
After nine months of being in the newborn baby bubble I missed having a creative outlet and felt ready to get back into work part-time, so started looking at job opportunities. After working for large corporates in my buying days, I knew I wanted to be my own boss and enjoy the flexibility that comes with it. I toyed with the idea of starting something myself and progressed a few ideas but soon realised it was going to take a lot of time (and investment) before seeing any results so decided to focus on looking for an existing business that I could run with straight away. After a lengthy search, SLABS came about when a friend of a friend was looking to sell the business. As soon as I saw the beautiful products I was hooked and knew I had to go for it.
Tell us about SLABS and the beautiful pieces you create...
We produce custom-made concrete furniture, benchtops, basins and bespoke architectural pieces for both residential and commercial projects. All our pieces are hand-crafted right here in Sydney, meaning we can customise our entire range in size and colour. We focus on creating designs that have a clean and simple aesthetic, which are timeless and functional. How our furniture works for you and your space is just as crucial as how it looks. We also offer a bespoke design service for clients who are looking to create something totally unique for their home.
What are some of the benefits and features of concrete?
I often describe concrete as being ‘perfectly imperfect’. Each and every slab is hand-poured, meaning they each have their own unique markings and characteristics, creating a truly one-off piece. Concrete is also extremely versatile, with a huge range of colours available in different textures – from smooth and highly polished to raw and industrial. All our pieces are sealed with a high-grade commercial sealant, making it a really durable surface, especially for families with young children!
How have you styled SLABS pieces in your own home?
We are living in a rental at the moment whilst we search for a family home to renovate but as soon as we find the one, a concrete kitchen will most definitely be the heart of it! For now, I’ve styled my home office with our Spectre desk and SoHo side table to create a minimal and clutter-free space – it’s very monochromatic and calming. I’ve teamed the Spectre with a black leather chair by Barnaby Lane which works perfectly. I’ve also designed my own coffee table for our living room which I love and have the Cube bedside tables in our master bed – drawers are a must for me to hide all those little bits ‘n’ pieces.
What are some of the most interesting ways you’ve seen clients use concrete in their homes?
The beauty of concrete is that you are pretty much limited only by your imagination. There are so many interesting ways it can be used and I love it when my clients are open to new ideas that challenge me. A floating concrete staircase has to be one of my favourites and a 4m floating shelf to display the client’s beautiful art collection. Colour seems to be how clients are pushing the boundaries at the moment –we recently installed a deep blue concrete island bench and an apricot vanity to name a few. Deep greens are also proving really popular.
What is your own approach to interior design and decoration? Do you subscribe to a particular style?
I don’t really follow trends and I would say my style is quite eclectic. Being from the UK, I love heritage features and mixing old with new to create a unique and soulful space that reflects us as a family. My home has to feel calming and inviting. We love to entertain so an open-plan living space is very important. After years of grey and wet Summers in the UK, the Sydney weather is still a huge novelty to us so a sociable and usable outdoor space is also essential.
Do you change your rooms seasonally?
I don’t make any dramatic changes seasonally, but I do make a few updates, like introducing warmer tones in soft furnishings with a chunky knitted throw or new bed linen. I have a slight obsession with candles too so winter is a great excuse to invest in more of those. I also like to reflect the season’s colours in the house with a fresh bunch of flowers; I’m loving Australian natives at the moment.
Apart from SLABS, where are your go-to stores or resources for pieces for your home?
I love supporting fellow Australian designers and makers, and Koskela in Rosebery is an amazing concept store full of locally made furniture and homewares. I love their ceramics and rug collection and you’ll always be able to find a perfect gift for someone! I also love wandering down Oxford St in Paddington which has some amazing new stores: Jardan being a particular favourite of mine. I also get a lot of my inspiration from design blogs such as The Design Files and Design Milk in the US which is an incredible resource.
You’re managing SLABS while raising a young family. How do you make the balance work?
To be honest I’m still trying to figure it out. It helped that I was already a Mum when I bought the business, which meant I was able to establish boundaries right from the start and create realistic expectations for myself. I work three full days a week, while Edie is in daycare, plus most evenings. I’ve quickly had to learn to be really disciplined with my time and create a structure to my day – I love a to-do list!
What tips do you have for mothers who might be looking to run their own business?
Don’t try to do it all! Your time is precious so focus on the things you are good at or love doing and outsource what you don’t. It’s hard when you’re first starting out but it’s counterintuitive if it takes you twice as long to complete a task. I’m a big fan of platforms such as Upwork, which is a great way to find affordable freelancers.
Also try and surround yourself with like-minded people for support and to bounce ideas off, or just have a chat when you’re having a bad day. It can be lonely and overwhelming at times when you’re just starting out but thankfully the good days far outweigh the tough ones and I genuinely love what I do.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every day has to start with a good old cup of English Breakfast tea, usually bought to me by my husband in bed and Edie will often jump in for a cuddle. It’s the best start to the day! Once I’ve done the daycare drop off, I’ll either be out on the road visiting clients in their home, at the showroom, or at our workshop checking on the progress of orders. If I’m in the office, I’ll typically be working on new designs, creating marketing content, answering customer enquiries and organising deliveries. I try to plan at least one full day in the office per week to get through the to-do list
What have been some of the biggest challenges in running SLABS?
In the early days, one of the biggest challenges I faced was getting a real understanding of the production process and the technicalities of concrete so I could advise my clients confidently on bespoke pieces. Whilst our concrete is lighter and stronger than traditional methods (due to being glass fibre reinforced), it’s still a heavy material so any new designs I create I have to consider the structural and engineering elements of the piece to ensure it not only looks amazing but that it’s safe and fit for purpose.
The logistics side of the business can also be a challenge. Every job and delivery is unique, with different access issues to consider. For example, we recently installed a 4.5m kitchen bench weighing over 200kg which required 10 men to lift, and a 3m vanity unit which had to craned in over a balcony. It was so nerve-wracking to watch! One mistake and the entire piece could be damaged. Co-ordinating jobs like these can be tricky but it’s so rewarding when you see them safely in place.
What’s next for you and for SLABS?
It’s a really exciting time for SLABS. We’ve got some amazing new product launches in the pipeline, including a stunning basin range and a new coffee and side table collection, which feature beautifully curved bases. Our terrazzo pieces are proving really popular so I’ll be working on some new designs to expand the range. We also want to grow our stockists into Melbourne and longer-term we’d love to expand internationally – watch this space!