At the end of a dusty mountain track which winds up through the Byron hinterland, Blackbird Byron sits in an unassuming position, behind a brutalist corrugated iron wall built from the banana sheds that had been left on site since the sixties.
It’s the sense of unpretentious, quiet luxury that undergirds the Blackbird experience: indulgence delivered with easeful excellence.
During our stay, we experienced that firsthand. We drank champagne and watched a storm stir up the sky through floor to ceiling windows that made up one wall of our self contained studio. When the sun rose behind Cape Byron, we made a pot of hand blended tea, and spent the morning between the magnesium pool and the infrared sauna before eating an organic breakfast prepared for us on site by a private chef.
Before we left, I sat down with the Blackbird founder James Hudson, to talk about the story behind the space.
You were running nightclubs and restaurants in Sydney before moving to the hinterland and building Blackbird, tell us about the decision to make the move and change your life in that way
Although I grew up in a hotelier family, design has always been my main passion. I studied industrial design, started a business straight out of uni and then sold it before going travelling for a year. Australia was my last stop, and it was sort of by accident that I ended up here.
I’ve been in Australia since 2004, and I started opening bars and nightclubs in Bondi just as the new evolution of Bondi was being born. I opened five venues within eighteen months, and the momentum and the energy of the city, that life, was exciting, but it wasn’t sustainable.
At 33, my first child was on the way and the region started to call, so I decided to end that chapter on a high and start looking for somewhere in the northern rivers to create something totally different.
Tell us about how the idea for Blackbird formed
I knew what I wanted to create, the general concept was born over a few years, between here and Sydney, but it’s always the landscape and the land that dictates the final creative process.
I was on the ground for about eighteen months looking at every property that came onto the market. I needed to find the right canvas to work with – there were resources I needed and resources I had that I wanted to incorporate, there was so much to consider for it all to fall into place.
I looked at this property twice in eight months, and the first time I just heeled it – I was sure there was no way we could make it work. It was very different back then: you couldn’t see the views, it was decrepit and unloved and completely covered in kampfer which is an invasive species.
Something took me back though, and when I began to imagine what it could be, I decided to make this the spot. I’m not a massive believer in fate – I think you make your own decisions and your own luck – but something about this place has made me question that a little bit.
The space itself is spectacular, can you tell us about the design and building process?
I came up with the design concept myself, and the building project involved me, two chippies and a labourer. We got it done in eight months. We had basic plans but there were a lot of design decisions that happened at six in the morning on the day. Working together for eight months, five to six days a week, you get to know the team really well, but at the start the guys I was working with were taken aback, a little, by my approach.
One morning I just drew this design up, for the building we’re sitting in, and told the guys: “ this is what we’re doing today”. They asked where the plans were, and I looked at the piece of cardboard that I’d drawn on and said “right here”.
We often made decisions on the day based on what felt right. It’s an untraditional way of doing things, but it worked for us .
In terms of design, if someone came to me with this as a brief, I’d run a mile because there are so many varying elements, so many opposing influences. But the design is basically a download from my head, and with my industrial design background I could interrogate every step, every design element and ask the question: “how can we make this more efficient? How can we make this the best possible version of what it could be?”.
We also incorporated leftover materials in the new design, not for the sake of it, but because the ethos of “function before form, but with an appreciation for intelligent design” was what guided us.
Tell us a little more about how sustainability is incorporated into the Blackbird ethos and approach
Nothing is 100% perfect, but we believe in best practice: acting in integrity wherever you can. Like with the design, we interrogate every decision and ask: is there a better way we could be doing this? As a commercial operation, it’s about understanding that making a decision with values front and centre will ultimately have a positive financial impact too.
I’m not an eco warrior but I know that sustainable is the way forward, and if we all employ best practice, that collective energy will make a difference
What about Blackbird Byron are you most proud of?
I’d say the connections that people make when they get here. This communal table becomes this amazing place where, regardless of demographic factors, people make really great connections. If you put that group of people together in their usual environments, you wouldn’t see that, but this place is a conduit for those beautiful connections… that’s the thing that makes me happiest.
What were some of the challenges of the project?
When problems arise when we’re building, you just work through them, that’s part of the process. The build process was great, the challenge was with the bureaucracy: jumping through those loops that, in some instances, are just unnecessary obstacles.
I think that’s something that could and should be improved: perhaps having a creative within the planning approval team who can make a case based on the unique situation, considering the benefits that something might bring to an area. The question should be asked: does this property add value to the region? And having unique spaces does. It’s about balance and diversity, that’s what allows Byron to remain what it is.
What would a perfect day at Blackbird Byron look like?
Every day. A perfect day is about enjoying the communal element: the pool, the sauna, the view, but then the privacy. People want to feel like they’ve got their own space, which is why the pavilions were deliberately designed such that you can’t see any other buildings. If you want to retreat, you can feel like you have your own space and feel totally secluded, and then when you want that social element, it’s there but on a very intimate, very relaxed scale.
The space is very much about celebrating special occasions, so everyone who visits must be in a very unique headspace – it must be magical to be around that energy all of the time. Is there one particular memory of running Blackbird Byron that speaks to the magic of the space?
There’s been a lot: wedding proposals, anniversaries, those moments where you see people really connecting. There is one story that epitomises the energy and ethos of the space, but it’s very private, so I won’t go into too much detail. It involved two lovers though, who, for a few different reasons, couldn’t be together. They spent a few nights here, and they invited me for a drink by the fire. They opened up to me about all of the challenges and thoughts, and I felt so honoured that a: they could share that with me, and b: they felt they could be themselves when they were here. Personally sharing their story with me was a really beautiful moment because all of the other factors that played into their circumstances fell away, and they could just be here and love each other, and share that love.
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