Routinely ranked one of Australia’s most influential interior designers, The Block judge Darren Palmer has carved an enviable career in an industry he never even knew existed growing up in the suburbs of Gladstone, Queensland.
When you think ‘breeding ground for Australia’s top interior designers’ it’s unlikely you also think ‘Gladstone, regional Queensland’ but that’s exactly where celebrated celebrity interior designer Darren Palmer’s story originates.
Growing up in the Central Queensland port town of Gladstone, Darren was the second and youngest child of Selwyn ‘Sellie’ and Rosemarie Palmer. Sellie worked at a power plant, and Rosemarie at a café. “Dad was very handy and could fix just about anything, and mum always had a very well-put-together home,” recalls Darren. He describes his childhood as a standard suburban, regional Queensland lifestyle. At 17, Darren left Gladstone for the mecca of Rockhampton, where he studied graphic design, before relocating to Brisbane, then eventually Sydney.
“Everything I thought about and dreamed about was interiors, literally all the time. So, at 27 I thought, ‘okay, cool, I’m doing the wrong thing’.”
“I worked in graphic design for about a decade,” says Darren of his early career. “I had my own graphic design business, doing websites and corporate IDs, and, funnily enough, I did a lot of marketing for real estate – so I’ve always been tied to real estate. Then one day I realised that every book I owned, every magazine I’d bought, every time I walked into somebody’s house, I was redesigning it in my head. Everything I thought about and dreamed about was interiors, literally all the time. So, at 27 I thought, ‘okay, cool, I’m doing the wrong thing’.
“Unfortunately, I had a couple of mortgages, quite a well-paying business and no possibility for employment. I also didn’t have any interiors-focused studies up my sleeves, so I was not in the ideal position to be an interior designer, that’s for sure. I also had a desire to buy an apartment and renovate it in Sydney, which I thought was unattainable, but I grouped together with three other friends and we bought a couple of properties.
“One of them was the apartment that I lived in and renovated as my first ever interior job – it was the first time I designed anything. I designed the kitchen, I redesigned the layout, did quite a bit of the painting, plastering and labouring myself, and really got stuck into it. A friend of mine was a friend of Neale Whitaker’s [former editor of Australian design magazine Belle, and Darren’s current fellow judge on The Block along with Shaynna Blaze], and he sent Neale some photos I had of the apartment. Neale liked it, photographed it for Belle magazine and put it in the renovation issue. So, the first ever project I did was published in Belle.”
That first project was in 2005. Inspired, Darren approached his friend and mentor Dane van Bree and asked to assist van Bree while he worked. “I learned on the ground from him. The beginning of my career wouldn’t have happened without my mentor by my side,” says Darren. “You would never have heard of him [van Bree] though, he’s the opposite of me – he’s very private,” says Darren of the skilled interior designer and writer. “He is just a private person who never had the need to publicise himself, whereas I was hungry and needed to get ahead quickly. Publishing things was the only way for me to get my name out there.”
In 2006, Darren founded his own interior design business, DP Designed. In 2009, he made his first foray into reality television – as a contestant. The show was Nine Network’s homemade, which placed two teams of emerging designers against each other, to renovate two houses in five days. Unsure whether to do the show initially, aware the exposure could either boost his profile or damage it, Darren consulted some designer friends including Neale Whitaker. “Neale told me, ‘I can’t advise you, you should just do what you think is right.’” Two days out from the deadline, Darren decided to apply. “They cast me within a week, and we started filming three weeks later,” says Darren, who placed second overall, and discovered he already knew one of the show’s three judges: Neale.
As a judge on The Block, Darren brings a unique perspective – he knows exactly what it’s like to be in the contestants’ shoes. “I’m empathetic towards the contestants and try and give them constructive feedback rather than just saying I don’t like something, because design – like art, like food, like colour – is subjective. Whether I like it or not is irrelevant; whether it works is another thing. There are principles that sit behind all successful interiors, no matter what the style is, no matter whether I like the aesthetic or not. If the fundamentals are sound and they’ve been applied appropriately, then the room will work. And if the room doesn’t work, there’s usually a fundamental reason why. So, I’ll never say, “I don’t like this.” I’ll always say, “this isn’t working because …,” explains Darren.
Darren initially joined The Block as a guest judge in 2012, filling in for real estate guru John McGrath for five episodes. In 2013, he was promoted to permanent judge. What does Darren like about the show to keep him coming back, for nine years and eleven seasons and counting? “Well, it always evolves, but it doesn’t change,” says Darren. “You know what to expect from the show. It’s not like they reset the goalposts to try and liven up the show. I think some shows have done that to their detriment, whereas The Block knows its strengths. They know the format, they’re true to the format always, but they always elevate the format too. They’re always finding new ways to be more engaging, to tweak the edit so that there’s a really clear story being told. It’s just a team of experts and they’re really very, very good at their job. And that’s why each season of The Block is better than the last.”
The current season, Season 16, follows five fresh couples as they renovate rundown weatherboard houses from five different decades across the early 1900s, in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Brighton.
“Success is not about money or accolades or power or position, it’s about putting time into the things and relationships that are really important to you.”
“We’re in the age of information – it’s not hard to find reference to 1940s, 1930s, 1920s,” shares Darren. “What is hard is making sure that the building you’re researching is built in the period that you think it is built, and also is the style within that period that you think it is because there are different styles within different periods.”
With each season of The Block, the calibre of design from the contestants continues to improve. From regional Queensland, we’ve supported a number of contestants through the gruelling process. In 2015, there was Caro and Kingi from Townsville. In 2017, we cheered for Hannah and Clint, also from Townsville. And in 2019, Cairns’ Tess and Luke claimed victory at the end-of-season auction.
“You can’t imagine how hard The Block is as a challenge unless you’ve been through it. People see it’s hard, because they see it on TV and they go, ‘Oh, that looks hard, but it can’t possibly be as hard as it looks’. I can guarantee you it’s harder.”
In 2020, a global pandemic disrupted life for everyone, including those filming Season 16 of The Block. How did that impact the show’s design outcomes, if at all? “I’m sure you’ve heard of the reality TV bubble,” offers Darren. “When you’re in a show like The Block, your whole world is The Block. Everything you do, you live, sleep, breathe, you’re surrounded by cameras, you’re immersed in this challenge that, if you don’t, you can’t possibly succeed or do well in. It takes a great deal of focus. The contestants did the show through a pandemic so whilst they had all of those challenges and they had all of those impacts on them that could be very taxing, they also did have a six- or seven-week break, where they got to reassess their plans and fortify their ideas. We see the results of that in the second half of the show when everybody returns. It’s just sheer excellence.”
Away from The Block, Darren Palmer is as much a brand as he is a designer. While he continues his interiors work for homeowners, architects and developers, he is also a writer, presenter, public speaker and trusted ambassador for reputable brands like Audi, Carpet Court, Colorbond and Hafele. He also has his own accredited Interior Design course with The Interior Design Institute, and offers his Darren Palmer homewares collection in partnership with Myer. With such achievements, what does Darren consider to be ‘success’ today?
“Balance,” shares Darren. “Success is not about money or accolades or power or position, it’s about putting time into the things and relationships that are really important to you and making sure that by the end of your days, you look back and know that you’ve spent your time well. That’s success.”
Watch Darren on The Block, Sundays at 7pm and Mondays–Wednesdays at 7.30pm, on Nine. Find out more about Darren’s brand collaborations or interior design Masterseries with The Interior Design Institute at darrenpalmer.com.