Lunch with Peter Maddison

The host of Grand Designs Australia has survived his own domestic nightmares and is spreading the word on good design, writes Karl Quinn.

The host of Grand Designs Australia has survived his own domestic nightmares and is spreading the word on good design, writes Karl Quinn.

PETER Maddison knows better than most that the Australian dream can become a nightmare, which may explain why he's so empathetic as host of Grand Designs Australia.

As an architect with his own boutique practice, there's no doubt he gets houses. But it's his hard-won understanding of the human side of the equation that really informs his take on the domestic fantasy.

In the 1980s, he bought a rundown house near the Dog's Bar in St Kilda, renovated and flipped it. ''I did very well,'' he says. ''So the logical next step was to move on to something a bit more ambitious.''

On Robe Street, then still a hot spot for St Kilda's street crawlers, he found a former nursing home ripe for a makeover. It was 1989, the market was booming and interest rates were 11 per cent.

''I paid a fortune for it and slaved on it for three years and then interest rates went to 18 per cent and I was working for the banks so I had to sell it,'' he says. ''I lost a quarter of a million dollars after working my arse off. It just about brought me undone.''

The toll wasn't only financial, he confesses during lunch at a footpath table at Grossi Florentino's Cellar Bar on Bourke Street, a strip of the city he's frequented since his student days at RMIT 30-odd years ago. ''It was heartbreaking. Emotionally, it took me about 10 years to recover.'' Still, he says, ''I'm very grateful for that experience, actually ? it's made me a lot tougher.''

Not that tough is the first word to spring to mind when you meet Maddison. At 58, he's wiry, energetic, gregarious - three times during lunch he jumps up to say hello to passing friends - and he's bristling with optimism about the ways good design can influence people's lives for the better.

And now - almost unbelievably - he's been given an opportunity to spread that message far and wide through Grand Designs Australia.

''I like to think this show gives me the opportunity to help people in their day-to-day life,'' he says. ''I think I can subtly inform people about a better way of living, and save them a lot of money perhaps, and help direct Australia's aspirations about the biggest thing they do in life. And that's much more than I can achieve in my little South Melbourne practice.''

He doesn't choose the houses on the show - the producers whittle down the 1000 or so applicants to about 15, of which 10 make it to air - but he insists he won't ever bag them, even if they're a million miles from his own preferences (Maddison lives in a 1960s house in Brighton and readily admits he loathes the neo-Georgian mansions that dot the suburb).

''I try to impart some knowledge, be really excited about the things I think are important and less excited about the things I disagree with,'' he says. ''But I can never be 100 per cent right. I can question and prod and poke but it would be short-sighted of me to say, 'You're doing the wrong thing, you should change direction.'''

After 20 minutes of chat, our meals arrive: I've ordered the daily special, a lovely rich dish of braised beef in a red-wine sauce on mashed potato. He's plumped for his regular, the pumpkin tortellini.

''I'm a bit of a vego,'' he says. ''Not dogmatic - I'll eat chicken occasionally, fish - but I don't go for the big steak.''

He turned about 18 months ago, after his three children - aged 19 to 23 - announced they were giving up meat. ''I lost weight instantly, I feel lighter, more nimble, better in tight corners,'' he says. ''Being an architect, you've got to be quick on your feet. You've got to be able to duck the incoming punches.''

As it happens, he's not speaking entirely metaphorically. In his St Kilda days, he got into a scrape with his neighbour. ''He was drunk, forced his way in, tried to take down the girl I was living with at the time.'' Maddison had been about to go for a jog but instead found himself wrestling in the street. Somehow, the intruder managed to rip off the running shorts he had on. ''So I was absolutely starkers except for my runners,'' he says, laughing at the recollection. ''The police were called and they blocked off both ends of the street. They thought I was some sort of exhibitionist.''

He doesn't get much time to visit St Kilda these days. In the past 12 months, he's taken 100 flights and seen parts of Australia he would never have visited otherwise, met incredible people and had unique experiences that sometimes make him ''feel like Superman''.

He splits his time equally between his practice and the show, something he can only do because he has a core team of people who have been with him a decade or more and can carry it in his absence. ''If I didn't have that backbone there I couldn't have the business,'' he says. It's an exhausting double life, though. ''There's a lot of lonely nights in hotels,'' he says. ''I'm away from my family a lot and that's a risk. You don't want to risk your relationship over a job, do you?''

He often wonders if he's taken on too much but then in comes another offer - to speak at an awards night, to open a design showroom, to address the potential residents of a new development on the value of good design - and the evangelist in him can't say no.

''I get asked to do these things and I think, 'I've got to engage in that','' he says. ''It's a golden time.''

He signed on for three seasons of the show; having just wrapped season two, he says he'd probably sign on for more. Might there come a time when he chooses the TV work over actual architecture?

''Architecture is in my DNA and it would be a big commitment to say I'm never going to practise again,'' he says. ''But being a media person is a lot easier than being an architect, let me tell you.

''Architecture is so broad and everyone expects you to be perfect in everything. The big secret is we're not. We're only human.''

?Grand Designs Australia is on the LifeStyle Channel, Thursdays at 8.30pm.

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