RAPHAEL HAS a nice smile and a relaxed vibe. I spoke with him at the studio space, School House Studios, he shares with about 50 others in Melbourne’s Abbotsford.

Raphael, an interior architect, has been working out of this space – a converted primary school and, interestingly, his former primary school – since it opened in March 2001. The school has a community garden, complete with chooks.

An interior architect by trade, Raphael juggles this passion – indeed he combines this passion – with his other great loves, community and social projects. He is part of The Social Studio (more about this below) and also teaches a day-and-a-half each week at Melbourne’s RMIT.

His career can’t be defined by any one role and his work is varied and changing. Raphael, who works out of a studio space shared with two others, says it can be a distracting environment. It’s collaborative though and that’s a creative element he thrives on.

Slanted Mansion put a few questions to Raphael to find out more about The Social Studio.

What is The Social Studio?

The Social Studio is a fashion school and a designer clothing label with a café and community space created from the style and skills of the young refugee community. We’re a social enterprise that champions the values of diversity, community, education, environmentally sustainable design and ethical business practices. We help support projects that provide social support, including legal advice, counseling, tutelage, and formal training in clothing production, retail and hospitality.

The project has grown quite substantially since it started in 2009. It was initially based around the fashion label, and has grown from there. It’s always been not-for-profit and the clothing label has funded the enterprise as it has grown.

When did The Social Studio start?

In 2009 Grace McQuilten, project founder, approached me with the idea of a not-for-profit clothing label. She had connected with a few friends in the fashion industry and had previously run a non-for-profit restaurant with a training program attached. Her PhD was ‘Design for social change’.

I was teaching interior design at RMIT and some of the classes had a community-based project element. We began looking into commission flats, and how me might improve quality of life, as well as activating dead urban spaces.

I started with The Social Studio helping with the design and fit out of the studio and more recently, have used my training as an interior architect to help fit out the café.

Professionally what other areas have you worked in?

I have worked in interior and graphic design, I’ve worked in restaurants as a cook, as a builder’s lackey and I’m always either engaged in, or on the look-out for a new creative project.

At the moment I have just finished some black and white photography still lifes for a book. I’ve also been working on a video, produced by the Victorian College of the Arts, that will highlight the benefits of artists working with community groups.

Has your involvement with The Social Studio helped create other opportunities for you?

Yeah, absolutely. I worked and volunteered at The Social Studio for several years. It was humbling and everyday was an intense learning experience in every aspect of my life.

Opportunities always arrive and I’ve never applied for a job in my whole life. I don’t have a CV or a portfolio. I find socialising, exhibitions and meeting people through collaborations and others projects always leads somewhere inspirational. Many of the roles I have never had any background in. Like working as an art director at a film and publishing company for three and a half years. I don’t usually have the appropriate qualification but I’m also not scared to throw myself into something, pretend I know what I’m doing and learn along the way!

What attracts you to this community-focused work style?

I have a hands on approach to work. It’s an opportunity to be directly involved and learn from what you are doing. I always take the do-it-your-self approach to the projects I am involved in.

Where did you grow up?

I have lived in Melbourne my entire life, just shifting suburbs. There is a terrific place out there called Montsalvat. My father helped build it; it’s in the French Gothic style of architecture and was built in the 1940s. A mad bunch of artists got together – my grandparents included – and built a village. My father was a sculptor and jeweler. My mother is also a jeweler and built three of the homes I lived in growing up. I guess this idea of creating spaces for people has been something I’ve grown up with.

What is your next project?

Not sure. I’m focusing on teaching first year design at RMIT which I haven’t done before. It’s actually quite full on, but very rewarding. It’s a bit like being a student again, having these great discussions about design, with a lot of people. It’s really stimulating; I get really energised after a day of teaching. I’m currently working a day-and-a-half a week. This set-up means I can do my other work and also support myself.

You’ve just returned from Vietnam? What were you doing over there?

I took 14 students over to Vietnam and we fitted out a café for a school of 400 children with autism.  The school, The Morning star, does great work and the café raises money for it.  Through my work with The Social Studio and RMIT, we worked on a partnership with The Morning Star and fundraised to go over to fit out their café.

It was a really great experience. We had an extremely small budget but we were able to find local fabricators, steel workers and electricians which helped achieve a lot cheaply.

How long did it take you from start to finish?

We spent a week trying to get to know Hanoi, The Morning Star and to work on the design. Then we had a week to install it all.

You raised the money before you left, without even knowing what you were going to build?

Yeah, there were no plans before we left as we only had a few rough photographs to go on. The main problem for us was we couldn’t just go in and design a Melbourne style café. If we did that, we ran the risk of losing the business’ regular customers. The first thing we had to do, being foreigners, was understand the culture and how they use a café and how this type of business operates in Vietnam.

Raphael has also cheaply fitted out the studio space from which he currently works. He has salvaged cricket nets and wooden stump seats from another job, and created a little platform in the middle which is handy for storage underneath, yet also provides a common space for meetings and collaborations. The space had a fun vibe and you could really imagine having quite a party there. Events are often held at the school, including a party attended by about 500 people, exhibitions, markets and even a wedding.

Raphael fits right in. It seemed the logical place for a truly dynamic and experimental creative.

The Social Studio café. Complete with a Felice Varini inspired red oval.A class Raphael taught at RMIT Interior Design called '(un)homely'
The Pirate Radio Tower. Raphael helped with everything from designing to painting on this cool project: pirateradiotower.com