Her name is on the door at one of Australia’s biggest architectural firms. But it’s in another pocket of property that Zahava Elenberg has really made her mark.
Elenberg is turning 50 this year and the highly successful business that she “kind of fell into” turns 21. But the architect-turned designer pulls no punches. She says it is a privilege to age and she intends on celebrating the milestone.
She founded Elenberg Fraser in 1998 with Callum Fraser at the tender age of 24, but says moving into the furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) space was where she found her niche.
In 2002 she and a friend were asked to do a furniture fitout of a project in Docklands back when it was “emerging out of the scum of the Yarra”.
“The budget they gave us was ridiculous, there was no way we could do a fitout with that. But I like a challenge,” she says.
From that experience the seed of an idea germinated and Move-in was born. Elenberg says it is impossible to count how many spaces they have fitted out over the years but says it’s “tens of thousands” of apartments, about 5000 student accommodation rooms, ski resorts in New Zealand and hotels all around the world.
The FF&E business was the first of its kind, with a focus on Australian-made products, good design, and a vision for shaping the world we live in.
“If you tip a building upside down and shake out all the things we put inside them, they’re what makes the lived experience. Nobody notices if you use a cheaper paint or a lesser tap fitting. But if you put an uncomfortable bed in a hotel that will be remembered.
“When I started the business, nobody knew what FF&E was. It’s a specialist area like any consultancy but it dictates the way a place feels. It’s not just about putting products in a room and ordering 20 TVs. It’s that emotional connection you have with a space or a place. We straddle that place between design and commercial reality.
“It’s a comprehensive end-to-end solution for design, manufacturing, procurement and logistics, and we don’t want it to be an afterthought that is value-managed out of a project. It is critical.”
Elenberg says in the beginning they would design and make furniture and fittings and provide furniture packages but they have moved away from that now.
“In our early days we were working with developers managing their risk to fit out fully furnished apartments. They would get better yields having fully furnished properties.
“Over time we just moved with the market.”
Moving with the times included major hotel fitouts across Asia, including Vietnam and Malaysia, and the establishment of an office in the Middle East, which closed in 2008 as Elenberg juggled motherhood and a multi-national business.
While Australian projects across the eastern seaboard are the major focus for Move-in now, Elenberg says it’s “extraordinary” what she and her small team based in Melbourne’s Fitzroy are achieving.
Elenberg’s team includes designers and logistics experts, which she believes sets them apart from others in the burgeoning industry.
Circular economy is something that is on Elenberg’s radar as she looks to the future of the industry. Move-in recently inked a deal with You Matter, a support service, which helps to fit out properties for women fleeing domestic violence.
Elenberg says they strategically over-order for projects and the surplus sits in a warehouse until warranty is done. She says this program enables them to divert products from landfill.
“There’s lots of people out there in need and then there’s lots of land fill,” she says.
“Circular economy is something that we are constantly thinking about in our space. We just donated nearly 400 products at the beginning of this year.”
They also look to adopt products that can have a second life when they cycle out of hotels and other spaces.
“We try to choose high-quality products so we know where they have come from and how they can have a second life, whether that’s through recycling or repurposing,” she says.
“We like to give our clients the option to buy locally and there has been a shift towards it because the prices of products have increased and the shipping costs have blown out significantly.
“Even if it’s not everything, but a few pieces, it is supporting local manufacturers and businesses.”
Elenberg says the purpose-built student accommodation developers were the most proactive in supporting local designers and sustainability initiatives.
“It’s a really interesting market, they’re game-changing leaders in that space. They have a big focus on design and fit out of big communal spaces in their developments and are commissioning artists to create pieces for their developments.
“The common spaces and areas are where life happens and there’s a lot of thought that goes into that. No longer are they cheaply priced prison cells.”
Elenberg says the blossoming build-to-rent market was a growth area for Move-in and also had a vested interest in quality fit outs.
Reflecting on 21 years of business Elenberg says while the colour schemes and fashions have shifted significantly, the drive to create beautiful, liveable spaces and help developers to bring their vision to life was what continued to drive her.
“I want Move-in to be synonymous with great FF&E and amazing spaces.”
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