Interview: Deborah Cullen, Director, Cullen & Royle
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Interview: Deborah Cullen, Director, Cullen & Royle

“We don’t have enough stock to satisfy clients waiting to purchase their escape out of the city.”

By Terry Christodoulou
Thu, Jun 3, 2021 2:16pmGrey Clock 4 min

Deborah Cullen has worked her way through the real estate industry, from boutique agencies and corporate heavy-hitters, to selling Sydney’s finest homes.

However, through 2020’s pandemic, Cullen saw an opportunity to specialise her skillset, partnering with Richard Royle to open a boutique (and luxurious) agency with a renewed focus on rural estates and coastal escapes away from the capital cities.

We caught up to discuss the capital city exodus of COVID and how the second-home market continues to play out.


Kanebridge News: I guess we’ll start at the beginning of your property career – you were a Personal Trainer before, why property?

Deborah Cullen: Fitness and real estate are passions for me. Firstly, real estate – for me it was a love of renovating and styling that made me fall in love with properties. I used to go to inspections, view beautiful homes and get ideas for what current trends were for my own family and future homes.

Working as a fitness coach is all about communication and care, all easily transferrable skills into selling property I think.


KN: In 2020 you launched a new boutique agency – Cullen Royle – what was the catalyst there? What makes it different?


DC: After starting and heading up a prestige team within a large corporate business I saw the opportunity in a COVID affected market to provide a very personalised boutique service and one that focused on family and lifestyle properties rather than one that concentrated on volume and transactions. I

Working together with my business partner Richard Royle, who also came from large corporate background in rural and agribusiness, our work is based on personal referrals and repeat business. We have seen an incredible amount of business come our way since starting Cullen Royle and we feel very honoured and blessed to look after our clients most important and valuable property assets.

Deborah Cullen and Richard Royle.

KN: How is it different selling a rural estate to a waterfront Sydney mansion?

DC: They both can be emotional purchases. Country lifestyle estates are usually driven by family desires to getaway and be together. Waterfront homes are wonderful estates to represent as we see a huge response from our expat database –  but they also usually include the added check list of requirements such as best schools, transport, shopping, entertainment etc. So, it needs to work on many more levels to be a perfect fit.



KN: What about your personal preference, rural or coastal?

DC: That is a tough one but luckily I get to spend time at both for my clients. It is very common for our clients to have a city base, country estate and beach house. I really enjoy the coast myself, but I have to say, wintertime in the country with the fireplaces lit and the glass of red is very hard to beat.


KN: How noticeable was the shift away from the cities to regional pockets of Australia?

DC: It was and still is an amazing shift that gained momentum very quickly. Country and coastal homes were always popular but then when the COVID experience hit us, the desire to be away in nature and fresh air everyday escalated to a new level. It is still there, we don’t have enough stock to satisfy clients waiting to purchase their escape out of the city.”

Olio Mio estate, one of Cullen’s premier listings.


KN: Are prestige buyers still looking to move out of the cities permanently, or is the market returning to those looking for a 2nd home? What’s the split like?

DC: It is very definitely still a split lifestyle between a city base and lifestyle retreat. What we have seen is the city base become the smaller home and the coastal or country home be a larger investment. Those who are moving permanently are doing so to be with family or making it a definite business relocation. Most of our clients want the flexibility to still stay in the city when needed so have a foot in both camps.


KN: What regional areas do you think are growing with popularity now, and which do you see as having potential over the next few years?

DC:  We have seen areas come back to life again that are still an easy drive to big cities. In particular the Hunter Region is now a strong lifestyle draw and has the inclusion of tourism and entertainment on its doorstep. The other area is the South Coast of Sydney, the Blue Mountains and Mudgee regions which continues to draw those from the city out. There is a tremendous amount of luxury stays and farm getaways in these areas that are making people consider these regions as options.


KN: What of the prestige property market as a whole – is it to continue to be as safe and as in demand as ever?

DC: The resilience of the Sydney prestige market in particular has shown continually to be a sound investment. It really comes down to the amount of quality properties being available in blue ribbon areas.  Sydneysiders are driven by the desire to be near the harbour and beaches plus have a stunning country retreat. These quality estates will always attract a discerning audience to assess. We see this continuing for the foreseeable future for sure.


KN: What do you make of the trend of downsizers or rightsizers? Do you think that will continue to grow and perhaps lessen the appeal of a sprawling country estate or coastal home in the future?


DC: Rightsizing is all about finding the right home for a particular time in your life. At the moment, we are seeing an abundance of clients purchasing estates to have the opportunity to share and gather for celebrations and to create precious memories. I don’t think that will change for a while with COVID still being an influence in our lives.

In 2021, luxury estate purchases are now about the experience shared together as a family and the options of where they can do this? Well, that, can be anywhere now. So let us at Cullen Royle do the hunting and find it for you.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”