Design and the Decorative Arts represent the very essence of our culture, its attitudes and philosophies its fashions and passions.
Today there are many publications people can look to if they are planning inspired and original interior decoration. And, with a dash of savoir-faire you can push the boundaries of design and composition in many different ways and employ all types of styles. Fabrics like Toiles de Jouy; French printed cottons are once again coming back into vogue. When they were first the rage in 1770 Jean Francois Bimont wrote that they ‘serve to make furnishings of taste convenient and pleasant to the eye’. Such a lovely phrase.
When I went into business for myself as a practicing interior designer in the 80’s in Australia, it was the culmination of a dream that began as a child. At Authentic Decor what was available to purchase on the Australian market was significant in being able to render interiors that were both comfortable and convenient. The world was expanding, the dollar doing well against other currencies, and Europe and England a mecca for making cost effective purchases.
Long will I remember the time that I was in London and Europe when an Australian dollar = an English pound. It enabled me to purchase, some very special pieces including a lovely small antique Edwardian lounge, to be used to great effect in a bay window of a Paddington terrace I was renovating at the time. Then there was a handsome pair of late Regency early Victorian Chesterfields with a serpentine shaped front. They were found in an old barn at Tring, a small market town in Hertfordshire.
The dealer was John Bly, one of the original presenters of the Antiques Roadshow. Covered in a heavy black faille, which is a finely ribbed woven fabric made from cotton and silk or manufactured fibres, they were shipped to Australia for the same price as an equivalent quality modern lounge suite would cost here at the time. Another purchase was a fine antique tea table of satinwood from Martyn Cook Antiques, which was superb in both its colour and patina aa was a superb gilded French clock. All such lovely things.
Attention to detail, quality and imagination are good starting points if you are passionate about where you live and work and want your space to reflect who you are, and what you are on about. My interiors must be design convenient and aesthetically enriching. How to plan a living environment has certainly been integral to my life’s journey. Books are an important aspect of any room that I personally work or live in. Without them my life’s journey would have been very different indeed. There is nothing more inspiring than a great wall of knowledge, especially when it is combined with wonderful textiles chosen for their varying tactile and graphic qualities.
I particularly love unexpected colour combinations and beautifully woven fabrics. Weavers during the Middle Ages, early Renaissance in Italy and seventeenth century France and England imbued their work skilfully with crispness and abundant detail. Tapestries particularly have a wonderful depth of tone, richness of colour and exquisite gradations of tint and as such can add richness to a room whether its architectural style is traditional or contemporary.
As my mother liked to recollect in later years, re-arranging the Federation flat our family lived in during my childhood was about trying to create more space and give everything and everybody living in it a little boost. This happened often during my teenage years. It was always about the shapes, the atmosphere and how the main living area could be changed dramatically by arranging different layouts with the existing furniture and furnishings. Change for the family was as good as a holiday.
Resources were always limited as there was seven children with twenty years between first and last and all brought up on one salary, at least until I was in my teens. When I commenced working for a building firm during the early sixties at Sydney the architect/estimator became a very special mentor and teacher. The firm sent me to complete a diploma in interior decoration, the only qualification possible at the time because in 1962 university courses were still a way off.
Three years of on the job practical experience helped me to put my best foot forward, increasing my colour sense and technical knowledge. The firm was renovating a great many turn of the twentieth century grand old houses on the eastern suburbs waterfront at the time and visits to job sites were daily occurrences, a practice I kept up throughout my own working life.
They were fabulous architectural spaces, which were all receiving a much need face lift and having bathrooms and ‘family rooms’ added, to bring them up to date with overseas trends. At the time my role included typing up the specifications for the fit out and helping with the costings. I was the personal assistant to the architect, who estimated the cost of jobs in those days right down to the nails and battens used in every wall in every room. He took each room apart bit by bit to ensure that he didn’t forget to cost anything.
The firm prided themselves on never charging clients for one extra thing once the job had been quoted. This was invaluable experience for me in later years when renovating houses for my own family, and others. The budget was the budget, accurate and complete. And, we did not start until it was complete. A 15% contingency was always a must, to allow for unforeseen calamities. When the firm could return that to the client unused, well we knew we were doing our job properly.
Gaining a wide-ranging group of experiences by working with, and coordinating many different trades on the job, was of enormous help. Having two brothers-in-law in the industry was also an advantage. One was a plasterer and the other worked for one of the biggest textile distributor firms in Australia. Learning about different types of cement render and how long they needed to cure was valuable information, especially as I was on job sites on a daily basis with the architect/estimator. He also helped to grow my knowledge about how each trade needed to be managed, to save both time and costs.
When I did take on my first professional client, during the initial consultation a huge saving made to the layout was only possible because of the invaluable experience gained by working with the trades for over ten years on many different types of development sites. Once I started taking on projects of my own, working on renovations for an investment consortium meant happy times.
Most of these were period blocks of flats in and around the eastern suburbs beach area where I grew up. We would tidy them up, fix missing architectural details (lost picture rails and the like) and upgrade the facilities (kitchens and bathrooms) then paint and sell them on. In the 70’s it was possible to make good profits doing this, and the results were always pleasing for all involved.
Space saving was always high on my agenda, having lived in a flat for my whole life. Creating a lot out of nothing was another skill, developed through years of helping my mother find ways of scrimping and saving to purchase a few yards of material to brighten our flat.
Just love a flat, which is very different to an apartment in that it has a back door, just like a house. So it was easy for my brother and I to fantasize as kids that we lived in one. The back door usually led to a fire escape, or if you were on the ground floor as we were, to a service yard of some description. Today renovated heritage flats are high on many people’s lists because of their high ceilings, architectural detail and those lovely back doors.
Attending a brush up course for old decorators in the late eighties at London’s Inchbald School of Design was illuminating, as so many new technologies were upgrading their standards. Massive changes in types of lighting and allowances for computers in the home were now important. The history of design being taught was also an invaluable tool to aid designers working on buildings based on heritage styles.
The Inchbald School of Design in the 21st century has now become one of the most influential interior design schools in the world. Being taught by, meeting and dining with legendary designer Michael Inchbald at his home was a rare treat. He had long been high on one of my most admired designers.
At his charming London home a tiny octagonal library with books to the ceiling had been fashioned from an old laundry, cupboard and toilet being re-located. He used mirrors very cleverly too, with great subtlety and charm. Reflections that went off into infinity. The dinner there with some of the teachers from the Inchbald, and a few friends was one of the special experiences of my life as they all had such a wealth of knowledge to share.
It has always been important for me to attain a fine balance between traditional and contemporary design, especially when clients request that service. However many clients insisted on attaching secrecy clauses to the contracts, so showcasing any of those I was working on was often difficult. They did however enjoy the fact that I didn’t sweep in and want to clear everything away and start again.
In the interests of the environment, dispersing quality pieces or objects goes against my grain, especially if they can be recycled to another purpose. When buying furniture and the other necessary accoutrement’s of life, flexibility of use is important.
Having a personal passion for antiques and art led to my gaining further qualifications in the decorative arts and design history, which added another dimension to my interior design and lecturing experiences. Working within the antiques industry as a dealer added yet another layer of information and expertise.
A one year course in the archaeology of ancient Greece and Rome at Sydney University was an indulgence I treasured. This came about because I had always loved the whole idea of going on a dig from extensive reading in childhood. I was also on a committee for years raising funds for the university treasure, The Nicholson Museum. This is where I met a friend who encouraged and supported my later efforts to found an academy teaching, among other things the history of design in architecture, interiors and gardens and how to design and complete interiors.
When we were adding furnishings to any house for a client I used to love hunting about for, and finding old ‘case’ furniture that would serve as a wardrobe in one house, a container for cups and saucers in another, or clothes in yet another. It was a friend who called me a second hand rose, a lovely term of endearment. This was because, apart from towels and fitted bottom sheets for the bed (what a wonderful invention they were) nearly everything else I ever purchased for my home during my adult life was second-hand.
Choosing quality, so it that could be sold if not required any more or when times were tough, was always a goal. That mindset comes from living through and experiencing first hand the rationing to riches phase following World War II. A lovely example is a folding screen.
Now screens are generally not something used by designers or decorators much in Australian interiors. In my lifetime I have owned two, one an early nineteenth century antique Chinese screen beautifully decorated on both sides with quite fine enameled work which is now sold. The other was a dusky old English Victorian model with painted decoration. Interestingly, this was the one other people around me always coveted the most and the one I love and have kept close, despite it weighing a ton.
To my mind its simple really, nothing too flash about it and it didn’t cost more than a hundred dollars at the time. Painted with a black background it has five leaves, hinged to go both ways. It is evident to me however that someone poured their heart and soul into rendering the painted flowers upon it, all of which were popular plants in gardens at the time. The flowers are beautifully rendered by hand and scattered and strewn delightfully across the top third of its surface. They provide an air of gentleness and relaxed harmony to any room, whether modern or traditional.
In the time I have owned this screen it has been a room divider, disposed in a corner to hide storage boxes, used as a dressing room screen and at present, with two leaves folded back, it has become a delightful bed head. For me it is one of the special ‘things’ I hope that I will enjoy until the end of my days.
Just love the way experienced architects, prior to World War II endeavoured to have main rooms facing north east in Australia, to catch the breezes, to minimize the sun in summer and to maximize it in winter.
When I lived in ‘The Turret’ of St Martin’s House at Brisbane, nearby St John’s Cathedral, the apartment faced north east and had casement windows. It was a truly delightful place to be, full of light and fresh breezes and in the five and a half years I lived there I never needed to use a heater once in winter. The afternoon sun was just low enough in the sky to penetrate the main living areas and warm up the thick walls so that it was warm all night.
Planning living spaces should be about enhancing the joy of life. As it should, the architecture of any space will dictate some of the terms when deciding how to complete your interior. It is always good to remember to be bold and to take risks. Large pieces of furniture can work well in small spaces as do rows of bookcases. Many people would shy away from using a large tapestry in a small space. Not me, I just love covering a whole wall with one, as I have in my current daily working environment.
There are no boundaries and no rules really when it comes to designing interiors, only guidelines that should always remain both flexible and practical. And, if it is for yourself, then its decoration must come from the heart.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012