So much was right when Melbourne couple Briony and Andrew Ryan first walked into their imposing Victorian house. The house had wonderful bones; it was elegant, airy and graceful with high ceilings, marble fireplaces, substantial mouldings and frankly grand proportions.
That grandeur was also where the fit wasn’t altogether comfortable. For a young and unpretentious couple, the painted ceilings, swagged curtains and thick carpets were beautiful but just too formal, too proper, too much. “Our parents walked in and said, ‘Why would you change it?’, Briony laughs, “and that was enough to make us sure we wanted to change it.” Says Paul Hecker of interior designers Hecker Guthrie, the house was simply too old for the Ryans.
They’re not, particularly with a rambunctious dog then and the same dog plus a full-throttle toddler, Gretchen, now. That said, the Ryans thoroughly admired the house’s architectural attributes. From the beginning, changes were never intended to detract from what had appealed to them in the first place. Instead, they wanted to remove embellishments and introduce a fresh and youthful simplicity throughout. “This was very much about paring back the house to its bare bones and then putting lovely things inside it,” says Hecker.
Having spent time in Denmark, the couple empathised with the Scandinavian aesthetic, with its clean lines and hushed hues. To establish that sensibility in their own space, Hecker Guthrie first exposed and then limed and waxed the original pine floorboards. This reduced the pine’s yellowness, and the floors now underscore the calm breeziness of walls painted white everywhere except in the study, where a slightly deeper shade provides a contrast for the adjoining sitting and dining areas.
Windows were freed from heavy curtains and are now either barely shaded by falls of unbacked linen or left uncovered to welcome the streaming natural light that sets this freestanding Victorian apart from many of its contemporaries. Structural changes were largely limited to the kitchen area, where a solid wall at the end of the main hallway was replaced by glass panes that allow a visual flow between the front of the house, the kitchen and a large family room beyond.
Steel glazing bars in this wall and in the double doors to the family room pick up on judiciously introduced steel elsewhere, in curtain rods, the occasional pendant light and in a remarkably contemporary looking extractor fan made of Georgian safety glass. Granite used for benchtops was etched with acid for a ‘leather touch’ effect, while handmade ceramic splashback tiles are washed by light from an existing light well.
All cupboards, designed in limed oak by Hecker Guthrie, were made to appear more as furniture than joinery.Also combining a mix of vintage and contemporary pieces, the Ryans have been adding furniture only as each piece has felt right. It’s a brave approach, says Hecker. “You can’t look at something and say, ‘Well, I bought it from X so it must be good.’”