The commission to re-dress this boom time Victorian “palazzo”, in a quiet patch in the South East of Melbourne, came with considerable historical baggage. Or so recalls the property’s co- owner, a media-shy, buoyant brunette whose fundraising activities swing from state opera companies to off shore orphanages (read: her home is the stage for charity spectaculars). First, there was the design provenance, she informs, showing a bronzed Heritage Victoria plaque that dates the classic Italianate structure back to 1857 and the office of Lloyd Tayler – co-architect of South Australia’s Houses of Parliament.
Secondly, there was the pre existing relationship with project designer Iain Halliday, the Sydney based Director of BKH, who had previously styled her family into “fabulous Sydney apartment’s”. And thirdly, she whispers with mock mortification as she unpacks the last bit of salacious baggage, there was the murder. Giving details of the grisly death of a former owner, she dismisses any question of a problematic poltergeist with the comment that, “If he’s still here, he must be happy, because I’ve heard no complaints.”
She henceforth refers to herself as “the client”, conceding that when the “beiged-out” mansion was bought back in 2012, a solo start was made on the interiors. “But I couldn’t resolve the overall theme,” she says of her attempts to marry glamour, adventure, eclecticism, hospitality and family needs into the six bedroom spread. “It had the potential to degenerate into a gigantic circus and it started to go wrong.”
Halliday, who is within earshot in the front salon, follows her admission with the rebuke: “You did start without me.” She laughs, decrying the eager dabbling, before Halliday presents at her office doorway to assure that high Victorian houses can handle Kelly Wearstler. “Nothing went wrong at all; we found our feet in the end, didn’t we?” he says rhetorically, as he rearranges pieces in a library filled with rose inflected leopard print, carved Louis legs and lots of Asiatic ceramics. “We just jumped in..but where’s the Tizio lamp that should be on this desk?”
Notorious for his pedantry with the right object pairings against the perfect tint of paint, Halliday is of the belief that politeness is the poison of collaboration, which is not to say that he is rude. Rather, “that he just goes silent when he thinks something is wrong,” says the client, recalling a shopping trip to New York showroom, in which Halliday maneuvered her away from Murano chandeliers to the Sputniks now sparkling over the dining room’s 16 seat table. “When Iain said we are painting the wall in Olive Bark, I went berserk. There is no way we can have khaki, but again with the silence. That green was one of the best decisions in this house – everything flowed from there.”
Riffing on the ‘new rich’ of the architecture’s gold-rush era in a dining room best described as ‘lush’, Halliday counterpointed chinoiserie screens with a stretch of expressively grained marble table, made to deconstruct into three by BKH collaborator Dominic Borello. He colored the space in a complex patter of green- given full abstract expression in Dale Frank paintings – adding depth with dark stained timbers, vintage scones and Venetian torcheres (found at 1st Dibs). Where the neighboring salon had suffered a stripping of Victorian detail, Halliday reinstated the room’s original function as a platform for high society, but with a 21st century spin.
A dado line was installed to regulate the spread of gold moiré wallpaper and establish a ‘white sky’. Couture cut taffeta curtains were reined in with silk tassels and an anchoring velvet sofa was made Seville-orange spectacular by Graham Geddes. The resultant formality was lent a Fellini-esque edge with the addition of Shaun Gladwell’s video art – a slow motion loop of a fire breathing biker writhing in water.
“ We just had the Victorian Opera here for a private dinner” says the client, recounting a full-belt soprano shaking the salon to its molded ceiling. “No microphone, just the director of the opera accompanying on the piano”. It sounds like a Singer Sargent scene, says Halliday, likening the society gathering to the art of the late- Victorian realist. But of course, it all has to work for family, says the client, as she steers us into a kitchen that could double as a brasserie. “I had this idea for a café – somewhere you could sit, drink coffee, casually dine, or just sprawl along the counter while someone cooks,” she says. “The house is far too fabulous not to be fully shared.”
Her generosity expresses itself in a long built in leather banquette and two 13 shade Murano chandeliers that set new ornamental standards for task lighting. But circling back to history and the chapter now being writ, Halliday reminds that revolutions always give rise to a full blown aestheticism. “The house was never going to be about minimalism,” he says, conceding to the character of the architecture and its owner, “more an unbridled eclecticism.” VL