Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Long Overdue Note To My Extraordinary Mother

I'd like you to meet my mother. It's her birthday next week. She says she doesn't want anything for a present, but she says this every year. (In fact, she's so frugal that some years she returns birthday cards to me – which I've given her in the past – just so I can give them BACK to her to save money!)

Anyhow, I've been thinking about what to get her. What do you get the woman who has everything? We encounter this problem every year. So I've decided I'm going to write her a letter. A thank you letter, for being a truly extraordinary mother.

I'd like you to meet her.

My parents are not like normal parents. Don't let the cute photo on the Île Saint-Louis fool you. They're what you'd call Extreme Adventurers. One journalist wrote that they like to take the Department of Foreign Affairs warnings and create travel itineraries out of them. It's not quite right, but it's not far off the mark.

In the last two decades they've travelled through two wars, a tornado and a cyclone, and narrowly missed perishing aboard a sinking ferry on freezing Lake Titicaca. (The highest lake in the world.) They've gone fishing for Anacondas up the Amazon, eaten guinea pigs with the locals in some remote village in Peru, stuck their noses over Iguazu Falls, travelled through Alaska aboard a tiny Sessna, traversed the villages of the Arctic Circle, wandered around the bottom of Patagonia, wandered a bit more around the wilds of Argentina, spent some time absorbing the culture of the Spice Islands, recovered in the Seychelles, gone trekking in Africa and criss-crossed the Outback more times than the rest of our family have had cups of tea. About the tamest trip they've done is Maine (above). Where they ate a lobster that wasn't quite cooked.

Once, I met Dick Smith's daughter at her beautiful hotel, Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island. Curious, I asked her if she'd ever been worried that her father wouldn't come home. (We'd just had dinner together and she'd been regaling me with stories of his adventures.) "Oh YES!" she said laughing. "Every time he steps out the door!" I was pleased to hear I wasn't the only one. When normal parents get bored, they go out for a meal at the local RSL. When my parents get bored, they grab a flight to Mozambique.

Now, I've had the privilege of travelling with them several times but I can tell you it's not easy. For a start, they're both former school principals, so it's a little like travelling with, well, former school principals. We travelled through the US a few years ago and I felt like I had to write an essay at the end of every day. We also travelled through France and it ended up in an almighty fight in Versailles. (I walked off in a huff, crying silent tears, and then heard my suitcase wheels breaking on the cobblestones. I had to laugh, in spite of my bad mood!)

The thing is, having parents like this – having a mother like her (and she instigates these incredible adventures, not my father) is a real privilege. It's like having two David Attenboroughs in your living room. All the time. I can ask my mother just about anything and she knows the answer. Sometimes it's frustrating. Most of the time it's incredibly helpful.

My mother and I have had a lot of fights over the years, as most mothers and daughters do. But she is always – always – the first to say sorry. And that small gesture shows just how gracious and kind – and how great – she is. {Top photo is in the back seat of my father's beloved '66 Mustang. Not sure what they were doing back there?}

Mum, I do love you. You're smart, funny, witty, kind, and still correct my grammar. Plus, you've been to more places than anyone I know. How could I not be in awe?

Have a wonderful, wonderful birthday.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Inspiring Lives: The Tylers, India Hicks & Harbour Island

A few years ago, I had to fly to a tiny out island in the Bahamas for a photo shoot – one of those rare work treats you get to experience once in a lifetime if you're lucky. Unfortunately, the journey took longer than the photo shoot. Caught in a small hurricane, I had to hole up in Nassau hotel for 4 days until the palm trees were vertical again. Then I got on the wrong ferry and ended up in the Bermuda Triangle somewhere. Two ferries and 48 hours later, I finally landed, staggering like Tom Cruise in Castaway, onto Harbour Island.

This is what I saw.

I was as transfixed as Lady Gaga in a sequins store. After a week of hell,  a swim in a serene sea, a hefty cocktail, and a couple of nights of calm, Hurricane-free sleep were all I could think of. Thankfully, my new friend, Toby Tyler,  happily obliged.

Toby, you see, is part-owner, with his wife and mother-in-law, Ms Brenda Barry, of The Landing (above), an incredibly beautiful boutique hideaway with an huge international reputation.

He's a Australian, a former Sydney restaurateur. His wife, Tracy Barry, is Bahamian, a former New York model. They met at a dinner party in Sydney. Or a blind date? I can't remember but they disliked each other at first. Toby introduced himself by telling a sob story about his life and business. Ever the cheeky wit, Tracy casually replied: "Well top this–" and proceeded to trump him with a truly worthy tale about getting divorced and losing all the international property she and her Brazilian husband had collated in the settlement. She only thing she received, she said, was a small hotel on an even smaller place called Harbour Island.

Impressed by her sad narrative, they bonded. A few days later, they fell in love. Aint sob stories grand?

A few months later, they travelled to this small island to inspect this small hotel. (They had the children later. They're highly productive hoteliers, but not that productive!)

Their original plan had been to sell the hotel, but when they travelled to the island to assess the property and found themselves standing in front of two of the most architecturally significant buildings in the Bahamas, on an island that was arguably the prettiest in the greater Caribbean, they decided to put down their bags and stay.

As Toby says: “I fell in love twice; once with my wife, and then with her island.”

With typical Aussie enthusiasm – and a lot of Bahamian beer – they set about restoring the two buildings: an 1820 plantation-style house, built by the first doctor on the island, and a neighbouring 1820 property called The Captain’s House, which is just as gracious. They also got around to getting married. Then, at 8AM on September 14th, 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit. The 155mph winds tore the building apart again. A quarter of the island's extraordinary architecture, including The Landing, was destroyed. The Tylers were heartbroken. Fortunately, the bones of their buildings were still standing, even if the roofs weren't, so they deliberated the way forward.

Enter India Hicks, daughter of famed London designer David Hicks, and granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten. She offered to help rebuild The Landing, if they would accept it. Together, the Tylers, India and her partner David Flint-Wood, set to work bringing The Landing back to life.

The Tylers' new venture, a stylish hotel and restaurant with the feel of a welcoming, colonial-style island home was so different from anything else in the Bahamas, it attracted guests right from the start. Although their children, as most island kids are, were fairly blase about the celebrity factor.

It also helped that Harbour Island is one of the most idyllic destinations you can imagine. Think of the charm and clapboard prettiness of New England's architecture crossed with the pastel colours of the Caribbean, then throw in an extraordinarily beautiful pink beach, a charming bustling harbour, a lot of eccentric but marvellous (and astonishingly good-looking) locals, and a culture that's part colonial British and part Bahamian, and then wrap it up in an island that's only a few miles long. The place is enchanting. No wonder people like India Hicks live there.

Since then, the Tylers have raised four children, seen hundreds of thousands of guests pass happily through their restaurant and rooms, chatted to the likes of Bette Midler and Mick Jagger, (Mick's a regular), and received an invitation from Richard Gere to design one of his restaurants. Which they graciously did.

They've also had a few parties, had a few more, made some rum (Afrohead; a great label), laughed a whole lot, and generally had the kind of life we all dream about.

So where does this story lead? Well, when I first stepped foot on this place, bedraggled, hurricane-weary and five days behind in my work schedule, my first thought was: This would make a beautiful book. It was such an inspirational story. The first date. The hurricane heartbreak. The love. And when journalists hear wonderful stories, their noses twitch with excitement like Jack Russells on the scent of a rabbit. I knew then I would do everything I could to orchestrate a book on this beautiful family, and this idyllic place. It was a story that needed to be told.

Five years later, we're getting close. We're now in the process of creating an extraordinary book. An extraordinary book about an extraordinary couple.

Now the Tylers don't need anything in their lives. They have everything. But what they do need is to be recognised. Celebrated. Applauded and cheered with rum-filled drinks. And I will do everything I can to ensure that happens.

(If you're lucky, you can grab a $200 return flight from New York to Nassau. From there's it's only a short ferry ride. And the prices are so reasonable, you can easily stay a week!) {Party and family photos by Cookie Kinkead or Tracy Barry, via Tracy Barry. All architecture images by me.}

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kit Kemp's New Project (A Book, Not A Hotel)

I was thrilled to read in London's Financial Times yesterday that hotelier Kit Kemp is working on a new project. It's not another hotel this time, but a book. Apparently Ms Kit is collating all her spaces – and her style and design knowledge – into a smartly bound tome, which will no doubt be as beautiful as her hotel suites.

Kit and her husband Tim are the minds (and design hands) behind some of London's most beautiful boutique hotels, including Charlotte Street, Covent Garden (image at very top), Number Sixteen in South Kensington (my favourite), the Haymarket, and Crosby Street in New York directly above). Kit's aesthetic is one part English traditional and one part bold exuberance, the latter no doubt influenced by the English love of eccentricity and mismatching elements. Her style is always different (no hotel looks the same), but her signature elements are colour, pattern and ravishing femininity. With a touch of whimsy on top.

There are also elements of surprise, and this, too, could be seen to be part of the Firmdale signature. For example, the Haymarket Hotel has rooms dressed in sugar pink and lime green. While the Covent Garden Hotel features full-size mannequins in every room – a nod to the tailoring heritage of the neighbourhood. {Image above via Elle Decor; rest via Firmdale Hotels}

Firmdale hotels are some of the most loved in the design industry (interior designers often stay there; the rowdier media crowd prefer Nick Jones' Soho House hideaways), so it will be interesting to see if her book is a compendium of all that is loved about these whimsical and wonderful spaces.

Hardie Grant, an Australian-based publishing company with a branch in London, commissioned the project; kudos to the them. The book, A Living Space, is out in October 2012. Here's Kit working madly on the layout in time for the October publication. {Via Hardie Grant's tumblr/FB} I certainly know what that panic is like! I'm actually surprised there hasn't been more media or blog exposure on this book. I know it was only commissioned last year, so perhaps it's they're trying to expedite it in time for this year's Christmas sales? I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of media reviews soon.

Here's the spiel. And here's one of my favourite Firmdale facades. Look at that antique green. Just beautiful.


Inspiring interiors that have a personal, handcrafted feel. This lavishly photographed interiors book shows how to leave behind design "rules" to create truly beautiful, original interiors. For more than twenty years, Kit Kemp has been at the forefront of the international design community, with her signature style that mixes contemporary elements with antiques and junk-shop finds, luxurious fabrics with printed wallpapers, and hand-finished detailing with collections of simple objects that create impact. She avoids taking design too seriously, playing with scale, color and pattern to create very personal, handcrafted spaces. Alongside the stunning images of room sets and detailed close-ups will be the inspiration behind Kit’s work and her tips for creating your own version of her style at home. Interiors are meant for living in, and the key is to create a space that is comfortable and beautiful and reflects who you really are.

How Not To Decorate (A Lesson)

I was originally going to call this post 'How To Decorate In A Day'. (Or a week.) But then I realised, with some consternation – and a small sigh of resignation – that I am a rubbish decorator. Truly. I am simply a journalist and an author. I wouldn't know how to position a cushion if you paid me to do a PhD in it.

Furthermore, with all of the turmoil of the past month (refer to post before previous one), including travelling overseas, moving house, band-aiding our family back together, and generally juggling writing, work projects and life, I haven't really had much time to think about colourways and creative spaces. In fact, I was so weary after 'decorating' our library (and I use that word loosely), that I thought about calling it a day on the interior design.

As such, our bedroom is still full of cardboard tea chests and liable to stay that way until we decide to move again. I did contemplate painting it navy, which would 'intimatise' the space (design code for making it sexier), but it's not a priority. So the aesthetic will remain 'tea-chest chic' for the moment. At least we'll have somewhere to sit. Even if we're not getting any.

So this is my warning to you all, dear readers. This is how NOT to decorate. And if you're a professional interior designer or architect, please look away now. Because the following images are liable to offend all of you with any taste. Or decency. Or indeed desire to declutter your lives. I can only apologise.


STEP ONE: Choose a colour palette and choose it quickly. I plucked out this Parisian green shade, called 'Blade', at Porter's Paints five minutes before closing time last Friday night. It looked pretty. Like Paris' Palais Royal gardens in spring. Or Ladurée's signature green boxes. It even seemed to be the same as the cover of my first bestseller La Vie Parisienne. Surely a good sign? "It'll do," I said nervously to the Porter's Paints girl. "Are you sure?" she said, questioning my judgement (and perhaps my sanity). I looked at the hundreds of other colours and felt slightly faint at the prospect of picking one. "I think so," I replied, and shrugged. That's when I knew I wasn't really a decorator. A decorator would never be this blasé.

That weekend, I slapped two coats on our new library. "What do you think?" I asked RR. "It's very green," he said in his typically understated way. (And yes, I know a great many of you abhor green. That's okay. It's not for everyone, I know.)

Here's where I painted around a big spider. This is called Arachnid Decorating.

STEP TWO: Find fabrics to match. Now 'real' decorators (professionals) don't believe in being too 'matchy-matchy'. Apparently, it's amateurish. Well, in Magazine Land we were taught that if you wanted a stylish cover you never used more than two colours, three at most. I'm going to stick with matchy-matchy, I'm afraid. Real designers, please look away, because I don't know how to decorate any other way. (And yes, I know French ticking is passé. But I love these monogrammed cushions. Perhaps nobody will notice?)

STEP THREE: Find the cheapest furniture this side of a Hard Rubbish Collection. After a month in the US and a new mortgage, we couldn't afford Moooi or Fornasetti (my favourite brands), or any other dazzling piece. So I went looking for a bargain. Fortunately, it's the end of the financial year, so places like Town & Country are having 50%-off sales. I nabbed a beautiful black library for half price. (Tax time. I tell you, it's the best time to decorate!) It was still expensive, but I wanted something to 'anchor' the room, and this handsome piece was begging to be taken home. No, not the Brazilian delivery guy. The library.

STEP FOUR: Pull out the sewing machine. My mother kindly loaned me her new sewing machine a few years ago. I haven't returned it. It's been the most useful thing in our lives since the blender. Last week, desperate to finish decorating, I whipped up some covers for a few ottomans. Slip covers. I tell you. They're the best thing ever. This was made with a remnant of Ralph Lauren pinstripe. (NB Professional decorators, please don't look too closely. There's no piping. And the ends aren't tied off.)

STEP FIVE: If in doubt, fill the room with books. The problem, is, we always forget to hide the trashy reads. We file the Fifty Shades of Grey next to the Graham Greene.

STEP SIX: Create a welcoming bar in the corner, so you can offer guests a drink upon arrival. I pinched this idea from Bunny Williams' guest house. I was in awe of her guest bar: an enormous antique table FILLED with top-shelf spirits that was conveniently placed within a few feet of the front door. "I'd like to emulate that!" I thought. But there were a few problems. I didn't have an antique sideboard. OR the budget for Chateau Lafitte. So we just have water. Or water.

STEP SEVEN: Always have a vase of flowers to scent the room. Dead tulips, such as these (above), are not recommended.

STEP EIGHT: Throw a throw or three around. They offer 'visual warmth'. Unfortunately, they're usually just for show. If guests are cold in our house, they're told to go and put a sweater on.

STEP NINE: Stack the sofa with cushions, so guests can't sit down. This discourages them from lingering too long.

STEP TEN: Clutter away. Clutter like your life depends on it. This is our entrance library before we moved in. (The furniture is the former owner's. I'm not a black leather kinda gal.) 

And this is our entrance library after...

No wonder my mother was horrified.

{Terrible photography. Had to use an old point-and-click as my SLR is dying. I think it's horrified by the interior design too.)

And lastly, a gratuitous shot of our just-washed puppies. Just because...

And one more of my study. Yes, more clutter here, I'm afraid. I need Faux Fuchsia to come and work her magic. But at least it's not green.

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