Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back. And Forward. To Beautiful Things in 2017.

Well, what a year it's been. These past 12 months have really delivered some one-two punches, and they took some fine people down with them. Such as A. A. Gill. And George Michael. And of course Muhammed Ali.

Just when we thought all was lost, however, hope floated in from some unexpected places. Writer Nikki Gemmell felt her year turn in December after she shed her clothes and took an impromptu nudie dip in the Sydney Harbour with friends. Inspired by her thoughtful, reflective column about the day, the dip, and indeed the year (which is here : The Australian newspaper), we decided to follow her salty initiative and spent a glorious week in and around Sydney harbour over Christmas (above). Like Nikki Gemmell, we felt the salt soak into our skin and remembered the joy in living simply.

Like Nikki Gemmell, many others were sanguine as the year came to an end. Even usually cynical A.A. Gill was uncharacteristically grateful in his final columns. "I feel very lucky", he said, about his life. I mean, how inspiring.

But perhaps my favourite spirit-lifting moment this year was Muhammad Ali's memorial service, which took humour and sadness and weaved them together into a magnificent lesson in how to live -- not a great life -- but a good one. Ali lived both. But it was goodness he advocated. It was goodness that filled that interfaith memorial service in Louisville, Kentucky on June 10th.

Here in our little household, 2016 was a full year. Work was relentless but rewarding, with work trips and garden shoots in the Caribbean, New York, Connecticut, Nantucket, Provence, Paris, Italy, and the Cotswolds and Dorset. Many of these beautiful places, spaces and gardens (above) can be seen on  my Instagram: But most of the time, I didn't post a lot: I just put my head down and got on with the job.

As well as work, there were quiet side trips and gentle stopovers, including a visit to Jim Thompson's house in Bangkok: a deeply moving place that's memorable as much for its architecture and garden as its history and mystery.

For the most part, we lived a low-key existence. As the years go on and people become angrier and more critical and the world becomes more unstable, it feels like the right path to take. Perhaps George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley had the smart approach, after all? Perhaps what 2016 taught us is that when the going gets tough, the tough put their heads and work on, head against the wind; quietly; calmly; with not only a sense of humour but a sense of dignity.

Here's to 2017. May it bring you all joyous things.



The major exhibition at London's V&A Museum during 2017 will focus on the life and work of Spanish fashion house Balenciaga, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year. Called 'Shaping Fashion', the show will shine the light on this master couturier, who is often called a 'designer's designer' because he was famous for his tailoring skills. He preferred to work with firm, stiff fabrics which gave his clothing a sculptural appearance, hence the name of the show. The V&A has brought together 100 garments and 20 hats, along with sketches, photographs and fabric samples to show not only his craftsmanship and skill but also how his work changed the shape of fashion forever. The exhibition is timely – under the new creative director of head designer Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga has taken a radical new direction.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion will be on show at the V&A, London May 27th 2017 – February 18th 2018.


As the House of Dior continues its seventy-year celebrations, there are plans for two impressive Dior exhibitions in Paris and Melbourne this year.  Christian Dior at Musée des Arts Décoratifs  in Paris will run from July 6, 2017 until January 7, 2018, and will focus on the couturier's life and designs, while in Melbourne, Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria will host 'The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture', a sumptuous display of more than 140 garments designed by Christian Dior Couture between 1947 and 2017. The latter exhibition will also feature works by the seven designers who have played key roles in shaping Dior’s renowned fashionable silhouette: Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri. Highlights include examples from Christian Dior’s iconic spring 1947 New Look collection, magnificent displays of Dior’s signature ball gowns and evening dresses, as well as designs from the inaugural couture collection of the House’s first female head designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri. It will be the first complete Dior collection to be shown outside of Paris, and reflects Melbourne's love of fashion and glamour.

Little news yet on the Christian Dior exhibition at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in July, but no doubt details will begin to emerge in the fashion media soon.

[All images from House of Dior's website]


Opening in spring 2017, 'The White Garden' will be a floral tribute to Princess Diana that will be planted in the Sunken Garden in Kensington Gardens. It has been designed to celebrate her legacy of style, which is also being showcased in Kensington Palace’s new fashion exhibition, ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ in 2017. The garden will be planted with an elegant palette of spring tulips and scented narcissi, which will emerge through a carpet of forget me nots. The planting scheme will then change in summer to pots of classic English white roses and cosmos, which will surround the reflective pool in the centre of the garden.

Due to open in April, 2017.


If you're a fan of the Restoration Hardware look, and there are thousands who are, you'll be pleased to know the company is opening its first hotel, in New York City’s meatpacking district. Located at 55 Gansevoort Street, which is right around the corner from RH's flagship store, it will reportedly double as a showroom for the brand. There are also plans for a ground-floor restaurant.

More details can be found here.


There are several garden-themed exhibitions being staged in Paris this year. From 15 March, the Jardins exhibition at the Grand Palais offers a sweeping overview of landscape painting from the Renaissance to our day, with works by Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Magritte and others. The Musée d’Orsay is also hosting a nature-themed exhibition in 2017, with paintings by Gauguin, Denis, Klimt, Munch and Van Gogh. Until 24 April, the Pompidou Centre is hosting a retrospective of Cy Twombly, which will feature explosions of colour, tangled skeins and scribblings and scratched-out lines – all of which is said to "reflect a rich interior landscape". And in April, the Musée de la Vie Romantique will turn into an exquisite garden filled with lovely colours for an exhibition on Pierre-Joseph Redout, one of the most renowned botanical artist of all time. It’s an opportunity to admire the delicate watercolours painted by the man who was once described as ‘the Raphael of flowers’.


Dahlias were big this year. Huge. In every respect. They crowded the pages of garden magazines, and grew to the size of dinner platters.

This was the Dorset garden of English architect Ben Pentreath and his lovely husband Charlie, which I shot in late September, just as the dahlias beds were reaching their full height. Charlie told me his favourite was the Cafe au Lait, but I think I loved the apricot borders better.

One thing's for sure: dahlias are not going away any time soon. Once you see them dancing in the late summer breeze, you'll want to replant your own garden with blousy, cheery blooms.


One of the most delightful places I had the pleasure of visiting for work this year was Playa Grande, in the Dominican Republic. (Some of you may have already seen these images on Instagram.) Conceived by New York interior designer Celerie Kemble, it's an enclave of beach houses where almost everything is designed as a nod to Mother Nature. So the four-poster beds are filled with twisting vines, the  lights and lanterns look like palm trees, many of the prints are botanicals, and even the pool house lights look like tropical 'pods'. It's beautiful and memorable, and it's not surprising that it has inspired other hotels to incorporate more horticulture into their designs.

Another 'garden-enhanced hotel' that I visited this year was the newly renovated Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, where the Ambassador Suite (above right) even comes with its own private conservatory overlooking the gardens and river. If you can't afford a suite here, you can still enjoy the hotel's legendary interiors with a drink or afternoon tea in the Author's Lounge (above left), one of the most photogenic bars in the world. Designed with more lattice trims that Versailles, and more wicker furniture and whimsy than Bunny Mellon's garden room, it's an elegant space to lose an afternoon. (I found a quiet corner and caught up on work here: it was a beautiful 'office' that made me wish mine looked just as lovely.)


Some of you may know that I've spent five years working on a biography of the Australian author Joan Lindsay, who wrote the international bestseller Picnic at Hanging Rock. The biography went to print a few weeks ago, and will be published on April 1, in time for the 50th anniversary of the novel.

Media for this biography has already begun, with a lovely mention in yesterday's Age and Sydney Morning Herald broadsheet newspapers, in a list of Books to Read in 2017 LINK HERE for the Sydney Morning Herald, or HERE for The Age. 

There were so many great books on this list, including a new biography on Helen Garner, so I'm thrilled and honoured to be featured.  And I'm so grateful to my publisher, Kay Scarlett (whom I knew at Murdoch Books), and my editor Julia Taylor, who took a battered old biography of a long-forgotten author and turned it into a beautifully designed and (hopefully) interesting story of a 50-year-old novel that many of us have never forgotten...

(The beautiful image above, of Anne Louise Lambert on set, was a polaroid taken by Joan Lindsay and comes from Joan Lindsay's archives. It appears in the biography along with dozens of other images from the film and Joan Lindsay's life. It was my favourite photo in the book.)

Recently, Fremantle Media announced that they are planning to remake Picnic at Hanging Rock for television in 2017, with a 6 x 60 minute drama that will, unlike the original film by Peter Weir, delve deep into the themes of gender, control, identity and burgeoning sexuality.

It will be interesting to see how Fremantle's version differs from the original, which was a worldwide success, but I applaud the company's efforts to retell this haunting mystery for a modern audience. Picnic at Hanging Rock deserves to be celebrated, as does its author Joan Lindsay, and I hope 2017 is the year in which fans, old and new, rediscover this beautiful tale of schoolgirls on a summer's day.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thin Places: The Gardens, Spaces, Books, and Beliefs that Take Us Places

Last week, I learned a beautiful new phrase. While chatting to a publisher friend called Joe about the horrors of politics, we somehow segued (thankfully) to something else entirely: the calming nature of the Italy countryside. "Italy is a place," said Joe, "where you can escape the nastiness of life, and experience sights so magnificent they remove you from the everyday." These Italian scenes are often transcendent, explained Joe. Otherworldly, even.  They transport you.

Then he told me about a phrase that's used to describe these curiously moving spaces and landscapes; these places that take you away from mundanities and disenchantments of everyday.


Thin Places, explained Joe, was an old Celtic term used to describe those spots where the walls between reality and beyond, or between Heaven and Earth if you like, are almost transparent. Places where you're immediately inspired, and beguiled, and often moved to emotion.

A thin space could be as ordinary as someone's garden (see above; story to come), or as sacred as Rumi's tomb in Turkey. (Rumi and his Persian poetry have become popular since singer Chris Martin credited them for saving him from depression.)

Thin Places usually happen when you least expect them -- often when you're travelling. They suddenly appear before you, beautiful and fleeting. They remove you from whatever you might be enduring in life, and remind you that there are better things, both on this side and the other.

A well-travelled friend calls this experience jouissance; a transcendent state that fuses the emotional, physical, and mystical. She says it often happens when she's in a garden -- be it Sissinghurst or the shores of Lake Como.

I experienced a Thin Place last week.

It was 5.30AM and I was driving to a photo shoot at a garden called Picardy, located in the green hills of Gippsland, where I grew up. I thought I knew this area but on this morning the landscape looked different. A strange layer of mist had settled over the hills, giving the place an ethereal feel.  As I drove through the quiet backroads, the hot sun started to burn away the light fog, leaving patches of 'clouds' in its wake.

Arriving at Picardy Garden a few minutes before sunrise, I noticed the mist hadn't yet lifted on this hill, and there was a curious glow to the garden. The light was golden, almost otherworldly.

The owners, Marian and Bryce (now new friends) came out to greet me, but I was too enthralled to come inside for a cup of tea. It was as if Heaven had come down the Earth for a few moments. The light, the landscape, the flowers, the birdsong and butterflies and crabapples. It was pure felicity.

These snatches of pleasure in life are what sustain many of us, alongside family, friends, work, and other quiet delights. In a month when the nastiness that has seeped into society has affected us all, when people are forgetting their good, kind sides and blindly subscribing to the foulness, and then being malicious and mean and downright undignified with their newfound ill will, Thin Spaces take us out of all the dirtiness and drama.

Thin Spaces transport us to a better plane -- "going high", as Michelle Obama famously quoted. They enable us to see the joyfulness of life, rather than the hatred. The radiance and grace of places, and people, rather than the dark side.

Like many friends, including Joe, I have stopped subscribing to nastiness. We all have enough to contend with in life. And you can't work professionally, especially in an international arena, if you practice such manners. (Some of those I've liaised with this year, such as Carolyne Roehm and Paolo Moschino and Robert Couturier, have reminded me just how far good manners and kindness will go in life.)

As Joe said, we need to seek the delights of life -- in places and in people. Even if we don't like a place (I had mixed feelings about Gippsland for decades), or we're not sure about a person, reserving judgement and holding back on criticism may reward us with a sublime surprise. Gippsland's quiet beauty certainly surprised me last week.

(Loved the dovecote potting shed.)

The most amazing thing about this day, and this garden, was seeing this: a rare kind of Robinia that looks identical to pink wisteria. Many gardeners feel this Robinia is the most beautiful tree in the world, and indeed it's accorded that award in many horticultural lists. I've been searching for it for years, without success. 

As Marian and I turned a corner at the bottom of the crabapple walk, we paused in our chatter and I happen to look up, to the sky above. There it was. Dangling quietly above us.

Marian is currently working on a book about her beautiful French / Italian-inspired garden, so there will be more images down the track. 

In the meantime, here are some more books and beautiful landscapes to lift the spirit at this tail end of a very long year.

NB: Articles about Thin Spaces can be found here -- NEW YORK TIMES or here THE GUARDIAN


Amazon has just delivered a box of gorgeous books to our doorstep in time for Christmas. Some are for us; some are for friends. These were a few stand-outs in the pile. 

Mad Enchantment . The story of Claude Monet and the painting of the Water Lilies series. An uplifting account of how painting and gardening save this great artist's spirit at the end of his life, as the war encroached on his bucolic corner of France.

On The Fringe: A Life in Decorating. A fascinating insight into Colefax and Fowler by the decorating company's glamorous doyenne, Imogen Taylor.

The Country House in Literature. A little academic, but good to dip in and out of.

Landscape of Dreams. The first monograph from Julian and Isabel Bannerman, the Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin of garden designers.

Signature Spaces: Well-Travelled Spaces by Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen. (last pix, above). I had the great pleasure and honor of having lunch with these two lovely gentlemen in their country house in Sussex this year, so this book is a little special. If you've followed Paolo since his days with Nicky Haslam, you'll know he's an extraordinarily talented interior designer, but it's his partner in business and life, Philio Vergeylen, who's the real surprise -- funny, kind, stylish and  talented at everything from gardening to storytelling. A great book for design fans.


If you or someone you know loves fashion, these are two sure winners for Christmas gifts. 

Alexander McQueen's Unseen is a behind-the-scenes look at the designer's remarkable fashion collections and catwalk shows. 

And Alexandra Schulman's Inside Vogue is a diary-style account of working behind the editor's desk of UK Vogue, including the enormous cover-up she had to do to keep the cover of the Duchess of Cambridge a guarded secret.


A recent slideshow of some of Vogue's most memorable libraries over the years.



Finally, friends and long-time readers know that I've been working quietly on this biography for many years. I've not mentioned it much because there was a change of publishers (in an unconventional move, I decided to return to my beloved publisher at Murdoch, Kay Scarlett, who's now with Bonnier International). Since the change, in May, there have been months of refinements, particularly in the content but also in the design, which is now beautiful!

The story of Joan Lindsay's life and how she came to write her famous bestseller Picnic at Hanging Rock at sixty-nine years of age is a complex story, and we took a great deal of time working out what to include and what to (respectfully) leave out. We also consulted people like director Peter Weir and others who knew Joan Lindsay personally, and they kindly gave their input. 

Now, after five long years of research, and almost a year of production, the biography has gone to print TODAY. (I can't even believe I'm writing that.) Advance copies are due to arrive January, and the pub date is 1st April, so I will post details on this blog and Instagram as well as to all those in my email database. We are also working in marketing, including a doco-ette and a book tour; details of which are to come.  

The biography will soon show up on Amazon and other book sites, so keep an eye out.

Beyond the Rock  is a curious book, which falls somewhere between biography and true crime (hence the title), but Joan Lindsay's life was also curious; curious and mysterious and often remarkable.  So I hope you all love reading about it as much as I loved researching and writing it. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel version of a Thin Space, and as far as I can tell, Joan certainly intended that. It's beautiful, mysterious, memorable, and utterly otherworldly. Fifty years after it was first published, it still transports us. 

If only politics did that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Finding Inspiration from Grand Travels and Quiet Corners

A few weeks ago, I went to the Dominican Republic for three days, to look at some gardens for a new book. It was my first time to DR. This is what happened.

The tiny Puerto Plata Airport on the north coast of DR was barely more than a cheery steel band bashing out a welcoming tune, a relaxed chap holding his hand out for $10 for a visa, and a gaggle of grinning Immigration men hanging around the luggage carousel. With no checked luggage, I was off the plane and into sunshine in 8 minutes. (If only Heathrow was like that.) Then it was a two-hour drive down a coastal road so quiet that often the only 'traffic' was a herd of cattle and some carefree chickens. A few hours down the coast, my driver and I finally landed here, at Playa Grande; one of the most beautiful, most extraordinary places I've ever been. It was, quite simply, astonishing. Let me show you.

Conceived by New York designer Celerie Kemble, Playa Grande is a remarkable place -- more of a private estate than a resort -- which is made up of collection of exquisitely designed beach houses that are so sweet, so irresistible, it's as if Tim Burton had gotten together with Karl Lagerfeld to create a Chanel show for the Caribbean. It's also so well hidden that not even the chap next door, whom we asked for directions, knew it was there. I mean, how often do you find a place like that? Where even its neighbours don't know it's there?

Now the architecture here is eye catching, but it's the interiors where the exclamations really begin. Everything at Playa Grande is inspired by gardens and botanical motifs, so lights are shaped like palm leaves, lanterns look like exotic tropical pods, and even the smallest light switches resemble sweet lily-of-the-valley bouquets and new spring buds. Most were made by a local metalworker, and most are done in copper, so that when they age and patina turns to green, they'll look even more like leaves. It's ingenious.

There was also, surprisingly, a lot of timber, which must mean a lot of maintenance given the tropical weather. Even the table 'tassels' were done in timber. Like so:

Another interesting aspect to the estate was that the gardens were allowed to grow wild in some places, particularly over the verandahs, leading to a kind of 'lost in time' feel that didn't feel messy or unkempt but fantastically, memorably romantic.

The second destination was older but no less beautiful; a small hideaway called the Casa Colonial, which was in fact an ode to the grand, colonial hotels of yesteryear. With acres of white louvres and ceiling fans inside and gardens full of tropical palms and foliage outside, it was a dream of a place, and even though I was the only guest there by the end -- hurricane season had emptied the rooms -- it still felt cosy and intimate and elegant and welcoming. 

There were other places on The Reccy List too, but after three days in the Caribbean heat, travelling on remote roads, with few tourists around, and no G&Ts (I never drink while working, and even while not working, but the tropics makes you long for it), I was well and truly ready for something stiff in a tall glass.

So I packed up, took one last look at the beautiful beaches, and boarded the plane back to New York.

Back in Manhattan, the heat was like nothing I've experienced in that city; raw and angry and full of honking horns and irritated people and on-edge traffic. (The queues to get up to Connecticut one weekend were insane!)  But there was one place where calm and civility reigned; The Beekman, an amazing new hotel carved out of an equally amazing historic building in the previously-dull-but-now-buzzing district of FiDi. (Vogue has also moved into this area, as has Cos, so you know it's officially cool.) 

The opening of The Beekman Hotel is one of the year's most anticipated New York hotel unveilings. Its amazing, semi-derelict, nine-story atrium was for years used in fashion shoots and parties (Jay Z had a brill soiree here) until Thomson Hotels swept in and restored it. There are some beautiful images here. The rooms are expensive (and not particularly sexy), but the restaurant by Keith McNally is beautiful, so just go for dinner and enjoy the interior. 

From there, it was off to the cool, green countryside of Sussex in England,  and what a welcome change it was. There were a few garden shoots to look at here too, including one at one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen; a gentle, enveloping embrace of a place that reminded me why I loved gardens so much. And how lucky I am to do the job I do.

Owned by two of the kindest, loveliest, funniest, and most gracious men I've ever met, Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen (for those who don't know them, they are the design talents who bought Nicholas Haslam's legendary store / business in Pimlico and made it into their own, and now do the interior design for dozens of extraordinary estates over the world), this country retreat is the kind you always hope to own one day. It's a perfect blend of country house and garden, where both merge into the other in such a way that you're constantly wandering from room to terrace to greenhouse to courtyard to parterre to pool and back to the library and parlour / sitting room again in a happy daze. Look at the blue-and-white library. And this comforting guest room. 

We had a long and memorable luncheon here on the terrace, which lasted for far too many glasses of wine. Paolo and Philip told a very funny (but still respectful) story of how Princess Diana visited one summer's day, which made me laugh until I had a stitch. As they chatted, I was reminded of how nice some people are. Here were two men who have met just about everyone I idolise (they even stay in Oscar de la Renta's old estate in the Dominican Republic), and who didn't need to spend time with a stranger from Australia (who was weary beyond belief and trying desperately to remember her social skills through the haze of jet lag) and yet they did -- and they made it an afternoon to remember. Courtesy and chivalry are not dead, after all.

There were a few more gardens, such as this dahlia-drenched one in Dorset... 

And this gorgeous castle and its grand farmyard and kitchen garden in Oxfordshire... (I loved the onion drying rack the best). 

But that's enough stories for one blog post, I think

I'm home now for a little while -- and how happy I am too, after three round-the-world trips in three months! There are books to be written, edited, expedited through the production process. But there are also beautiful ones to be ordered for Christmas. (Have you seen all the lovely new titles out there?) As well, the new fashion collections for Spring / Summer 2017 are appearing in the media, and they're heralding a glamorous new year. Just look at Jasper Conran's designs, above and below. Thank goodness glamour is still in fashion.

Until next time, happy travels, happy reading, happy frock shopping, and happy gardening, wherever you are.

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