Grand il­lu­sion

A fan­tas­ti­cal world of hy­per-re­al­ity awaits be­hind the front door of this for­mer book­shop in a once-gritty part of MEL­BOURNE.

VOGUE Living Australia - - VLIVING - By An­nemarie Kiely Pho­tographed by Sharyn Cairns

Back in the noughties, when Kate Chal­lis bought a de­com­mis­sioned shop on Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street — the hip­ster heart of Mel­bourne — she had a PhD in art his­tory and a han­ker­ing to prac­tise de­sign. The street had a gritty al­lure, was glued by a sense of com­mu­nity, and in­curred a short walk to the home of her beloved grand­fa­ther, Bernard Smith, one of the pre-em­i­nent art his­to­ri­ans of the 20th cen­tury. As she re­calls it, the neigh­bour­hood was then a rub-up of the city’s rich and poor — a di­a­mond in the rough with an out­law rep­u­ta­tion, a coun­ter­cul­ture vibe and not a barista within cooee.

“That was 15 years ago,” says Chal­lis, a fine-fea­tured beauty with a bo­hemian air who has since traded academia for a self-named de­sign prac­tice that now spec­i­fies art in­stead of study­ing it. She still in­hab­its the old Fitzroy shop — site of Mel­bourne’s first fem­i­nist read­ing room, Shrew Women’s Book­shop, but the growth of her small fam­ily and the re­for­ma­tion of Gertrude, from brawl­ing bars into city-best cafes, de­ter­mined that its 19th-cen­tury struc­ture be re­cast in con­tent and char­ac­ter.

“This is now like the pri­vate en­try into an ex­clu­sive sup­per club,” says Chal­lis, open­ing her streetside front door into an im­mer­sive din­ing room that sum­mons the hy­per-re­al­ity of a nat­u­ral-his­tory dio­rama. “This used to be our liv­ing room, but it never worked. You’d sit here in the evening and over­hear con­ver­sa­tions on the street. It never felt cosy or pri­vate, so I de­cided to put the liv­ing room at the back of the house.”

Col­lab­o­rat­ing with Ri­dolfi Ar­chi­tec­ture, Chal­lis up­ended the orig­i­nal ground-floor plan of her semide­tached prop­erty, sit­ing an open kitchen at street front to sync with the com­mer­cial na­ture of the strip. The flip felt more re­cep­tive to the rhythms of the day and Chal­lis’s dream of de­sign­ing around Mel­bourne artist Va­lerie Sparks’s dra­matic, large-scale work.

“I have loved Va­lerie’s work for­ever,” she says, in­form­ing that her first din­ing-room scheme al­lowed wall space for the fram­ing of Spark’s Le Vol — large-scale prints fea­tur­ing the taxi­dermy bird tro­phies of nat­u­ral his­tory in hy­brid land­scapes that pil­lory the past’s thiev­ing culture of col­lect­ing. “I fell in love with the series and then met Va­lerie. She had worked out that Bernard Smith was my grand­fa­ther be­fore we met and cited his work and the aes­thet­ics of the 18th and 19th cen­tury as a broad shaper of Le Vol.”

This knowl­edge — that Sparks’s cre­ative stim­u­lus was in part sourced from Smith’s mag­num opus, Euro­pean Vi­sion and the South Pa­cific — em­bold­ened Chal­lis to com­mis­sion Le Vol as a space-en­gulf­ing in­stal­la­tion. Sparks was on­board but had to find a way of wrap­ping her art­work — a play on the 19th-cen­tury panoramic wall­pa­pers pro­duced by Joseph Du­four — around a kitchen nearly four me­tres high. The process was com­plex but the out­come as­tound­ing and made more fan­tas­ti­cally so by Christo­pher Boots’s build of a 300-kilo­gram light from crys­tal quartz stones seem­ingly mined from Sparks’s his­toric land­scape.

“My grand­fa­ther was one of the first his­to­ri­ans to write about Cap­tain Cook’s artists and sci­en­tists,” Chal­lis says, adding that Sparks’s base land­scape and birds were lifted from works by artists from his sec­ond voy­age. “So, Va­lerie placed a lit­tle trib­ute to him in the form of an owl,” she adds, point­ing to one cor­ner.

This ref­er­ence to her fa­mously Marx­ist grand­fa­ther, cel­e­brated in the 2016 bi­og­ra­phy Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith, sits in silent watch over a gal­ley kitchen clad in Cala­catta mar­ble, the veins of which ap­pear to root from Sparks’s flora. It speaks to a wider house in which Chal­lis has hid­den the his­tory of lives lived in res­o­nant lay­ers of colour and con­tent.

“It’s all about evok­ing emo­tion,” she says, lead­ing pas­sage through the space of the for­mer din­ing room — now a cor­ri­dor flanked by a bank of ser­vice-con­ceal­ing cup­boards — into a sa­lon set with a cas­cad­ing Mu­rano chan­de­lier circa 1960s. “It took a lot of goes to get this wall colour right.” The gum­nut green to which she refers pulls from the na­tion­al­is­tic pal­ette of Western Aus­tralian

Gum Blos­som (1928) by Mar­garet Pre­ston — a tightly struc­tured still life that in­forms the bud-pink flu­o­res­cence of ’60s Lu­ciano Frige­rio club chairs and the sta­men yel­low of vin­tage lamp­shades cast­ing warm light on a wall of staunchly fem­i­nist art. Ev­ery­where, books and con­sid­ered craft re­veal Chal­lis’s be­lief in dec­o­rat­ing with du­plic­ity and story, as tells in a small stair­well propped with a his­tory-laden lac­quered ta­ble — hand­made by her friend, Mar­i­anna Kennedy — and pa­pered with For­nasetti’s Nu­v­o­lette clouds, an il­lu­sory con­tin­u­a­tion of Sparks’s nir­vana. “The best in­te­ri­ors are de­ceit­ful,” ex­plains Chal­lis, as she cir­cles her PhD study on the il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts in the Roth­schild Prayer

Book (a rare 16th-cen­tury book of hours pur­chased at a Christie’s auc­tion for around $15 mil­lion by Perth bil­lion­aire Kerry Stokes in 2014). “Those artists cre­ated this amaz­ing il­lu­sion­ism, tan­ta­lised the eye. If you are go­ing to fib with fan­tasy, take it all the way — give your­self per­mis­sion to play. And in that art­ful self-in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the amaz­ing in­te­rior will emerge.”

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