Stars — they’re just like us! So goes the title of a popular American gossip site that serialises candid snapshots of celebrities pursuing their everyday affairs. “They pick up the dog poo”, “put money in parking meters” and even “drink green juice”, jest the captions accompanying ‘money-shots’ that are framed for their mundanity. No one buys their normality. But on a chilly spring morning, inside a recently renovated period home in proximity to the St Kilda foreshore, the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe award-winning actor Rachel Griffiths and her artist husband, Andrew Taylor (represented in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria), are doing an extremely good job of convincing that they’re conventional. Griffiths, who is make-up free, shoeless but still arrestingly soigné, greets at the front door and directs passage down a hall festooned with the ornament of another period and the obstacle of everyday living. It communicates schoolage children — Banjo, 14, Adelaide, 13, and Clementine, 9 — the compulsive construct and collection of fine art (floors layer with work fed from front studio and friend) and the commitments of two working parents (production office in full hum) whose energies electrify the air.
The actor stops at the end of the hallway, grabs an eyeful of a blue jacaranda in the garden beyond, then veers right into a kitchen layered with a miscellany of artefact, appliance and Taylor, who presents both in person and ceramic portrait. Of this smooth, white effigy with drooping feature, which sits next to a Peter Booth work on the rangehood, he says, “That was made by one of the kids. I was beardless then, but if you turn it upside down…” ››
‹‹ Taylor presides over a generous galley space that exudes all the industrial aestheticism of a jazz-age Parisian bar. It imperceptibly sutures the old Victorian front of the house to a fulsome two-storey addition, the sum of which Griffiths informs was planned by Powell & Glenn architects along the lines of Italian palazzos — officiating rooms flanking a front foyer that flows to private quarters. “We call it the mullet house — short front and long back,” says Griffiths, using the no-bullshit vernacular of Rhonda Epinstalk, the social outcast she characterised in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding.
She positions herself in front of the pot-belly stove and picks up a poker to stoke its fire, but is chided by Taylor. “Don’t touch that!” he says, stealing it from her hand. “That’s my job.” Griffiths acquiesces and Taylor then offers coffee, promising a “proper Melbourne brew” from an eagle-badged Bezzera machine that signals the couple’s regard for best-in-class retro design and bistroworthy appliances.
“Andrew is the cook,” says Griffiths. She calls two years on the time taken to drill down to the family routines and rituals that ultimately customised a steel-framed island bench plumbed for hidden machines and fitted with a fluted glass alcove for the concealment of food-prep clutter and cookbooks. “The design of the kitchen is 90 per cent me. The breakfast and lunch-making zone is here,” she adds, opening the fridge dedicated to morning meals. “It’s the Andrew zone there — he doesn’t like anyone crossing his path when cooking — and the baking zone is there.”
Taylor rolls his eyes in acknowledgement and says “she tortured everyone” with her nuancing of ergonomics, a pedantry that one day presented in model form with tiny to-scale penguins parading around an island bench. Such mise-en-scène manipulation of the elements is not surprising given Griffiths’ recent upskilling to full cinematic supervision as the producer and director of Ride Like a Girl — the story of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, who famously issued post-race advice to chauvinist horse owners to “get stuffed”.
Griffiths looks from her vantage through to a dining room dressed with mid-century furniture and Taylor’s fine art — a painting of the ghost gums that grew outside his studio while the family lived in Los Angeles. He declares the idea of painting such pastoral scene would typically make him “puke”, but says that those trees became emblematic of their decade as transplants in LA. ››
‹‹ They flag the first room in a new wing that masks its modernity with what architect Ed Glenn later calls “the archaeology of parts” — a fluent layering of walkaround and walkthrough brick walls that suggest a bigger site.
Griffiths nods to the high-value Lacanche French cooker that fills a kitchen wall and says, “Rooms had to respond to all our found objects. My tastes run to the very expensive, but I’m also very cheap.” She elucidates this admission with an anecdote of the months sucked into the vortex of Gumtree — the community website that rewarded her two-year search for Lacanche sellers with a handsomely priced cooker from a cafe in Port Fairy, in Victoria’s south-west. Recalling the conversation she had with the brand’s suppliers when seeking reassurance that its purchase was without problem, she mimicks, “‘Oh, that would have belonged to Bob and Marty because it’s the only double-gas we’ve sold. Oh God, yes, it will last 100 years. We’ll send a plumber straight out.’” Then there’s the bathtub, adds Taylor, sharing that the $30,000 Carrara marble beauty, hidden outdoors in the garden’s back corner, was bagged for one-tenth of the cost after another two-year watch of Gumtree. “It appeared this February — Andrew got it for my birthday,” says Griffiths, who, according to her husband, typically demolishes a script and floats into character while in its warm girth. “It’s my favourite 40 minutes in the day,” she says. “People leave you alone, you are off all devices and the blood starts to flow.”
The bathtub hides on a deck off the main suite, behind a barely discernible curved wall that cuts through the site and insinuates an infinite quality to the wider structure. Within the sun-trapping garden rooms it created, plantings were made redolent of Sydney by Papworth Design and Simon McCurdy Landscapes. Griffiths winds back to her seven-year-old self walking to the Dawn Fraser Baths in Balmain and says, “I will never forget my wonderment at the fecund in Sydney. The geology of it all; rock hitting fragrant flower, warmth on my skin. I remember thinking, you can live like this?”
But the front garden is all homage to St Kilda’s Catani Gardens — the stretch of foreshore finessed by Florence-born engineer Carlo Catani, who planned for continental promenading with palms, paths, lawns and embankments of lava rock. “I call it gobli rock,” says Griffiths, revealing that the neighbours think it ugly and toss it from their own yards for hard rubbish collection. “You know, I’m not beyond the curb crawl to collect it.”