Book Review: The Alchemy of Things
Karen McCartney’s gorgeous and surprising collection of places, photographed and styled by Michael Wee and David Harrison, respectively, blends high and low, ancient and contemporary, in conversations with an inspiring group of designers and collectors. “The alchemy of things explores interior spaces at the edges of the decoratively possible,” McCartney writes. Her exploration of eighteen homes bring the reader inside spaces that have been worked and re-worked, styled and curated over many years to culminate in what one of the homeowners describes as a diary – a catalog of personal obsessions and eccentricities.
“Your interior can be anything you want it to be if you apply large doses of care and conviction. The care bit is to inform yourself and buy from a position of knowledge, and the conviction is to know yourself and stick to what pleases you.” Comprised mainly of antiques and design dealers, with a smattering of interior designers, architects, and furniture designers, McCartney’s subjects embody these two poles – not only are they masters in the field of design and curation, but their homes are embedded with the deep carefulness and passion of those who’ve spent their lifetimes developing a personal style.
Buy the book here for full tours of all eighteen inspiring homes.
One of McCartney’s subjects, Nina Yashar grew up in a family of Iranian rug and antiques dealers. But it was her early exposure to the Swedish rug designer Märta Måås-Fjetterström that pushed her to develop her own practice as a furniture and design dealer.
“Letting someone into your house is like letting them read your diary; your obsessions become apparent quite quickly,” says Rodney de Soos, a furniture dealer and restorer in Sydney, Australia.
Roberto Baciocchi, among my favorite of Karen McCartney’s subjects, mixes modernists like Gio Ponti, Joe Colombo, Tobia Scarpa, and Carlo Mollino into his historic, 13th century Tuscan villa, whose walls have been painted in a series of geometric commissions by Giuseppe Friscia.
Furniture designer Khai Liew has been collecting unprecious, no-name antiques from wood sheds and butcheries all his life - appreciating the craftsmanship inherent in simple tools. His furniture designs are whimsical and often inspired by cartoons, like the Sunflower chair and Pingu side table below. Each Sunflower chair takes three months to build.
The architect Enrico Taglietti’s home is full of personal touches like the Polyhedrica chair, below (as well as other furniture) he designed himself. “I want my architecture to make people ask, “What the hell is that?,” to enquire and react. I like the notion of absurdity,” he says.
Geoffrey Hatty, one of the homeowners who inspired the book, mixes pieces he’s gathered throughout his lifetime and travels, like Naïve artworks, Australian Aboriginal furniture, and sculptures by his friend Giuseppe Romeo.
“The eye tells you when enough is enough… sometimes I see a gap and want to fill it, but I am aware of balance, of proportion and the value of negative space – an inch, even a millimeter, one way or another, can make all the difference,” says Hatty, whose collected objects have taken on new lives in combination with each other. “Over ten years I have gathered objects, placed and shifted them, hung them up, taken them down, and gradually a series of decorated spaces have emerged – often with different identities”.
Some advice from Hatty: “I always start with just one thing, one piece, which drives the aesthetic decisions around the rest of the space.”
The home of Ronan Sulich and Margaret Nolan mimics Sulich’s career as an 18th century decorative arts expert at Christie’s Australia with the couple’s love for contemporary and outsider art. Recent transplants to Sydney, they’ve been forced into smaller confines than in their previous home. “The consequence of having a lack of space is that we think harder about what will work,” says Nolan.
Collectors Timothy Hill and Michael Bugelli’s home is built entirely atop a heritage-listed interior, making no impact on the original design. But what sticks out most in their home is the art: “Really this is part of an art project,” Bugelli says, “it’s incidental that we live in it.”