1860s Stable Modernized in Melbourne
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For the sporting American—or, perhaps more precisely, for me—little in the realm of organized athletics feels more worryingly foreign, more helpless-making, than taking a first punch at that oblong, bean-of-a-ball at the heart of Australian rules football. Yet here I am, on a glorious Fitzroy (a bustling inner suburb of Melbourne) morning in Lisa Gorman and Dean Angelucci’s front yard, haplessly smacking and drop-kicking the damned thing like a man whose limbs, their use recently returned to him, are not yet fully under his control.
As my attempt to pass the ball to the couple’s great friend (and their architect) Emilio Fuscaldo wobbles wide and hits the sitting-room window, I immediately turn to Gorman, who is puttering in her large vegetable garden, to make my apologies. She hardly seems to notice, much less to care. Fearing a reproving look from Fuscaldo—who designed the place—I shoot him a sheepish glance as well, but he is utterly unfazed by the rough treatment of the house and gamely trots after the errant ball.
At this point the blasé attitude shouldn’t surprise me, considering I have just spent the morning with this lot of very relaxed Melbournians. But I’m still a touch nonplussed at how unprecious the group is about what has been a laborious remodel. Perhaps it was the squatters who continued to live there (with the couple’s blessing) after Gorman and Angelucci bought the house at auction in 2007 or the fact that one of the squatters, who called himself "Bruce Lee," managed to set the place on fire with, as Fuscaldo puts it, "ten-meter-high flames coming out of the roof." He adds, sharply, "I have to admit that my first feeling was of relief, because the fire meant that some of the restricting planning regulations would fall to the wayside."
Despite Bruce’s dabbling in arson and mine in strange sports, the house, which is just yards from one of Fitzroy’s hipper shopping districts, is hardly worse for the wear. The house was initially built in the 1860s, and dubbed "Villa Boston" by its first residents—you can still see the keystone on the original brick facade. Though the impressive Victorian brickwork and a couple of large windows dominate the front of the house, peeking out farther back, in modest support of the previously derelict structure, is Fuscaldo’s handiwork: a modern addition in local, hard-wearing materials that feels unfussily sophisticated, approachably rustic. Gorman, a fashion designer, and Angelucci, a dealer in rare mid-century furniture, and their young daughters Pepa and Hazel moved in last year.
As we head inside to take part in a more readily understood international exchange (read: have some cookies), a reverence for the home’s original details becomes manifest. The sitting room, whose window I presume has survived greater aerial assaults than mine, is defined as much by its tony old fireplace as by Angelucci’s idiosyncratic collection of furniture. He calls the space one of the "period rooms" in contrast to the newer bits Fuscaldo designed. Taking "period" rather loosely, mid-century furniture carries the day: Leather Sling chairs by Clement Meadmore and lounge chairs by Jean Gillon keep an Eero Saarinen Carrara marble coffee table company in what Angelucci facetiously calls the "formal lounge." "We’ve parked our more showpiece items here as the kids rarely venture into this room," he says. "It’s more an adults’ retreat."
Moving from period to present, the social hubs of the house—where Pepa and Hazel are more likely to hold court—are the kitchen and living room, both lit by a massive wall of glass that gives out onto the back garden. A skylight hovers high above the kitchen, adding yet another glimpse of Australian sky. As we all sit around the kitchen island, which works as a highly efficient heat sink, I ask how things hold up during Melbourne’s very sunny summers. Fuscaldo reports that the idea initially was to cover the skylight over the kitchen with a series of louvers, but the family had hit their budget limit and haven’t installed it yet. "Australia being the sunny place it is, it’s important to get the window coverings right too so you’re not nicely slow-roasting inside," says Gorman.
With no mechanical HVAC system, assessing the home’s thermal gain due to the terrific amounts of natural light was critical. (After my visit I learned that they did in fact slowly roast.) Their first summer proved warmer and the house more thermally absorbent than they’d imagined. Angelucci eventually fitted the skylight with a makeshift cover to keep things comfortable. The rest of the place is cooled by opening and closing windows, "like an old-school machine," says Fuscaldo.
If the kitchen and living room’s sociability is due in part to the epic window—and persistently pleasant company—the rest of the house is just as starkly defined by its natural lighting scheme. But to grasp precisely how it operates, it helps to understand just which tenet of modernist orthodoxy the family saw to do without.
Though the notion of one room wending into another, all generously lit by the warm Australian sun, will spark little more than a dull glimmer of familiarity for any ardent modernist, the kitchen and living room are the only bits of the house that you’d call open plan. Fuscaldo has never warmed to capacious, formless open plans, calling them "spaces that aren’t spaces. Rooms that aren’t rooms."
"I believe that a house should offer the occupants many and various ways to express themselves," Fuscaldo says, "which I think is really hard to do in a big open space." He goes on to rail against open-plan living, claiming it imposes a place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place mentality.Instead, he observes that "the world is messy and the houses we live in should allow for our messy personalities to sing." (Angelucci’s collection of furniture is certainly giving an aria in the dining room, Pepa and Hazel are in the midst of some noisy rumpus or other, and I’m feeling fit enough to hum a few bars myself.)
If a series of proper rooms, private nooks, and varied spaces was his aim, he got it. The master bedroom and en suite bathroom are to the side of the sitting room; the girls’ bedrooms are down another hall off the living room. "Each room has its own identity and atmosphere," Fuscaldo explains. "But they’re not dependent on their internal dimensions. A room gets its identity from the quality of light that is allowed into the house."
The long corridor leading to the girls’ rooms, their bathroom (amongst my favorite in the house, actually, notable for its hospital-chic tap and tree-stump footstool), and the laundry room benefits from a lone skylight. The bedrooms themselves have banks of louvered windows that look out onto the courtyard for what Angelucci calls "filtered, subtle light more in keeping with the needs of a sleeping wing" and a bit of privacy. The master bedroom too is designed to be darker, more restive, a luminescent prompt to let even the social elements of family life slip away in favor of a more personal sense of calm. I personally adore the guest room and study lofted above the dining room, which occupies this public-private middle ground. It benefits from all the light of the glazed wall—perfect for curling up with a bit of Aussie novelist Tim Winton, which I’d like very much to do—but has something of the feel of a tucked-away attic.
But lest one think that the family is a group of retiring wallflowers, each anxious to scurry off with a glass of warm milk and bit of crocheting each night, the balance between public and private spaces within the house still tips overwhelmingly toward public. Play in the front yard and back courtyard is a daily affair, much of the produce the family eats comes from the garden, and parties are as common as stubbed toes. (I, myself, was invited back to the house just hours after leaving.)
And so it goes at the Gorman-Angelucci residence, where toasty summers, nicked doors, scratched messmate cabinets, and a battered window are all taken in stride. Like the clothes Gorman designs, appealing feminine pieces meant more for actual living than for delicate show, the house they’ve devised with the help of an old friend, an enviable climate, and the bright Victorian sun will endure, messy lives and all.