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How to create a home that lifts your spirits

Style authority Melissa Penfold makes a strong case for embracing a sense of place in her new book, Living Well By Design.
Photographer: Abbie Melle

A key aspect of creating a comfortable home involves discovering ways to amplify its sense of place. Following the latest fashions will not necessarily bring you happiness in your home, but embracing its setting certainly will.

You just need to open your eyes to the boundless possibilities of your house and its environment, and dedicate your energy to realising its full potential. By linking your home to its setting, or by establishing a new narrative within the property’s boundaries, you can create a place that feels special. It might sound like the sort of thing that only works if you live on a country estate or if your house looks like something out of Architectural Digest, but there are things that can be done wherever you live.

At Wollumbi Estate, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Boston ivy adds an extra layer of texture to the brick-clad residence. Houses wrapped in climbing vines always look ‘planted’ in their setting.

(Credit: Photographer: Abbie Melle)

Suitability is everything. When designing your interior and exterior, your first thought should be: “Is this appropriate?” Play up the house’s strengths. That might be its petite proportions, its light-filled, flowing spaces, or its sleek floor-to-ceiling door openings. Not to speak of the beautiful, borrowed views of hills or trees beyond. There can be no underestimating the importance of a home’s relationship to its place, and its vistas are your greatest asset. The heady, full-on physical experience of a home is to be had only when you maximise its interaction with its setting.

In this home, with interior design by Victoria Hagan and landscape design by Joeb Moore & Partners, French doors and floor-to-ceiling windows bring the outdoors in.

(Credit: Photographer: David Sundberg/Esto)

When you are designing your house and garden, the aim is to create your own little world – a sanctuary – within your property’s boundaries, a place that feels timeless and sits happily in its location, whether you live in an urban bedsit, a suburban flat, or a rural idyll. However small your home, don’t underestimate its potential. Open your windows. Nature is the original palliative. There’s something about connecting with the natural world that makes the daily minutiae dissolve. Bring in more light, more air. We think the biggest bang for your buck is to open up a ceiling and extend door openings to outdoor spaces. It’s not cheap, but it’s life changing.

With its panoramic view of Sydney Harbour, the rooftop terrace of interior designer Lynda Kerry’s former family home makes a perfect spot for drinks. Appointed with sofas by Eco Concepts and a coffee table by Robert Plumb, it echoes the design of the interior.

(Credit: Photographer: Abbie Melle)

For others, it’s simply a question of making use of what’s already on their doorstep. Does your home sit beside water of some sort? A tranquil bay, a harbour, a lake, or a flash of river will create a focal point and distract the eye from other houses around you.

A home that’s intimately connected with its landscape will always create a heart-stopping experience. There’s no point living somewhere beautiful if you don’t know how to make the most of it. Keeping this sense of place in mind will imbue your home with a coherence that unites all the elements – decorating, landscaping, materials, and structure – so they work together as a whole, rather than leaping from genre to genre, or continent to continent.

At Wollumbi Estate, floor-to-ceiling windows bring the outdoors in, creating a natural backdrop for the curated mix of 18th and 19th-century French tables, lamps and statues.

(Credit: Photographer: Abbie Melle)

Think about what you want. Or where you’d want to be. Do you sneer at minimalism and prefer a rustic farmhouse look? Are you partial to a curated, modern style or do you want to feel transported to an exotic clime? No matter what your preference, your first thought should be whether your concept is appropriate to the setting. Obsessively pruned parterre gardens and Louis XIV furniture look great at Versailles, but wrong – even cheap – in and around a 1970s kit home. Who wants a Balinese cabana or a Tuscan villa on the twenty-third floor? If, for example, you yearn for a tropical garden, then espaliered fruit trees would look rather odd amid a mass of ferns and teak daybeds. The aim is for all elements to complement one another, from materials to colours, textures, and patterns, harmoniously. The idea is for home and garden to be united as one. My house and garden look like they have been there forever. In fact, it has all been created in the past decade.

I have kept things simple, by using the same pale, muted palette and salvaged materials to layer the garden with references from the house and vice versa, all within a network of live climbing vines and towering verdant hedging bordering the property. Low box hedges are planted against the facade to anchor the house in the garden. You couldn’t imagine any other house or garden in the space. For me, it’s about screening out the world beyond, using vines, plants, fences, and trees to create an intimate space where there’s no sense of the presence of neighbours. It’s about building your garden around the architecture to make the house the heart of your property and using the components in your garden to tell a cohesive story with no distracting flourishes.

“There can be no underestimating the importance of a home’s relationship to its place, and its vistas are your greatest asset” ~ Melissa Penfold

In any interior, what is visible through the doors and windows is vital to expand the sense of space and blur the line between indoors and out. With the aid of natural light and vistas, you can make even a tiny place feel as big as the great outdoors. Houses where there always seems to be a fresh breeze will make you feel happy, confident, and as though you can endure almost anything. If you live in a city and crave a tranquil oasis to escape from your chaotic surroundings, consider adding a water feature – the ultimate garden luxury – such as a fountain or a reflecting pool to create a sense of serenity and mask the ambient urban noise.

Melissa Penfold outside her own beautiful home.

With our homes working harder than ever before, interiors will increasingly open to the outdoors to connect with nature. Forging a strong sense of place is fundamental to our happiness, health, and wellbeing. If we create more supportive havens for ourselves in which to live, we can weather the ups and downs of life. Your home has to be a refuge; as soon as you walk through the door, your spirits should lift. If it feels that way to you, everyone who lives there will be uplifted as well. That is the true purpose of home.

This is an edited extract from Melissa Penfold’s beautiful new book, Living Well by Design. It’s published by Vendome Press, RRP$70, and is available at all good book stores and online. Or buy now from Booktopia for $49.95

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