There is a rare bird unique to the Australian continent called the bowerbird, with a bizarre trait like no other: It finds and collects items to decorate its nest. We’re not just talking twigs. Instead, it gathers a vast array of brightly colored objects, including shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, coins, nails, even shards of plastic or glass. To look into a bowerbird’s nest is to behold a treasure trove of the ingeniously collected and considered.
The renowned Australian interiors stylist and best-selling author Megan Morton might be the personification of that bird (even down to their shared penchant for what she calls “Biden blue”), except for one fundamental difference: Megan spots, collects, polishes…and then she gives everything in her bower away. Generous to a fault, Megan is constantly presenting gifts to friends, family, and people she admires—even strangers. It is this blend of her foraging-filled travels and her singular (and exquisite) taste, along with the pure joy of giving, that makes her perhaps the greatest giver of gifts I know.
She navigates the high and low with ease and confidence—a matchbook might be the perfect fit for one person, a vintage brooch for another—and she doesn’t shy from the grandest gestures imaginable (hello Hermès saddlery). It is why her side business in Sydney, The School, where she teaches hands-on subjects like candlemaking or indigo dyeing, are so popular, and why her guided shopping and stylist-101 trips to India, Japan, France, and Kenya have been so successful.
At the start of my career, when I was working as a waiter and dishwasher, I was lucky enough to have Megan pluck me out of a café, place me in her nest for awhile as her fossicking assistant, and then send me off into the world. In this season of giving, I could think of no one more appropriate to represent the spirit of generosity than the magical (and a little mad) Megan Morton..
There are shoppers and there are collectors, but more than anything you are a gifter—and the most gifted one I know. Where did that come from?
My mom was such a great gifter. Let’s say she didn’t have the aesthetic drive to give like I do, yet she always said, “Give small things, but often.” I think that is just such a great attitude for everything. You know, when you see someone and you think, “It’s not his birthday. It’s not Christmas. I don’t care. I just really want David Prior to have that XYZ. Because that is so him and I want him to experience that joy.” But selfishly, I am the one who is getting the joy. As we’ve all recently realized, experiencing beauty in all its forms is one of the best reasons for living. This is what makes me want to continually chase charm and be an A-game gifter. It’s a simple way to share the bounty of what I see.
You also throw parties with ingenious little touches.
To me, gift-giving is like entertaining. They are always one and the same. There is a fine art to it, and the art is a lot like entertaining in the pre-thought. I had a party for 40 of my friends where I tied simple white napkins with silk scarves as rings. I just kept my eyes open at charity stores — where, as a stylist, I find myself all the time — and when I’d find a stunning scarf, I’d take it to my alterations person and she would just fix the little silk edge roll that wasn’t perfect. We’d steam them and clean them and spray them with rosewater. At the end of six months, I had 40 perfect scarves. Not all of them were a 10 out of 10 to each person, but they were pretty much an 8. I was so happy at my party, because I just couldn’t believe that I’d pulled off the greatest reverse gift ever.
With everyone sending packages this year instead of gifting in person, there is just incredible, horrifying waste. But the presentation of your gifts is often as beautiful and delightful as it is functional. Not just nice paper and ribbon.
You cannot tell me, no matter how much you spend, that when you open that box you feel anything but sadness when it’s been packed by a machine or in some dehumanizing situation. It is the anti-gift mentality. I’ve always thought, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if the outside and the unwrapping made the gift that much more uplifting?” And so I am always on the lookout for that special twist, that special container.
Thinking about small and powerful gestures has me thinking about India, a country that we both really love and which changed both of our lives in innumerable ways. I know that may be a cliché, but whenever someone asks me what I find so special about India, I have a different answer. I’ll bet you do too.
It’s like any good love affair, trying to rationalize the feelings you have. And then when you’re back in New York or Sydney, you seem like some sort of cult leader for India because you feel so impassioned. I’ve probably been there 30 times. The common thing that comes up for me when I look at all of the notes I’ve written from all the times I’ve gone is the recognition that I am not the teacher there, I am the listener. I think it’s very rare for people who are generally the talkers, editors, or curators to just sit there and be the nothing, to take it all in and to give up control. The beauty of Indians’ daily rituals is what really inspires me.
Another country I know you love is France, where the quotidian life is so elevated. You have family there and go often. How has it influenced your taste?
France, let’s face it: It’s porn for gift-givers, isn’t it? Again, so much of their daily things are beautiful. You literally load up on monogrammed linens, chic nail polish for every babysitter and every teacher you’ve ever had. And there are, of course, the flea markets.
Your superpower is finding beautiful things that other people think are mundane. What are some examples of that?
I like to do all my Christmas gifting concepts in October, because as a stylist I basically have shot about four Christmases by the time the real Christmas comes around, and I’m kind of done with it. This year I’m doing rosemary bustles from the garden tied with olive grosgrain ribbon. I want them really fresh. I tell people you can use them as a posy, sure, but actually put them on the gooseneck of your showerheads—it’s like having your own steam room.
You once gave a huge—and I mean huge—set of rusted old kitchen standard graters and instructed them to be used as ground lanterns. That red warm glow and the different shadow play made for the most festive scene imaginable.
Well, aside from the fact that I didn’t get tetanus, it was such a beautiful duality, wasn’t it?
What else are you gifting this year?
More vintage scarves, because once you like something, you can’t stop looking—and anyway, it’s so easy. Once your eye is on, you can go through four charity shops in half a day and find a half dozen that would take you a year to find on 1stDibs. I’m not even talking about the money it would cost. I am also doing vials of frankincense wrapped in Indian men’s handkerchiefs, and Sennelier’s large oil pastel crayons with a friend’s rosé for December summer drawing afternoons. “All killer, no filler” is my mantra for my family this year.
Do you think being Australian has anything to do with your manic gifting and relentless searching for beautiful things all over the world?
Because of the fact that we are so far away, we’ve always been taught that you’ve got to do the hard work. You make lists of things you want to bring home from your travels. We were taught that everything from elsewhere was better, although that has really changed now. But we were always looking, looking, trying to uncover the thing that we couldn’t get here. I want Romanian linen as well as I want Iranian rosewater. I feel like that, along with my stylist’s eyes, is what makes me an unfair gift giver, because I follow the charm and I know what it is that I like. That’s why I actually don’t like accepting gifts. I feel like my job is to be the conduit.
Biggest gift success? Biggest fail?
Oh, my God. There’s so many fails because you have to fail so many times to get the really hot one. Biggest gift success? Can I come back to you? You probably have to ask the recipient, right?
Well, one time—and this sounds very fancy, so I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea—I was a student in Italy, and we met up in London. I had zero money. I mean zero.
Yes. Oh, Dave. I’m just remembering that whole day, heaven. Oh, stop it!
It was the first time I had ever been to a famous store in my whole life. Selfridges, Liberty, etc.
I sent you to go and buy me those cornflower-blue Marni gloves that I still have and spied out of the window of a cab.
Yes, and then when I retrieved them, you bought me a Dries van Noten mustard cardigan, which I still have. I’d never owned an expensive piece of clothing, ever. But of course, being the Australian aspirant that I am, I knew exactly what it was and what it meant. That was a grand gesture. You’ve given me so many, many small ones, but that one had a powerful effect, and I don’t mean because of price. It was so meaningful because it made me feel chic and confident. I was more the latter and definitely not the former, but still it points to the power of gifting. The gift you are giving someone else, if done right, gives them so much more than more stuff. That gave me confidence. Like I’d graduated into the world. Thanks, mate.
No worries, mate.
Lastly, how has Covid and the intensity of this year changed or not changed what you are putting out into the world?
The pandemic has shown us the many failures of supposed modern civility, and there has never been a better year to gift well — gift generously if you can — but also to read the room. Let your gift speak of true good taste, and that, for me, is about being sensitive to the world, and to each other.
Where will your next vacation be?
With my immediate family reunited after lockdowns in the hinterland of Northern New South Wales, using Eureka as our base camp.
The thing you can’t travel without?
My copper tongue scraper. No matter where you wake up, there you are. No third-party lotion or investment creams can improve this. I am forever overpacking things and treatments for the “holiday” me. Mens sana in corpore sano is the motto I pack along with my beloved Kerala tongue scraper.
When were you happiest while traveling?
The pre- and post-trip climaxes are obvious cognitive excitement triggers, but my favorite feeling is when you are really in it, right in the thick of it, that semi-haze of slight disorientation and total newness, yet in total harmony with the world. My meditation teacher once told me to imagine myself a bird with a silk scarf around my neck circling a mountain, and I do.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
I find it too easy to pull hotels apart from a design POV. For me, they either are working from a heritage offering or a “newness”—i.e., veneered factor. The places I go on my excursions are places where I would follow the staff (almost) anywhere. Malika, a French-Moroccan housekeeper employed where I stay in Paris, is an example. We met over breakfast one morning, when she showed me how to tie my scarves properly on my head for a blowdry-free hair day. We now have her show this to all our guests on our trips. Small, exquisite things, done well.
The place/trip that challenged you most?
INDIA. (Caps on!)
What is your room service indulgence?
A single-shot espresso. I dislike the aesthetic ugliness of a fully loaded tray overdressed with starched linen and laden with substandard food dressed to the nines, surrounded by edible filler props and unnecessary accoutrements.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
In a small boat in the middle of the Maldivian sea. We got stuck en route to our villa and had to “port” for the night.
What is your favorite market in the world?
The open-air market in Manek Chowk Ahmedabad. Where else in the world serves up a gloriously bustling local market with a Le Corb building en route? It’s truly wild. For the opposite reason, I also love the simplicity of the Maasai markets in Kenya.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
The incredible wine list and fresh everything at my local, Love Supreme, any night of the week. And where else in the world can you swim Bondi beach, then go straight to lunch at Sean’s without feeling you need to go home and to get dressed again?
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, where and when would it be?
The Silk Route (India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Shanghai, etc.) pre-prohibition.
In which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, or a year and why?
A week in Redleaf Beach Sydney with just a stack of novels and a non-stick towel.
A month in Fayence, in the South of France, a charmingly kooky hamlet that never got the PR overflow benefits of its neighbouring cousin, Aix. We have a shared family place there and time warps under that glorious sun. A month is only just enough.
It’s my dream to live a year of my life in India. I’m all too aware the time I spend there is in her “glory months,” and I want to experience the good, the bad, the monsoons and everything in between.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
I had never been to Sicily until you took me. I felt I was too far into my adulthood to have missed what I totally loved. The grit of it all intersecting with the sheer majesty of Mt. Etna’s surrounds.