For most of us, the imprint of the place we grew up in or destinations we’ve traveled to is intangible and internal, but for Sydney-based designer and author Sibella Court, these places have been channeled into the physical world, taking form as books, interiors, her store and brand The Society Inc, as well as a paint collection, amongst other things.
One can trace a path from a childhood spent on Sydney’s harbor to certain shades of blue in her paint line, or architectural details in an interior linked to her decade spent in New York as a prop stylist. The ease and character of Sibella’s work has come to define a certain type of Australian style that embraces a mix of local heritage and global influences—becoming something entirely of its place when married with an Australian way-of-life that blurs the boundaries between inside and outside living.
A former history student, she also draws from the past to inform new ideas. A hospitality project, for instance, might begin by delving into building surveys to uncover a site’s original use and period details, which become a foundation for her imagining of an original occupant, this character then guiding her choices around all aspects of what is right for the space.
Sibella’s paint collection for Australian paint brand Murobond was similarly narrative-driven, a group of vibrant and earthy colors titled “Tender Is the Night,” inspired by the landscapes of F Scott Fitzgerald’s book of the same name set on the French Riviera. “The colors are all about herb gardens in the South of France—I was imagining what could possibly be growing there. Geraniums? What a potting shed would look like?”
That paint collection led to a long-running collaboration with the design team of American retailer Anthropologie that has seen Sibella take-off at a moment’s notice to Delhi, the Galapagos and Japan, seeking inspiration in everything from the sculptures of Naoshima island to the blaze of traditional fire ceremonies. Her instinct for collecting and a habit of befriending craftspeople on the road mean that travel, work and life are often intertwined, “I feel like if you’re open to curiosity, it comes knocking. You find these places and these people and you’re directed to them somehow—you forge these amazing friendships.
Your work often has a strong sense of patina. What is it that draws you to the old over the new? There’s something about the durability of old things and heirlooms, the calm sensibility of bush craft, and times when things were passed down. You’ve got the history and the stories that go with them. And even if you don’t know the stories, you get that essence of the story in a material. All these layers give you such a beautiful feeling and effect that can be added to over time.
You studied history at university then found your way to prop styling. What was your path? I realized I didn’t want to be a historian and a girlfriend had started at Vogue Australia, Edwina McCann, who’s now the head of it there. She said, “Why don’t you come work in the Vogue office? I went into the fashion office and quickly realized that it wasn’t my thing. Eventually I met with one of the editors at Vogue Living and started assisting her, and then I became a stylist and pretty much went out and started my own company at 22 or 21, doing all my own styling.
You then moved to New York to continue as a stylist, can you tell us about the experience?
I wanted to know every single street and every single shop, so I got Martha Stewart Living, which I’d always loved and which had incredible references at the back of it. So I visited every shop listed and met the owners so that when I went propping, I knew where to get everything from. Also, the niche markets and shops in New York blew my mind.
What brought you back to Australia? I actually was always homesick, but particularly for being on and in the water. But I was looking to open a shop in New York. I’d been styling for sixteen years and needed to do something that was an extension of styling. So I found an old iron forge on Green Street and we were offered a five-year lease and my assistant said, “Why don’t you go home and think about it?” I flew to Sydney and happened to meet a guy called Justin Hemmes and was at his holiday house on jet skis, running on the beach and in the water and was like, “I am not going back to New York.” It was all written in the stars, because not long after that my Mum, who was a textile expert who took executive arts tours all over the world, died of a brain aneurysm while she was in a desert camp in Rajasthan. Right before that I got to spend six weeks with her, being with her every single day.
You then opened a store in Sydney? When I moved home, that same girlfriend, Edwina McCann, found me the most beautiful 1860s corner store in Paddington to buy, where I could live upstairs and have a shop downstairs. She sent me the link and said, “This is yours.” We went to the auction, she bid and we bought it that way. I also started writing a book after Mum died and it was such a strangely energetic experience. She was like a traveling superwoman and I feel like I got all her energy when I opened the shop.
What is it about having a shop that you enjoy outside of all your other projects? I like walking through my shop and my space, which I call my “Imaginarium,” to get to my desk. It’s a creative space, because I work with so many amazing people from indigo dyers, to sign writers, to architects, to furniture makers who source stuff for me all over the world. They all come to this space and we have such great conversations and then we create other worlds from being in my world.
Where was your last vacation? Satellite Island, Tasmania
Where will your next vacation be? I am heading to Abiquiú in New Mexico to make watercolor paints from the local pigment and paint under the guidance of Stella Maria Baer in the surrounding landscape that inspired Georgia O’Keeffe.
The thing you can’t travel without? My SONY 7R camera.
Plane, train or automobile? I have a love of all modes of transport and how they reflect the place you’re in, from longboats down the Mekong, old-fashioned Ambassadors in Delhi, tuk-tuks in Asia that whiz around the streets at breakneck speed, and trains that meander through the English countryside leaving you with time to paint and write.
The person you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Diane Keaton would be fun.
What is your in-flight ritual? Plenty of reading matter from magazines to books, my own cashmere blanket, notebook—I seem to have a lot of thoughts and ideas on planes—Bloody Mary, my traveling paint palette and some natural subject matter to paint.
The language you wish you spoke? French.
Desert island or downtown? That is a tough one! The idea of being immersed in nature all day everyday is a strong pull, but then the buzz of downtown with galleries, restaurants, architecture and excitement is so very attractive as well. I’ll take six months in each.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? La Colombe d’Or.
What is your room service indulgence? French fries.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? In a hammock on the beach in Tulum as the wind had whipped away the note from the hotel with the location of the key and we were locked out for the night.
What is your favorite market? Any flea market around the world, large or small, I don’t mind.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? Egypt crica 1900.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Icebergs at Bondi Beach and our glorious harbor with the sails of the outstanding Sydney Opera House.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
Weekend: Any beach on the East Coast of Australia from Byron to the South Coast of NSW.
Week: Satellite Island, Tasmania.
Month: Egypt and beyond.
Year: The South of France.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Drivers and accommodation.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. The freshest, most delicious seafood meal I have ever had, in a casual fish restaurant in the picturesque port of Tobermory, Canada, while road-tripping with my dad in a rented Defender.
Travel hell is? Delayed flights.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Africa.
Favorite stores on earth? John Derian, New York City. The Society Inc, Sydney. Merci, Paris. Tail of the Yak, San Francisco.
Most treasured travel memento? The vintage suzanis I bought with my mum in a textile market in Uzbekistan.
Why do you travel? I travel to seek out inspiration. I concentrate on the experience, the journey, the endevor to connect with the way people live, to find exotic materials and explore how they are used, to observe craftmakers and ateliers, to discover color combinations both manmade and natural, and to open my senses to scent and soundscapes. Travel is a welcome creative interruption to daily life and the agenda becomes to observe, immerse, embrace and soak up all the details to file away in my “Imaginarium.” I souvenir it all. In French the word “souvenir” means both memory and memorabilia, capturing both the spiritual and the tangible remnants of journeys taken.
Conor Burke is a creative director and photographer living in New York, by way of Sydney and Dublin. He oversees PRIOR’s creative, having previously run photographer and interior artist Martyn Thompson’s design studio. Before that he was the market editor at VOGUE Living and a contributing editor at GQ Australia.