Megan Morton is high on life.
Huxtaburger has just opened a pop-up around the corner from her studio in the Sydney suburb of Rosebery in collaboration with purveyor of exhibitionist ice cream, Gelato Messina. And like 400 others – a conservative estimate, if anything – starved for the kind of Instagram friendly moment only a collaboration of that nature can provide, she too has feasted on their joint wares. The results?
“Delicious [and] actually ridiculous. It’s lifestyle that’s gone a bit absurd.”
As one of Australia’s leading interior stylists, Morton is not one to be easily deterred by lifestyle with an undercurrent of absurdity. In fact, she embraces it wholeheartedly and with a passion that becomes both contagious and all consuming the longer you speak with her. In the hands of anyone else, “handmade spoons with twig handles”, “beeswax candle chalices”, “knitted koala bear egg cosies” and an installation of “Christmas trees [made] out of vintage books that are based on the colours of the areas” would sound totally absurd, but under Morton’s supervision, the effect is entirely endearing instead. For Morton, the devil is in the details – and this year the devil has been extremely busy.
Credit: Aimee Thompson; Instagram
When we talk, Morton – known as a ‘house whisperer’ by trade – is in the thick of assembling all the accoutrements that will form the basis of her Christmas in July residency at Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, the ultra-luxury conservation-based resort located on 7,000 private acres within the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains region of New South Wales. Over the last months, Morton has been busy assembling the ingredients for an immaculate visual feast she has been serving in the past few weeks at the carbon-neutral resort and wildlife reserve, “a very big, beautiful architecturally designed property” to which she has been adding, “what I call ‘minutiae’.
“From when guests arrive at the front door through to when they check in; from every meal they have, through to their rooms where every night they’ll receive a changeover of favours that are, of course, all handmade and all ridiculously cute, [it’s] all just very beautiful,” Morton told GRAZIA from her studio.
If that intensity of assemblage sounds stressful or daunting in the slightest, apparently it’s quite the opposite. The main challenge for Morton, on this job as on any other, is making people believe in a little bit of magic and its transformative powers in the face of a world tearing along at a breakneck pace.
“I think [Christmas in July] is really nice. I find Christmas in December quite stressful. I think this is a really nice way to sit back, smell the roses and be with people you really love. I think [this] is actually the antidote that the whole world needs right now, right?”
Morton might be on to something there. Considering the state of things, there are way worse things that we could all do than just, “Sit back [and] take a deep breath. Be in country air, try and find a wombat and eat “beautiful country eggs with a spoon made from an Adelaide artisan who only works with suppliers from within a five-kilometre radius to keep her footprint clean and clear.
“This is the kind of ridiculous that we’re talking about. Nothing has been left to Etsy, or to chance.”
Instead of relying on scouring the Internet, Morton assembled a crack team of artisans to execute her vision not in garish traditional red and green garlands, but in oxblood grosgrain or velvet paired with long-stemmed pinecones foraged by a “fibre artist”, or in Sydney artist Tracey Deep’s floating floral installations that take “the native Australian thing to a whole new level.”
Etsy this certainly is not – which isn’t to say that Morton is against the extensive online craft marketplace. In fact, she’s currently searching the site for a “hatch that looks like it could be from a Polish whiskey bar.
“I love [Etsy].They’re always so grateful that you bought something. I love that gracious, beautiful [gesture of] ‘Here you go, I also gave you another postage stamp from a French envelope that I thought you also might like.’ I think that’s very generous and very humble. I like the idea of someone across the other side of the world getting money; another woman who’s just trying to not go on Net-A-Porter.”
Hearing her describe it, it’s impossible to not want to pack up and move permanently into a world of Morton’s creation – one that she has hand crafted for herself over an impressive career. Morton began piecing together this world from an early age as a child growing up in the Gold Coast hinterland of Queensland, on a banana farm in Pimpama that – like the Wolgan Valley – is “posh country now [but] was just a lovely place to grow up and sing and dance and walk through forests.” Far removed from the world of interiors and with only a Peter Alexander mail order catalogue at her disposal, Morton learned to love making the best of what was around, foraging for and collecting materials on the “half a day walk” to and from her best friends place. Old habits die hard, apparently, and that old pastime bears an uncanny resemblance to what she does today.
“Whatever you liked at eight is really what you like now,” she says. “I like the same things. My dad’s laminated picture from my birthday; a letter that I wrote about brass bed heads and clove and oranges on the bedside [that read] ‘the house looked really scrubby on the outside but inside it was so beautiful. There was a hand mirror [and] a comb made out of tortoise shell’; all this stuff that I didn’t even know about because I was a country Queenslander. [Now] I have to go to Tokyo to buy the A.P.C. orange fragrance that I just literally put in my shoes because I still love that smell. You really don’t change – your budget changes.”
Before her first styling job for House & Garden, before a stint as a corporate marketing director working in publishing (an area in which she first formally studied), Morton’s first proper job was at DOLLY Magazine. It was there that she invented DOLLY Club and became its first president because, to hear her tell it, “I thought, ‘Teenagers need a spot to come to.’ I knew that not everyone was from Surry Hills with cool parents. I really loved working at DOLLY because it’s what I try and do now: be inclusive.
“I think that style is an education. Everybody can get it. It’s not just lesser people who’ve got money, or who could afford to go to nice places. Everybody can have these really lovely daily rituals enhanced when they understand the maps and the beauty of styling.”
In a way, it all sounds like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Morton is now a ‘cool parent’ of three children aged 17, 16 and six-years-old who’ve all grown up collecting seashells instead of stones and hung signs on their bedroom doors declaring that ‘No stylists are allowed’ to enter. Needless to say, resistance to the singular world of a stylist mother has been futile. Morton recently hired a French carpenter to build her youngest daughter a bunk bed “with a curtain underneath to create a dressing room [with] a TV hidden behind the clothes to create a tiny pied-à-terre in a tiny bedroom” replete with a ladder, a fireman’s pole, French linens and her daughter’s name carved into the hand-painted timber. Naturally, her daughter refuses to sleep in it, preferring instead to camp on a window seat. Morton, however, remains resolute in her mission to “make good at my house” in much the same way her parents taught her. A Max Doyle photograph recently installed in her son’s bedroom received a reluctant thumbs up – progress, it would seem, is slow and steady but almost certain when it comes to the job of being a stylist, and a mother.
“You can’t really say what the end result of a stylist’s job is. You can just know the full amount. You’ve got to know that there is a bit of scared juice somewhere, because you can put things in a PDF, you can put them in spreadsheets, but all those things don’t necessarily add up to the magic air. That’s why it’s a really long game. You just can’t [say], ‘Oh, I am on Instagram. I’m a stylist.’ The idea is that everyday you’ve got to do it, because then your eyes know it, and your hands know it, then you can do it almost with your eyes closed.”
Credit: Aimee Thompson
I ask Morton how she describes what she does to her daughter and she pauses to think. “It’s just about making things truly beautiful. It really is. I’m always asking my six year old, ‘What do you think is beautiful?’ and she gets it. I like to think of it as when you slow cook paella, you’ve got to sit there and stand there and do it. You can’t microwave it. You can’t put it on uber-heat. You can’t fast track this stuff. You’ve got to sit with the really old fashioned notion that beauty takes a long time. There’s no quick way. You’ve got to let it stew.
“That’s what I love about all these styling efforts on Instagram – it still makes good work rise to the top. I think [gallerist] Michael Reid did a great thing when someone said to him, ‘What about all these art things sold on Instagram? Isn’t it disgusting? Isn’t it horrible? Isn’t it anti the whole creative services world?’ He said, ‘Oh god, no. It just makes the good stuff far more powerful.’”
‘Making the good stuff far more powerful’ could almost be a mission statement for The School, a creative hub she opened in a converted warehouse in Rosebery in 2012 where local creatives from a variety of disciplines share their knowledge. Classes available at The School range from Shibori – a manual Japanese dyeing technique – to small business classes with fashion industry luminary Robyn Holt and science of styling classes with Morton herself. Considering she’s descended from a large Catholic family of teachers, the impulse to share her skills with others is a natural one; deciding to open The School, however, was also one of the greatest risks she has ever taken in her career.
“Opening The School was really risky, because we are basically training people to think like us, and how to think like us is to open your mind to everything that you’ve not ever learnt before. Anything that you learned in design school, we will turn it on its head, and say, ‘No, circles and squares work, or contrast needs to be in a picture to make the alchemy.’ We turn it [on its head] in one day, because I want people, even if they don’t want to be a designer, to be able to go to their mantelpiece that night and just have a really good time [styling] it. Even if they don’t want to be this $7,000 a day stylist, everybody wants to feather their nest. This why home wares stores exists – to play on that horrible vulnerability of, ‘My arrangement is sexier than yours’, or whatever it is that people are trying to show by shooting all that stuff.”
As for her own ongoing enlightenment, Morton has her eye on photography – not Instagram-friendly photography of the kind The School teaches a course on, but “old-school style. I want to learn how to paint photos. That painting approach to printing.
“I’m thinking of taking a sabbatical to Adelaide to where they have one of the oldest remaining proper processing plants, where you could actually print and grade colour. I also would like to learn how to actually cook a meal. I really don’t enjoy cooking.”
If it hasn’t already become apparent, Morton is more than happy to share and continue sharing the cumulative experiences and details that together comprise her distinctive world, be it through The School, in the styling of peoples’ homes or on Instagram, where she now has over 78,000 followers equally as enamoured with the beauty in her minutiae.
“I wish I knew [when I first started] that no one could take the beauty away. If you understand beauty, and you work at it, no one can take that away from you, even if the job is unsuccessful from a corporate point of view. To live and work in the beauty is the best thing ever. No matter how you do it. No one can say that was ugly, because it was beautiful to you.”
Though it’s not immediately apparent, there’s something almost subversive in Morton’s adamant refusal to see the world in any other way. In a country where recent drastic cuts to arts funding have been memorialised with their own day of mourning, Black Friday, and cultural cringe is a full-time national affliction, there’s a sense of rebellion in the pursuit of beauty, and vice versa.
“In Australia there is a cultural cringe around what it is to like styling, or appreciate styling, and I think it’s total BS. There is no other country in the world that is so crude against [aesthetics]. We’ve had 200 years of tall poppy [syndrome]. Then we go, ‘Oh, fussing. That’s just silly, and vain and vacuous.’ Fussing isn’t. Fussing is amazing and therapeutic, and it’s why they teach basket weaving to the mentally ill. Sitting there doing something menial but with an outcome is actually very restorative.
“Whether you make a basket or get so much enjoyment on Sunday afternoon when the house is quiet [putting] music on and just [going to] your bookshelf – people say it’s unintellectual. It’s not. It’s training your brain to understand shapes and colours, and it helps people get through really shit situations. They live in a house they don’t like. They live with people they don’t like. You can fluff your way out of things. It can really save you. It can also really hold you prisoner, but I think at the most part it can really help you.”
Tile image: Instagram
Cover image: Aimee Thompson