Worlds clash in pair’s mansion make-over

FASHION designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales are ”rearranging” East Melbourne’s elegant Fairhall House museum, part of the Johnston Collection of fine and decorative arts so, naturally, a disco mirror ball is suspended over the 18th century silver teapots and platters in the kitchen. A grinning ”monkey-mermaid Japanese mythical creature-thing” is posed under a glass dome among the antiques and gilt-framed paintings of ships ploughing through storm-lashed seas in a downstairs study. A pair of owls, big as dogs, puffed and fluffy as chinchilla cats, are the focal points of a ”jungly, foresty, woodsy” theme going on under the drawing room’s crystal chandelier. And, everywhere, there is evidence of Plunkett and Sales’ incorrigible imagination: their sparkly red ”lobster dress”, the quivering, crystal-crusted wedding gown they based on Falcor from The NeverEnding Story, the infamous ”nana frock” Cate Blanchett wore to such howls of derision before it was copied on catwalks around the world.
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The couple behind the seven-year-old label Romance Was Born, hope a new young crowd will flush through the Johnston, curious about their interpretation of, ”these beautiful old things”. Their ”The Bride, The Ship & The Wardrobe” arrangement opens for appointments today, and there’s a definite crackle of clashing worlds in the air. ”This is such a cool, hidden-away place,” says Sales. ”It’s its own little world and that’s what Anna and I do in our shows.”

Three times a year the Johnston Trust invites a new creative professional to ”do their thing” with the contents of the mansion museum which was bequeathed to Victoria by collector William Johnston in 1986. More than 1000 strange and lovely items of art, craft, furniture, utensils and bric-a-brac are arranged under its lofty ceilings or stored at the National Gallery of Victoria. They form a kind of ”tool kit” or language with which to construct new ideas. Japanese-Australian designer Akira Isogawa, for example, explored narcissism and self-image in clusters of mirrors, and the scourge of time in a crowd of clocks.

Plunkett and Sales admit they were flummoxed at first, about what to do. ”Really confused,” says Plunkett, a delicate beauty with hanks of pale, lolly-pink hair. ”It was about someone else’s – William’s – life but it felt empty. By bringing our own pieces in, I felt we brought a bit of life back in, too.”

She worried, however, about dis-respecting the hushed, history-loaded museum with the wild and vibrant Romance Was Born aesthetic. ”But then, our pieces are collected by museums like the National Gallery of Victoria and the Powerhouse, too,” she says. ”So, I thought, in that context, in a museum context, they really work.”

As they drifted from room to room, Plunkett and Sales’ first plan to base the rearrangement on the colours and themes of existing rooms, became more tangled with their mushrooming ideas. In one large bedroom, for instance, they explored a horizon of weighty themes, from life, death, love, hate, illness, royalty, and family history, to the simple, formal task of popping on a pair of jim-jams before climbing into bed to dream. It’s all there, in a black, handpainted kimono from their summer collection, a pair of ”love, hate” slippers, and a quiet arrangement of golden ornaments and clocks, silk and gilt chairs, and a gallery of moody 19th century portrait paintings.

”I liked those portraits, because the families had to sell them to make enough money to live on,” says Sales. The daily mechanics of past and present lives, is sub-text in many rooms, mixed up in the flamboyant, richly coloured pieces from their Romance Was Born archive.

In one of the smallest rooms, for example, simply called the ”craft room”, Sales mustered a small forest of Johnston’s Staffordshire porcelain figurines to set in context with his and Plunkett’s explosive, multi-coloured creations in wool yarn and cloth. The figurines are quite lovely, but not delicate. Sales says he picked them because they were cruder, cheaper, and preferred by poor people as home decorations than the finer, biscuit ceramics of the mid-19th century.

”They even had children paint them sometimes, ” he says. ”And, look at this; this piece is older than this country.”

Eight rooms in Plunkett and Sales’ rearrangement of the Johnston Collection, including the cupid and angel infested Bridal Room, the silver and crystal kitchen and a ”woodsy” drawing room will be on show by tour appointment until October 24.

Bookings: johnstoncollection.org; Phone: 9416 2515

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.