The escape and romance of a much-loved detailed house garden served as a verdant inspiration to reimagine a northern Sydney home, and the result hits the ball out of the park. Morton and Margo Harbison would have invested in a luxury tent; such is their passion for the 2400-square-meter garden they share with their daughters in Sydney.
Margo’s sister, architect Polly Harbison, would sketch ideas for an extension to replace the 1950s lean-to on their Federation house on family holidays. The unusually long garden was everything to the couple, and they wanted to feel as if they were living in it. So was born the Garden Room, a space more suited to a Luca Guadagnino film set than here among the battle-ax blocks of Sydney’s North Shore. “The garden has a grove of trees in the middle and a heady mix of flowers in every shape and color,” says Harbison. “They wanted their house to have a similar combination of rich colors and textures yet with the same feeling of calmness.”
Colour, texture, and calm are collectively what interiors studio Arent&Pyke do best, and so the firm was engaged to collaborate with Polly. Builder Stefan Zandt and Arent&Pyke’s Genevieve Hromas and Sarah-Jane Pyke were much involved in the project, but none quite like Ewan and Margo, herself a painter so especially intrigued with the questions of color. “Stefan balked a little at the shortlist of 38 colors for brush-outs,” says Harbison, “but Margo, being an artist, completely understood the importance of the smallest variations in shade and tone.”
Her sister, meanwhile, conceived a single storey that would connect the home to the garden by way of spatial manipulation. “A sequence of increasing scales create this sort of warped perspective effect to draw the garden into the house,” she explains. The floors are stepped down to the garden level and culminate in a four-meter-high space, increasing in width and height.
Daughters Emma, Alice, and Eloise have all inherited Dad’s tall genes. Now they have the original house to themselves but stay connected via a communal meeting place. “We wanted the kitchen in the middle to connect the family,” says Morton. It also finds a connection to the garden via a north-facing courtyard, and the area forms a sort of threshold between the old and the new.
This transition is poetic; the moment, the timber floors morph into green terrazzo tiles. “Something was missing,” says Arent Squadrito when asked about the bold floor tiles, “the romance or spirit we were after. I showed Margo a reference image of an Italian loggia with bordered and checkerboard terrazzo floors. Her beaming smile showed me we were on the right track.”
Larger tiles are laid in more extensive areas, and the whole achieves an Italian-summer- house feel. Polly is so wonderfully open. She always delighted in our suggestions as it allowed her to view the house in a different light.
The warm, rich palette continues in the joinery, the cabinetry, and on the walls. “We wanted rough rendered walls that were not white but sludgy grey-green,” says Arent Squadrito. Tones of tourmaline and emerald lead to the dramatic outdoor shower. External sliding screens and doors protect the space or are recessed into the meter-thick walls for complete immersion in the garden.
“Many of the ideas we presented to Ewan and Margo were highly conceptual and may have been challenging for some clients,” says Arent Squadrito, “but they had such trust in the process and our vision. Ewan encouraged us to push him more, and as the build progressed and budgets got tight, they knew how to pause on some components so as not to skimp on others — such as the solid Rosso Levanto marble stairs.” Morton’s reservation about the expensive calacatta over a Carrara marble benchtop did not last long. “I decided I would rather do it well and sit on milk crates,” he says. “The big thing is trust.” Harbison agrees: “This is the core success of the project: everyone shared the aspiration to make the house an artwork. The spaces are a series of compositions.”
“I am happy to go out of here in a box,” says Morton. Until then, he and Margo will keep delighting in the never-ending gardening tasks and the daily joys their new home brings.
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