In Conversation with Karen McCartney

Author, columnist, curator, editor, and all-round design and architecture expert, Karen McCartney, welcomes us into her Sydney home. Set amongst native bushland overlooking the water, Marshall House is an iconic piece of Australian architecture…  

A Hans Wenger Shell Lounge Chair sits adjacent to an Ildiko Kovacs painting showcased on a brick wall.

What drew you to Marshall House? 

With the Marshall House, (1967) by architect Bruce Rickard, it was love at first sight. I didn’t know anything about the pedigree, the architect or its significance – I just knew that I loved it. It sits, hidden away, on a battle-axe block with a great view over the Spit Bridge on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. He encouraged his clients to plant natives around the house and we are benefiting from those decisions made over 55 years ago. The house is constructed from enduring materials – recycled brick, Australian hardwood timbers, stainless steel benches and slate bathrooms. It is an unassuming house – honest, modest in scale but big on atmosphere, connection to nature and an overall sense of well-being. 

How did you first become interested in design?

I had long had an interest in design and when we lived in London, we started to collect vintage Danish furniture, particularly Hans Wegner chairs, buying from auction houses – we wish we had bought even more as it is now so collectable. I was writing for Elle Decoration UK and was good friends with photographer Martyn Thompson who always had the best taste. He was (and is) a big influence. 

An impressive 1930s Pol Chambost vase bought from the Leonard Joel Geoffrey Hatty sale, sits on an integrated desk alongside a Jason chair from the 1950s.

What was your first Leonard Joel auction purchase, and where is it now? 

When my grandfather died (at 99 so he had a good innings) he left me 800 pounds. I spent half on a labradoodle who we called Bing – after my grandfather who was a Bingham – and with the other half I bought a pair of grey pearl earrings from Leonard Joel. They are an enduring jewellery piece that I continue to love. Of course, since then I closely monitor all sales and most recently bought some favourite pieces from the Geoffrey Hatty sale including a spectacular Pol Chambost vase. It is something I am very proud to own both because it is beautiful and quirky and reminds me of Geoffrey every day. 

What does “good design” mean to you?

Good design is such a moveable feast and beauty often is in the eye of the beholder. In every genre there are pieces which are well executed and resolved, have a certain quality, concept or execution that makes them special or unique. You don’t have to like everything for it to be good!

Eames side storage unit sits in front of a 3-D artwork by Alison Coates.

What advice do you have for young design enthusiasts and collectors? 

My advice is a combination of head and heart. Respond to what you love, but also research and be informed so that you buy well with a view to the long term. Buy less but buy the best
in show. 

Are there any places that you’ve visited on your travels that have been particularly inspirational when it comes to design? 

Travel is gold when it comes to design and inspiration. Because you have this shift in mindset, and hence perception, when you are in new places you see things that pique your interest everywhere you look; a particular door design, a ceramic at Paul Bert Serpette in Paris, an oil painting in an Italian cheese shop. Last year I did a design report from Milan Design Week for est_living so that was a rush of great design concentrated into a short period of time. 

Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

My ‘job’ is not singular but rather I have a number of hats that all intersect around design and architecture. I act as an editor, an advisor, a writer, a curator of design talks, a procurer of furniture and lighting for interior projects, so there is never a dull moment and all of the above are on the cards for 2023.
My main thing is to collaborate with people I like and admire and that way it feels much less like work. 

Thank you Karen for chatting with us! For more design insights and travel highlights, follow her on Instagram at @mccartneyk

Banner Image: Karen McCartney at her Sydney Home

February 2023