In Conversation with Yvonne Shafir

Yvonne Shafir

Yvonne Shafir describes her vivid home as a bit like “an overgrown garden”. Stepping into her Spanish Mission house in bayside Melbourne, this rings true, in the best way. All available space has been thoughtfully occupied…

Your home is a visual feast! Tell us about how it all came together.

When I first moved in, there was a lime green carpet in most areas and the walls were white. In the five years since, Leonard Joel has been instrumental in converting a sort of MCM aesthetic into a surrealist, botanical, totemic, animistic, decorative arty, camp collection that happens to house me, my two cats, and the occasional boarder. I like to tell stories with my art, objects, and furniture. I do this by constantly reshaping the collections I own, through a kind of manic curation.

The lounge room, with a painting by Ali Miller, and pink man lion by Sergio Bustamente

What was your first Leonard Joel purchase?
A dark lavender velvet tufted bedhead. It became the masthead of my office over the lockdowns… and beyond. 

Can you tell us about some more recent purchases?
I’ve bought quite a few lights from Leonard Joel. You could say they have been lighting my way, really. There are the two lamps in the study, the art deco desk lamp with the bakelite lavender stem and apricot glass shade. And then the red Foscarini standard lamp that you are no longer able to find at Space Furniture in that colour. Not to mention the Murano chandelier in the entry way which, as many a Leonard Joel lamp purchaser has done, I cradled in my lap as a cautious nephew drove me home.

Yvonne’s first Leonard Joel purchase, a velvet bedhead

You mentioned a few purchasing mishaps…?
Buying online, without really reading the description… and imagining things to be a different size. Such as the gigantic toadstool I bought thinking it was a few centimetres high, or the hall console, whose footprint was a few shoe sizes too big. 

Sometimes the mishap is missing out; one particularly painful memory is eyeballing an Italian fifties porcelain panther in a Tel Aviv storefront over a period of months and then finally going in to purchase it and it was gone. You snooze you lose! Luckily, I did end up getting an Italian fifties ceramic panther at Leonard Joel, much larger than the one I saw on Dizengoff Street all those years ago, and it now overlooks my kitchen. 

How did your time in New York influence your personal style and collecting aesthetic?
I moved to New York when I was 24 and stayed until I was fifty. I did a PhD in Comparative Literature (no, it didn’t take 26 years!), went to the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera (alas, no longer extant), the hallowed nightclubs like the Palladium, Danceteria, and Limelight, and met all sorts. One of my addresses was down the road from an auction room called Doyle’s. I’d go out to buy a coffee and come home with piece of Galle glass.

So, to answer the question, I suppose New York was learning about breaking down boundaries: between high and low, art, not art, celebrity and public. The French department of Columbia University oversaw an explosion of post structuralism into theory and art practice. My personal interests had me exploring parts of town and environments that were quite far from the ivory tower uptown, but equally educational.

The Italian ceramic panther, covered in artwork by Hiromi Tango

You spoke about your love for surrealism, how does this tie into your space?
I fell into Surrealism when I was awarded a book by William Gaunt as dux prize for being a study nerd. I was captivated by the idea of a magical unseen world underlying our existence; enamoured by the Surrealist project of turning reality into dream. Creating an interior that feels dreamlike, was certainly a design principle. No doubt for many, my interior might represent a nightmare, but that’s a response I accept.

One way of creating a new reality, or surreality, is by juxtaposing random objects. There’s the famous Surrealist line about the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table. Combining objects that might not seem to connect, yet when they are put together, create a whole new experience.

These two principles have guided my collection a little, which, elsewhere, I quipped, ought not be called “eclectic” if you wanted to keep me happy. Now, I don’t really care – call it what you will. A fine line between important and kitsch? Good and bad taste? No line?

Finally, after all these decades, I have understood that even if you put a sewing machine and an umbrella, two seemingly very different objects, together, on yet another seemingly obscure locus, you will find connections, and many, if you look hard enough. It is redefining the way that we see things that I think we can appreciate in the Surrealists.

What’s your most memorable reaction when someone has visited your place for the first time?
Good question… a baby (whose was it?) that came in and just didn’t know where to look, because basically there is sensory overload in here, at least on a visual and tactile sense. So many colours and patterns. Shiny things. Most people who come here do have a reaction of some kind. I hope it puts them in a happy place. Or a visual coma. 

Thank you to Yvonne for welcoming us into her home and chatting with us.

Banner Image: Yvonne’s study featuring lamps and artwork sourced at Leonard Joel (Beacon Tower 2022 by Christopher McVinish)

September 2022