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Melbourne Creative Annie Portelli Takes Us Inside Her Renovated 1950s Apartment

Welcome to The Makers. Each week, we’re celebrating innovators, artisans and crafters of all types, taking you on a private tour of their creative spaces. For this instalment, we head to North Melbourne where art director of The Design Files, Annie Portelli, has made a warm and inviting space for herself these past five years.

First things first, let’s talk about those terrazzo countertops. The centrepieces of art director Annie Portelli’s kitchen and bathrooms are two huge slabs of chunky-stone-studded terrazzo. The “blessed” stone benches are her “favourite thing” in the North Melbourne apartment she has owned for the last five years. “My conversation starter,” Portelli exclaims. “She’s my pride and joy.”

But they almost didn’t happen. After purchasing the flat, situated in Melbourne’s renowned 1959 apartment complex 'Hotham Gardens', built with windows on each side and flooded with light, Portelli went through five months of purely aesthetic renovations in order to achieve her interior “vision”. The goal was to bring the place together into one unified design, creating a space that felt warm, inviting and lived-in.

That’s where the terrazzo came in: a benchtop that would run around the curve of the kitchen and in the bathroom, rippled through with big shards of stones in shades of mossy green and terracotta. Because her parents were helping with the renovation, “both physically and financially”, Portelli pitched the idea to them and was met with rolled eyes and the response: "keep it simple".

“They were right to say that,” Portelli muses. “I pretty quickly gave up on the terrazzo dream and started to seek out other options. A couple of weeks later, my dad emailed me at 3:15AM on a Tuesday exclaiming ‘We can do this!’ and he’d ‘figured it out!’. To which I then rolled my eyes.” But they did it – “Well, he did it,” Portelli jokes. “Now it's the hero of the house.”

And it’s not just the terrazzo that makes Portelli’s apartment one of the most special spaces we’ve profiled at Bed Threads. It might be small, but the interiors are perfectly formed, with furniture custom built to fit into the space, such as the dining table made by Thomas Lentini, and sentimental artwork and objects styled in every corner. No wonder Portelli has lived here for five years: it’s tranquil and soothing. The kind of place you want to come home to every day.

“I like to keep the furnishings and objects textural, but tonal,” Portelli advises. “When you look at the apartment as a whole, there are some subtle pops of colour but generally everything is timber, tan or grey. This somehow allows the space to feel light in weight, and calm. The perfect living environment for me.”

Hi Annie! This series is called The Makers. What is it that you make?

Thanks for having me! Well, let’s see, I guess I don’t necessarily ‘make’ anything physical in my job as the art director for The Design Files (TDF), but I suppose I would more or less say I ‘create’ ideas, or visions for projects or activations, which we roll out within the business. Whether it be branding for an exhibition we’re hosting, or a vision for a styled photoshoot to promote an event, a product or someone's home – TDF has a specific ‘feel’ to it, and it’s my job to maintain and push that feel each time something new goes out into the world.

How does the act of “making” relate to your personality and who you are?

Although I don’t have a physical making practice in the same way a ceramicist or a furniture maker might, I’ve been surrounded by makers my whole life. My mum brings people together through food and I’ve watched her make unbelievable meals for hoards of people countless times, often at very short notice. She’s a true magician in the kitchen! She can make ‘the best meal of my life’ from literally nothing.

The same goes for my Dad who's constantly making all kinds of weird and wonderful things in his shed. I think in another life he could have been a full-time inventor.

Both mum and dad brought me and my brothers up with a ‘can do/can make it work’ attitude, which I am really grateful for. It has given me the confidence in my job today to just figure it out even when there’s very little time or resources at hand. A very important lesson indeed!

Tell us about your career journey to date. Did you always know you wanted to pursue this line of work?

I graduated from my Bachelor of Communication Design at Swinburne University in 2013 and then started interning for a big fashion label in Melbourne as an assistant textile designer. I was then offered a job there where I did a blend of textile design, graphic design and PR.

I moved around a little after within the fashion world, but after three years I knew that it wasn’t really for me. I was also a little at odds because I didn’t really love the idea of being a ‘proper’ full-time graphic designer either, so I tried my luck with TDF. I sent my folio across on a whim and hoped for the best, without really expecting anything. I received a reply almost instantly where they told me that although there were no jobs available, they were going to keep my folio on file – and they actually did. A couple of months later, I received an email to say they wanted to meet me. I started almost immediately as a part-time in-house ‘photo editor’. Now, five years later and this job has grown so much, and so has the team.

Talk us through your creative process. Where do you start?

At TDF, I am often working on more long-term projects throughout the week, which is why I jump from one thing to another so frequently in one day. In most cases with any of these projects or events that we have, I always start with a mood board and a visual direction. This is often done well before any of the serious stuff, like the timeline or the event location. But I like to do this really early on and present it to the team to get them all excited. We’re all so visual, so this part of the process is quite important for all of us – it makes it feel like it’s a ‘real thing’.

Once the mood board has been revealed, I usually get started with rolling out the visual elements - whether that be organising a styled shoot or designing a website or branding, I will do what I need to do with the advice from my boss Lucy, and the team, and everything comes together from there. So we very much start with the visual side of things – then the rest falls into place from there with literally the whole team involved.

What’s been the single most crucial tool or strategy you’ve used to grow your creative business?

I guess if I’m talking about growing TDF as a brand, I am always trying to move it forward, keep it looking fresh. If we have an idea, Lucy will encourage us to follow it through and it’s important to take on those opportunities, even if it scares the living daylights out of you.

It’s important – especially if you work for a company – to feel like you’re always progressing and learning whilst growing the business you work for. It makes the whole experience way more fulfilling for everyone.

Do you have a single piece of advice you’d give to your younger self or someone looking to break into the industry?

One thing I wish I was told when I had just left university is that just because you studied say graphic design, it doesn't mean you have to be a graphic designer.

I have always been in roles where graphic design is just a small portion of what I do and I am thankful for that. As a creative, you have many arms – one of which can use Photoshop while the other is taking photos or styling a shoot. All of these assets are so valuable to you and the places you may choose to work, so don’t limit yourself to one thing just because you’re ‘qualified’. Do all the things, and it will make you a better ‘graphic designer’ or whatever it is that you have been trained to do because you can truly understand the bigger picture.

It’s also fun to change things up and not sit at a computer all day.

Now, the home stuff. How long have you lived in your home?

This would be my fifth year living in my little abode.

How did you initially know this was the space for you?

I had my eye on this apartment complex for years before buying this one. This block is known as Hotham Gardens and was built in 1959 as a collaboration between architects Roy Grounds, Anne Reynolds and John Mockridge, who worked with landscape architect Beryl Mann. They described this complex as an ‘Urban Forest’ with the aim to enhance wellbeing of the residents through an extremely considered use of space and connection to surrounding gardens.

Aside from its history, there are so many things to love about Hotham Gardens. I love the crazy outdoor spiral staircase connecting each of the blocks together, I love that there are windows on every single wall and most of all, I love that when you look out each of those windows, all you see is green. The surrounding gardens are quite amazing. It’s quite a luxury living in an apartment this deep into the city and experiencing the benefits of a 360-degree garden. It ticked all the boxes.

Did you do any renovations or make any big changes after moving in?

Yes, so many things! These buildings are really solid so there was nothing too serious or structural I had to worry about. This meant I could really just focus on the aesthetics of the house. I’m grateful that the space is quite small and simply laid out because it means you can quite literally stand in the main entrance, look into the space and see it all in one hit. This made ‘the vision’ much easier to grasp.

I didn’t really plan on going so hard, so fast with the renovations. You soon realise it’s not actually possible to redo, say, the flooring, without having to pull out the entire kitchen, and you can’t redo the kitchen without pulling up the flooring. So I kind of just had to do it all at once, but it was manageable since it’s such a bite-size space.

In about five or so months of renovations, there it was - 63 square meters of home sweet home. They say it takes a village to bring up a child, right? I say it takes a village to renovate an apartment.

Shop Annie's look with Pinstripe and White in our Build Your Own Bundle.

What was the thought process behind the way you’ve styled the interior?

I wanted to keep it light and simple – most of the furniture was custom built to fit wall-to-wall as there’s no room to spare. I have mainly used marine ply everywhere because it’s light, strong and durable.

But the styling of this interior is purely sentimental. Most of the ‘stuff’ in the house is pretty random that I don’t really know how to categorise it in one word. Everything means something and I find it really hard to get rid of things once they’re given to me because I become too attached (I believe there’s a word for this…) But that’s how I like it and that’s what makes it feel like home. I like looking around and seeing things that remind me of people I love.

What are your favourite pieces in the home?

There’s a couple of goodies hanging around – I love my dad’s illustrations from back when he was in high school, which I have scattered around the house. There’s one sitting on the top shelf of the living room of a swan gliding through water, and a lovely sketch of the countryside above my bed.

My dining table is the centrepiece of the apartment, which was made by my good friend Thomas Lentini who is an incredible carpenter. This table is where I eat, cook, work and talk - I will lug this table with me throughout my life.

Do you have any special décor pieces you’re looking to add?

There will always be things that I ‘want’ to update but don’t ‘need’ to update, so really, if anything, I probed should just get rid of some things. In saying that, I do have had my *wishful* eye on a beautiful Bena rug, however, I’m going to park that one for a while. I also need a new bed frame.

Which is your favourite room in the house?

It’s a pretty open plan, but I guess the kitchen and dining area is my favourite. It’s also the most considered area of the house. It gets lovely dappled light in the morning, which gives me the same feeling of being in the house I grew up in. It’s where we have the funniest conversations, and it’s where everyone gathers when they’re over for dinner.

Shop Annie's look with Pinstripe and White in our Build Your Own Bundle.

What are your top tips for a well-styled bedroom, and home generally?

Lighting is really important. You want a nice warm, indirect lighting, which you have full control over with the dimmer. If it were up to me, all my lights would be wall lights or free-standing lamps as opposed to overhead lights, however, there are only so many corners and powerpoints in small apartments like mine so sacrifices were made.
Do you have any projects coming up you want to talk about?

At TDF, we always have a bunch of things on the horizon at once, which then gradually roll out over the year. On a personal note, I am currently working on a photography book for a good friend of mine Jessica Grilli, which will launch very soon, so stay tuned.

For more from Annie, follow her on Instagram @annieportelli.

Love this home tour? Step inside interior designer Simone Haag's relaxed beachfront weekender on Phillip Island.

Discover more of Australia's most beautiful homes in our series, The Makers.

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