To say that Michelle Bishop’s future was always written in the stars is putting things mildly. Having met her future husband at 16 years old, her career in architecture and design was always supported by her builder husband Tom, who would help her with assignments while working on his own construction business. Together, they blended architecture, renovations and 3 children, all while yearning to get back to the place that held a special place in their hearts - the south coast…
Bangalay Luxury Villas are a result of both Michelle and Tom’s serious commitment to design, family and coastal living. After welcoming their fourth child in 2018, Bangalay officially opened its doors a few months later, and life has been a beautiful mix of both chaos and tranquility ever since. “We wanted Bangalay to capture the feeling that we have always experienced in Shoalhaven Heads, its natural beauty, friendly people and relaxed atmosphere. I read a quote once which said “create a life you don’t need a holiday from” and I feel like we have it.”
We caught up with Michelle recently to talk through her diverse and impressive career evolution, how one of the most difficult times of her life ended up putting everything into perspective, and why Bangalay is more of a lifestyle than a business to everyone that experiences its magic…
You met your husband Tom when you were 16 years old and married at 21. Did you always know you’d be together for the long haul?
When I met Tom at the age of 16 I had my heart set on a career in the architecture/design industry, he was a young and ambitious fully qualified builder. Whilst neither of us took things too seriously initially, within 18 months we were in a situation where it made sense to move in together needing to both be in Sydney and not knowing many people. Everything about how our relationship progressed seemed very natural despite my age and stage of life. I would refer to our relationship as a partnership with a firm respect for each other’s abilities and contributions rather than a romance, our attraction grew from discussing ideas and plans for our futures (which were always very aligned).
How did your relationship influence your career path? You were buying and selling houses together at such a young age, and both had careers around the building/design/architecture industries - was this always the plan, to work in similar fields?
Tom and I lived together when I moved to Sydney to study interior design and Tom did a lot to support me, everything from building my models (the teachers could always tell, they were always very sturdy), forcing me into bed by midnight and to wake up again at 4:30am rather than do all nighters to complete assignments. He even built all the displays for our year’s final exhibition.
Tom’s appreciation for architecture definitely grew while living through my 3 year course. We regularly attended architectural talks and went to exhibitions, we had an extensive library of architecture books and magazines and our living area regularly looked like a design studio with product samples, plans and yellow trace everywhere. I spent a lot of times on building sites and helped him with lots of aspects of his business, the construction knowledge I picked up through Tom definitely expedited my career progression. We still both get very excited whenever an architect sends through a tender set.
You moved to the south coast of NSW after having three children and working in various architectural firms as well as your own projects. Was this move always in the works and would you say having young children influenced the decision?
Tom and I always knew we both wanted to move back to the south coast, we just weren’t sure exactly when. The nature of Tom’s work is that he has projects which go for nearly 2 years at a time, so nothing happens spontaneously for us. I was the one driving the move home more than Tom, we had already started working on Bangalay which had been in the pipeline since 2005 but hadn’t progressed very far. The children were aged 6, 4 and 18 months, I was working full time in a role similar to what I had been doing for the 7 years previously which I enjoyed but had definitely plateaued with, and Tom was working long hours. We rarely found time to get down to the south coast to see our families and they were becoming increasingly reluctant to come to visit us (the Sydney traffic was always a huge issue).
We had a great lifestyle in Manly with the beach and harbour so close and basically never having to use a car, we had amazing neighbours and great friends (who we still see and keep in touch with) but we had always wanted our kids to have a similar childhood to us which was very much influenced by our grandparents and the relative freedom you have being in a small village and in Tom’s case a farm. We hadn’t had a substantial project to work on for ourselves and were missing it. My thoughts about making the move were spurred on by a play date and cup of tea with Emma Lane, she was telling me about their plans for The Farm and love of her family time in Byron Bay. It inspired me to start to invest more into our Bangalay Project and pushed me to act on what I called a “gut feel.” Tom took a few months to come on board. Things all seemed to fall into place very easily once the decision was made. The first few weeks were ideal but after about 6 weeks my mum was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
Your dreams for Bangalay were in the works since 2012, but didn’t actually go to plan until 2017. During that time you experienced some negative backlash against the development, a change of career, completed a Masters degree, immersed yourself in the Shoalhaven community, lost your mother to cancer and became pregnant with your fourth baby. What do you feel when you look back at this time filled with so much change?
There are so many emotions experienced over the past 5 years, the first one which comes to mind is gratefulness, we have been so well-supported by so many people. Being on the receiving end of so much support and kindness both personally and professionally has been what has got our family through the past few years. I think it will take me a lifetime to return the favour to everyone around me.
You’ve described yourself as having a “mini breakdown” in 2015 which lead to you quitting your job and embarking on a road trip around Australia with your dad and children. What happened during this time that made you realise you needed a break? Did you seek help?
I lost my mum, completed my masters and started a new job which required a lot of travel all in the same month. Everyone kept saying to give myself time but I think I was running on adrenaline. I got to a point in October 2015 when I couldn’t sleep, my entire body ached and I just started crying and couldn’t stop. I had amazing support from a friend who specialised in acupuncture and Chinese medicine and she referred me to a counsellor who was part of her practice. Tom could see I needed help and put me on a plane to Gaia in Byron Bay. It was there that I was able to reflect on what I needed to change. I needed something to focus on that was just focused on the family, planning the road trip around Australia with my dad was the perfect project.
There’s a 13 year age gap between your first and fourth child. Did you always want a big family? How did Eddie’s arrival impact the family dynamic?
I had always wanted 4 children and had hoped that this might happen with the move to the south coast but the timing just wasn’t right. The dynamic of our family has definitely shifted since Eddie’s arrival, the older children adore him and the tempo in the house is definitely calmer and kinder. With Bangalay opening soon after Eddie’s birth, Tom is doing a lot more with the kids, he especially is really enjoying being able to spend time with Eddie, he often says “I really didn’t think I would love to have a baby again this much”.
How does motherhood differ the fourth time around, and this time with more family to help around you. Has the slower south coast environment made a difference to how you’ve handled his first year of life?
I’ve always been a pretty relaxed mother, I’ve been lucky to have relatively easy babies who eat, sleep and smile a lot. The big gap is so good, the older kids are a great help and being able to enjoy a baby without having to run after a toddler is a dream. It’s really nice to have the extended family so close. Our parents (who both live on the same street) are terrific, they all spend a lot of time with the kids and we have dinner together a few times a week which is always welcome after a big day. Tom and I are as busy as ever but the south coast has a different energy about it which we love. I have 3 friends who are all the same age as me and have all had a baby after a big gap, we try to catch up regularly for an unofficial mothers group, when we do we end up talking about everything other than babies.
Bangalay opened its doors in September 2018 and includes 16 luxury villas as well as a beautiful restaurant, Bangalay Dining. What has the process been like setting up such a considered project and seeing it finally come to life?
The process has been pretty incredible, we had a wonderful team help bring it to life. I have been able to work with lots of friends and people I have known for years. There is no text book available for what we have done (if there was it would have been very handy!). Transitioning from what we are very comfortable doing (property development) into the operations of Bangalay was a challenge, we have 17 different pieces of software needing to speak to each other, 50 staff and weather (no more dust storms please!). I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish so far but know there is still a huge amount of work to be done. It feels like Bangalay has been an opportunity for so many talented people to shine, our incredible chef Brent Strong and his team have bought to life the Bangalay Dining concept of highlighting local and native produce, Marina Strode our in-house stylist and artist is always adding the final touches to the floral arrangements and our reservations and front of house team are always receiving compliments on their warm and engaging hospitality.
Can you talk us through the gorgeous interiors and inspiration behind it? Did you have a clear vision in mind to create a modern, coastal sanctuary?
I have always liked to work with a concept when designing. The interiors have been inspired by the surrounding Bangalay Sand Forest, the neutral palette and natural textures create a great backdrop for the views towards the golf course and national park. I’ve always been of the opinion that luxury is sensory, the quality of the space, the light, the textures. We’ve been lucky to have a great architectural design to begin with, it was easy to make the interiors complement the architecture. Collaborating with artists including Marina Strode (an invaluable member of the Bangalay team), Julie Paterson from Cloth who undertook an artist in residency and Anne Miles allowed us to illustrate the Bangalay theme in both the villas and restaurant. I had the outdoor furniture, sofa beds, coffee tables, tv benches, side tables, stools and restaurant tables all custom made.
Bangalay looks like a true oasis away from the hustle and bustle of city life. What has the journey behind its inception taught you?
We wanted Bangalay to capture the feeling that we have always experienced in Shoalhaven Heads, its natural beauty, friendly people and relaxed atmosphere. I read a quote once which said “create a life you don’t need a holiday from” and I feel like we have it (except that we love the snow).
Our friends from Sydney who have been visiting us regularly since we made the move down the coast have taught us how special what we have is. They have always remarked on how relaxed they feel when visiting us and we have loved playing tour guide to them showing them the best of the area – kayaking and wakeboarding on the river at Shoalhaven Heads, snorkelling day trips & bushwalks in Jervis Bay, The Treat Factory and great restaurants and cafes in Berry, surfing at Gerroa, The Shoalhaven Zoo, Trees Adventure in Nowra and our great local wineries. The regular festivals held at Riversdale as part of the Bundanon Trust and the Fairgrounds festival have always been a great draw card, too.
How do you balance motherhood with Bangalay at the moment?
Balancing motherhood and Bangalay is probably better worded as integrating Bangalay and motherhood. I have worked out what works after 6 months and know I need help and who to ask for it. Tom has been more hands-on than ever at home and I have been able to take on more of the organisational aspects of running the house and the family which I had always managed. I have found that mornings are a good time to be home-based but Bangalay needs me in the afternoons and evenings. I had always had a mindset that the first 3 years of Bangalay would be a 24 hour, 7 day a week commitment so whenever we get a morning, afternoon or entire day where we know we can take some time we relish it.
Can you describe the allure and appeal of living on the south coast? Do you still commute to Sydney much?
The appeal of life on the south coast to me was firmly based on family and nostalgia, its beauty and lifestyle are a bonus. I have been able to see it from the perspective of others since being here and the proximity to Sydney (a commutable 2 hours), the train line, the rolling green hills into the gorgeous beaches, the amenity of Nowra and Berry and the cultural activities and very active community, sporting and social groups all make for a great lifestyle. I am in Sydney 3-4 times per month for supplier/consultant meetings or industry workshops and seminars, Tom is there a 1-2 times per week. The balance of city vs coast suits us perfectly.