Sibella Court is one of those people who you imagine has trouble deciding what to list under occupation on the form at passport control. And this problem, no doubt comes up often for globetrotter Sibella, as she travels throughout the year for her incredibly varied career...
She’s an interior and product designer, stylist, author (of five books in four years!), television presenter and owner of design studio and treasure trove homewares store, The Society Inc. Name a role in the creative industries and Sibella has likely done it. Then, at age 41 she became a mother, to now three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Silver. “She was on a television set with me for the ABC, in a sling, while they filmed me above the neck, at six-weeks-old. Then she was on an international trip a week later, so it started at pace.” And stayed that way, it seems. With a new book coming out next year, multiple hospitality design projects on the go, a growing empire and an almost-four-year-old, Sibella’s life is always at full speed. Oh, and did I mention she was in the final stages of a renovation and living with a dear friend and her family while doing it? When we speak, Sibella has just had a horse riding accident, so takes the interview by phone while waiting outside Silver’s daycare, in the car — the only place she could get comfortable with broken endplates on a couple of vertebrae. “It’s all fixable, so it’s all good, just rehab for six weeks,” she explains. This becomes a recurring theme throughout our interview. No matter what life throws at Sibella or how many projects she takes on, the brilliant, but also disciplined creative is incredibly pragmatic, with an “it’s all good” attitude that’s infectious and inspiring. It’s unbelievable how much she fits into her life and still manages to maintain a cool, calm and collected outlook. Though Sibella also freely admits to regularly feeling overwhelmed. “Who doesn’t? But every day is different. I feel overwhelmed, insecure, confident, on top of the world, that’s all in one day, isn’t it?! And then you throw a kid into the mix!” she says, with a laugh. Read on as we learn Sibella’s tips for fitting it all in, why she limits her wardrobe to consist of just two colours, her favourite pastime with daughter Silver and the homewares stores she’ll travel across the world just to visit. Photography: Julie Adams | Words: Alexandra Brown | Hair and makeup: Jessica Diez | Go to www.thesocietyinc.com.au
What is the best advice you’ve been given about motherhood?
My mum died nine years ago, so well before Silver was born, but I remember she had this philosophy that “everything is a phase”. I am one of four and even until we were in our thirties, she’d still say, “it’s just a phase”. Even if we’d stuck with something for ten years, it was still “just a phase”. It will pass. It always stuck with me, because she was so patient and she really believed that it would pass at some point and she wasn’t going to worry herself about it in the meantime. It’s a good philosophy. When they are little, it all passes quite quickly even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.
What has been the most surprising part of motherhood for you?
Being pregnant! I wasn’t expecting to have a baby, so that was a big surprise. I didn’t take it as a guarantee that number one, Silver and I would have compatible personalities and number two, that I would really enjoy it. I was older when I fell pregnant. I had a wonderful life which was (and is) quite fast-paced, but it’s incredible how you have this capacity to just expand to let children in. Change is the lovely thing and I have really enjoyed the difference from life before Silver to now.
What has helped you to survive the difficult times? What does every mother need to get through some of the more trying stages of motherhood?
Really good friends. I have got a handful of gorgeous girlfriends, that’s all I can really manage. And they really were there, whenever anything came up, even just to give me a break, or drop something off, or sit with me, or cook me dinner.
What are some of your daughter’s greatest qualities?
She’s got lots of cool ones, but because I am currently injured, Silver is being a very good doctor. She is always looking for her stethoscope and making sure that I’m okay and being totally nurturing, probably much more than I think I would naturally be. She is just awesome. I get lots of pats on my head and hand holding and kisses on my eyeballs to make me feel better. She is also pretty easy going, in terms of just going wherever we go. She’ll just give it a go and I really appreciate that. She’s not a stickler, she doesn’t get stuck in her ways or need a lot of routine, which has really helped me with the amount of travel I have had to do with her. I would always prefer her to come along, so that’s really lovely. She has just got a very easy attitude to everything.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I grew up in Sydney’s Mosman with two brothers and a sister. I’m number three of four and we are all really close in age. We grew up on the water in Middle Harbour and I remember we had a very free childhood. We would have to be back by dark and we had runabout boats and would go fishing and swimming. We did everything on the harbour, we had heaps of kids in our gang and we all had BMX bikes. Mosman was very different back in the seventies – there was a lot more bush than there is now. We had a wharf and bunk beds and there was a lot of freedom to just muck about.
Will you try to recreate this for Silver?
We spend a lot of time up at Byron and it’s that same sensibility up there. So I suppose that’s the way we will recreate the freedom I had as a child, because I do look back on my childhood incredibly fondly. It was such a lovely part of my life, so for her to have a little bit of that would be great. I mean she doesn’t have three brothers and sisters, but the closeness that I have with my friends means she has lots of brothers and sisters. It’s just a different kind of family.
Where did your love of interiors begin? Can you describe your childhood room...
I have always been in creative environments, so the interiors have always been very beautiful. My parents put a lot of effort into what our house looked like. My aunt was a stylist at Belle magazine in the eighties and she would create bedrooms for us, so we were surrounded by fabrics and tactility. My dad was a residential builder and we would often be on building sites, so the DNA was there. Just that recognition or understanding of what surrounds you, noticing that detail, was forever there. I got into the interiors world through Edwina (her close friend Edwina McCann, editor-in-chief of VOGUE Australia) when we started at VOGUE when we were 20. She said come and work in the office, so I did. I had wanted to work at VOGUE Entertaining for some time so I’d be at the fashion office but really would go and loiter around Sharyn’s office [former editor Vogue Entertaining + Travel, Sharyn Storrier Lyneham] until she would say hi and make me do something. She was also an old friend of my parents and a friend of my aunt. So there were always these creative people around.
What do you recall about launching your business The Society Inc? What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
I have been styling for 25 years and The Society Inc is an extension of that – it’s a bricks and mortar version of my styling. I actually started it when I was in New York. I was looking for a space and it came time to sign another ten-year lease. I had been there for ten years already and decided quite quickly to come home and start The Society Inc. I learn something new every day. Whether it be about contracts, clear communication, Shopify, sourcing stuff or perspective. Every day I learn something new. You think you’ve got it, then a whole new set of stuff comes and you’ve got to start all over again.
How long did it take you to write/put together your first book?
My first book was Etcetera. I do them fairly quickly. They are not my main job, so they kind of get squeezed in-between other things. I never do them in a block so I am not quite sure how long they take. I had just bought my place in Paddington (the former location for Sibella’s homewares store The Society Inc) when I did Etcetera, so we didn’t have anything in there. Chris (Court, her brother and photographer) and I just shot it over a couple of weeks, we had so much fun in there. I had so many props so there was no prep, we just did it for fun, we did it before I had signed the contract, so then it took me a little longer to write. My mum had recently died, so I ended up writing more of my memories of growing up and all the things that triggered memories, which is the stuff I surround myself with. That edition of the book was edited into something a little bit different, but I love that I wrote that edition for me. Every book is different. The latest book, which is out next year, we have all the content already because I have thousands of photographs that I have taken. I am always shooting a lot.
It sounds like you are quite disciplined, is that the key to managing, with so many balls in the air?
I am just old school, deadline driven. I’ve been in publishing for 25 years and it’s all about deadlines. If you don’t turn up with the props, you get fired. Actually, you can’t even get fired, you just don’t get used again. I put something in the diary and that’s the deadline. I stick to that.
Do you use any apps?
My Diary and Harvest – a time sheet app for jobs, so everyone has to say what they working on. We are trying Asana too.
How would you describe your interior style?
As a stylist, you have to be quite a chameleon, so it can shift and change and for each job. In saying that, funnily enough, you can always tell if I have done an interior. I think that comes through layering, tactility, using certain materials that age and patina, probably the craftsmanship behind them is a big part of it too. All my master craftsman make my stuff look really good, so you can tell that there is a tinkered smith’s hand behind everything. I don’t think I am restricted to a colour palette or anything like that, but I think through those things, you can tell that I have done it.
With your personal style are you more inclined to stick to a palette?
I wear two colours: white and cream. I was doing a shoot for Donna Hay’s second issue and [photographer] Hugh Stewart and I were living in New York. We did a shoot in Central Park and the fashion stylist was this great friend of ours, Andrea Duff. I was the model as well as the stylist, as forever happens on magazine shoots, and she dressed me in those warm colours and said to me, “these are your colours, this is what you look best in”. From that day on, I just slowly got rid of every other colour (not that I wore a huge amount of colour before). It is very easy to shop and to travel when you wear all the same colours. You don’t really have to put outfits together because everything goes. It’s also great for you to be neutral and not conflicting or contrasting when you are working on set with lots of other colours.
How would you describe your home?
I like the location, it’s nice and leafy. We did this really cool outdoor terrace area with an outdoor kitchen because we entertain a lot. I painted what most people think are tiles, but it’s just a cool mural that looks like tiles and it’s based on my favourite shop in Milan, 10 Corso Como, which has this really beautiful tiled wall. We spend most of our time outside. We have plants that are irrigated so they don’t die when we travel. I am constantly on a tangent doing things and one of my latest is collecting bonsais. I also like growing things with Silver, so we have planted lots of bulbs and they are all coming up at the moment. With the interior, I did take a little bit of my own advice, because I am always telling people not to just go white, because it’s so boring, so I did make sure that in this house, there is not one white painted wall. All the walls are paints from my paint range in collaboration with Murobond.
Where is your favourite place in the world to shop for homewares?
Merci in Paris and John Derian in New York is an all-time favourite. A G Hendy & Co in Hastings in the UK is definitely one of my favourites. It’s just awesome. Truck in Osaka, that’s just such an awesome shop. There are just so many good ones. I’ll go to a city just to go to a shop or to stay at a great hotel or go or a museum.
How did you meet your husband Ben?
I have always spent a lot of time up in Byron and grew up with surfer brothers and surfer friends, but in the 1980s girls just didn’t do as many sports. About six years ago, I thought it was high time I started surfing. McTavish Surfboards are considered the best and I wanted a longboard, so I went to get a custom board, as you do. All the gear, no idea (laughs). I had such a nice time creating it that I approached the owners and asked if they wanted to do a surfboard range together, and that was Ben. We fell in love over making surfboards. I did a range of five surfboards with McTavish Surfboards and I got a surfboard and a husband.
You were recently married, in a surprise wedding?
It was Ben’s 40th and he wouldn’t let me help him organise it, which was really weird. He booked out Rae’s in Byron, because we just live at Wategos in the summer, and we fell in love at Wategos and so it was here that he threw a surprise wedding on me, which was awesome! We’d been talking about it and I’d always just said, could we just go to a registry. I never wanted to organise my own wedding… I just didn’t want the ‘hoo-ha’ of it, so he threw me a surprise one was it was perfect. He asked me to marry him and then we were married in like 40 minutes. He absolutely nailed it. He knows me well.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career and how did you overcome them?
I’ve had a pretty good career. I suppose a challenge was throwing a baby into the mix. That was a big challenge, particularly in those early days. Having a first child, everything is new and there’s that feeling that you are kind of half-arsed… you are not doing your job properly but you are not mothering properly either. Trying to work all of that out was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
How would you say social media has impacted your brand and helped you to grow?
It is an incredible platform both for your portfolio of work and a marketing and selling tool for product. It makes everything approachable to potential customers and clients that gives people a little back story, showing the process and what inspires you rather than just finished result of a shop, book, product and/or hospitality space.
How as an interior designer do you manage the home with children? How do you keep it organised?
I try not to buy many, but it’s all part of it. We have got these really beautiful paper mâché Japanese bucket things, that she chucks all her stuff into. She is pretty tidy. She’ll clean them all up. I have noticed that when we go over to friend’s houses, she makes more mess over there and they have got a lot more toys than she does. The daycare that she goes to is Montessori and they have got such a beautiful philosophy where a toy can be as simple as a stick. You don’t need to have a lot. I mean of course she has got plenty of toys, but I like doing planting and other things. So there are not always toys everywhere. Storage is key!
What is your approach to health and wellbeing?
I say this as I pull out a chocolate ice cream for Silver… I love cooking, so we get a box of seasonal stuff delivered every week from Pheasant’s Nest. It’s so good. My whole week is about trying to use up the whole box. I am a big believer in eating your greens, keeping your body healthy but having fun is important too. You can’t be too strict. It took me a long time to get back to exercise after Silver. I was 41 so it took me a while to bounce back, but I try to exercise five times a week and Silver will come sometimes. I do two Pilates, one boxing outside and I’ll do soft sand runs or something like that. Anything outdoors. I’ll go surfing in the summer, walk up to the lighthouse (in Byron)… I just like to be outdoors as much as possible and eat as healthily as possible and also not drink too much.
What’s your definition of success?
I never know the answer to this question. I suppose success for me, is being able to dream and imagine whatever you want. For example, I am really into natural fragrance at the moment, Bonsai plants and I am about to do a watercolour class. I can do all these things and then incorporate them into my work and monetise them. At times, Ben looks at me and says ‘I don’t know what you are doing with this’, but then he sees me materialise them and all the interests and loves that I have, become part of my business. To me, this feels like success because it gives me so much joy, and that’s the bottom line isn’t it? Joy and happiness.
Does that mean then that your passions suddenly feel like work?
Well that’s the beauty of having your own business, if that happens, you don’t have to do it anymore! (laughs). You can just stop it. After my fifth book (I did five books in four years), I remember saying “I need a break”. So I had a break for four years and now I am doing another book. You can just switch and change if something doesn’t feel right for a while and more often than not, you just need a break, whether that’s from people or subjects or something, it’s just the ebb and flow of life.
Are there things you remember from your mother that you’ve taken on board yourself?
We had such a beautiful upbringing and she was instrumental in who I am today. She nurtured and cherished and encouraged me to do every craft course under the sun, follow any dream, she made me really brave and confident, taught me that I could do anything. So I think all of those things, they are massive life lessons that you hope you can pass down onto your children.
What makes you feel stressed?
People and miscommunication stress me out. I am always working on that, but that is probably about it. Because you have to be pretty malleable when you are designing, working with lots of different people, things being delivered and all that kind of stuff.
And for the record, what do you list as your occupation on the forms at passport control?
I often wonder what to put so I switch it up. Sometimes it’s stylist, other times designer, sometimes shopkeeper, sometimes author occasionally I throw in publishing just for broad brushstroke.
Sibella's little loves…
Marbling – I am going to give it a go and create my own custom endpapers for my book, Imaginarium, coming out next year. Silver’s most prized possession, a Boab seed, which I bought back from NT. Ambergris. An amazing fragrance ingredient produced by sperm whales and found washed up on wild ocean shores. Bonsais and their miniature worlds. Reading the book Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman My favourite new scent is Curious by Mandy Aftel from Aftelier Perfumes. I am at the start of my journey to become a nose specialising in all-natural indigenous Australian scents. Kelp forests and helping preserve them in Tasmania and Western Australia (and the weedy sea dragons that live there). I’m always into getting into the back vaults of museums and am going to delve into the Australian Museum and herbarium for my next edition of The Society Inc newspaper. My next holiday destination, Coqui Coqui in Bora Bora.