In a former life, Kate Masters was a university librarian, teaching information and digital literacy to thousands of staff and students. She’s always been torn between academic and creative pursuits, and recently traded in her borrowing card for a scale ruler, undertaking a qualification in interior design. She lives in Sydney’s Inner West with her husband, cat and two young daughters (in that order).
Kate and I met at book club many moons ago and our kids are similarly aged. She's quickly become a close friend and confidant.
Kate is an inspiring example of what you can achieve with a supportive family, the right idea and a metric ton of motivation. I sat down with her recently to discuss her career change and venture into interior design.
Before your recent career change, you were a librarian which for a lot of nerdy bookworms like me, sounds like a dream job. Why did you get into it and why did you leave?
I was one of those kids who visited the local library on a weekly basis and voraciously devoured everything I could get my hands on. I guess a love of books was part of the reason I gravitated towards libraries. That, and the egalitarian, inclusive nature of them. I strongly believe in the foundation on which libraries are built – that everyone should have access to information and that literacy is a fundamental human right. Ironically, a librarian doesn’t necessarily read books, or even need to like books! Their key skills are to establish what information needs a person has, where they might find information to meet those needs, and how they might make sense of this information.
I really loved the rich learning environment at uni when I was an undergrad, so it was a natural progression to veer into academic librarianship. Academic libraries are very large and multifaceted, with a diverse range of services spanning education, research and student support. My role became increasingly research-focussed, with an emphasis on understanding research data and measuring the societal, economic, political and environmental impact of one’s research. Although this was undoubtedly stimulating, I really missed the education side of things which initially drew me into this line of work. I realised that while I had the skill set to continue doing what I was doing, I was no longer passionate about it. I always had a hankering to do something more visually creative and that’s what set me on the path I’m on now.
When contemplating your career change, how did you decide what was next?
That was hard. I contemplated teaching, personal training, landscape architecture, copyrighting, even floristry. The main driver for me was fulfilment – how much enjoyment would I get from this new career? Of course, with any major life decision there are quid pro quos. I would be sacrificing a lot by leaving my employer – including flex time, generous super, a decent salary, long service, and other leave conditions that are virtually unparalleled – so my new career really needed to be something I loved. Fortunately, my husband and I were in a good financial position, so I didn’t have to worry as much about pay as I would have 10 years ago. I decided to pursue interior design because it combined my desire to help people with my passion for interiors and my yearning to do something more practical and visually creative. Plus, it occurred to me that if I could distinguish myself in this industry, I might be able to work for myself one day – a notion that has become increasingly appealing since having kids. Before taking the leap, I did copious amounts of desktop research, attended countless open days and information sessions and talked to as many people in the industry as I could. Doing my due diligence gave me more confidence in making the transition and reinforced the sense that I was making the right move.
Studying with kids at home must be a challenge. What’s a typical day?
We are pretty lucky that both of our girls are pre-school age, so we haven’t had to deal with the trauma of homeschooling! Having said that, lockdown threw our childcare plans into disarray – we had been relying on my parents, who now can’t help because of where they live – so we’ve had to scramble a bit in that regard. A typical day sees us getting woken up at around 6 by our youngest daughter, who has a loveable but ear-splitting squawk! It’s all hands on deck until 8, at which time my husband drops our eldest off at childcare. On school days I attend 7 hours of Zoom classes while my fabulous mother-in-law looks after my youngest downstairs. She’s really stepped up since I returned to study and I’m so appreciative. At 4:30 I knock off class, relieve my MIL, and walk up to our childcare with my 18-month-old. We collect my eldest and walk/scooter home, pausing every few metres to pick a flower, pat a cat, and raid our local street library for any enticing new titles, usually Frozen-related. I do dinner with the girls from 5:30-6:30, then hop in the bath with them while my husband cleans up. We divide and conquer when it comes to putting the girls to bed, and alternate which daughter we put down from night to night. They’re usually conked out by 7:15. We’re lucky they’ve always been reliable sleepers. My husband looks after most of the cooking, bless him! By the time I’ve showered, dressed, and eaten, it’s 8. Then I sit down to a few hours of study before hitting the sack and doing it all over again!
Let’s talk about your personal style, as it relates to interior design. What kind of spaces, finishes and homes do you gravitate towards?
I suppose you’d say that I have an eclectic style. One of my pet peeves is when a space is kitted out with furniture from a single showroom. I think this ends up making the space feel a bit flat and uninspired, even if you have great taste! I prefer to mix-and-match: old with new, high-end with low-end. I love an earthy colour palette – lots of murky greens, dusty pinks, inky blues – hues from nature. The exception to this is my kids’ rooms which have higher-chroma pops of colour. I tend to use aged metallics as an accent throughout my home – I love the patina of weathered copper, bronze and nickel – and prefer matt over gloss finishes as they’re more subdued and invite you into a space. All of this is set against a fairly neutral backdrop.
I gravitate towards homes that have a distinctive personality – they’re lived in, not overly styled. Art adorns the walls, books are scattered throughout each room and sofas are soft and cosy with lots of textured cushions and throws. It’s a layered look, built-up over many years of collecting things that delight and inspire you. I would describe myself as a ‘curated maximalist’– I love creating vignettes of objects that evoke a special memory, but they need to be arranged in a considered, restrained way. I also think negative space is a huge factor in enabling hero pieces to shine. Finally, (real) indoor plants are a must! They invigorate spaces unlike anything else.
Given your own home renovation experience, how did that inform your design style? What lessons did you learn when renovating?
I had a fairly refined point of view aesthetics-wise prior to renovating – what this process taught me was the importance of getting the right tradespeople for the job. Always shop around and ask for examples of work they’ve done as well as client testimonials. The cheapest quote is rarely the best in the long run. A great tip is to ask your suppliers who they would recommend. It’s in their best interest to recommend a fantastic tiler or joiner as it’s a great advertisement for their product. When it comes to budget, be on the same page as your partner – my husband and I learnt this the hard way! And be realistic – make sure there’s a contingency fund. If you do an extension properly, the home will feel well-resolved, with great flow between the new and existing components. If you cut corners, it will simply feel like the new part is ‘tacked on’, which undermines the entire project. A key to getting it right is to not neglect structural things. If you’re on a tight budget, prioritise quality fixtures and finishes, as these are more costly and difficult to change down the track – you can usually make do with pre-existing furniture until your bank balance is healthy again and the right pieces come along. Oh, and storage is king. We now have a dedicated storeroom neatly tucked beside and under our new staircase and my father-in-law claims it’s his favourite room of the house – we chuck all those unsightly, albeit useful things in there like prams, luggage, and sporting gear – even our Christmas tree! It is such a functional little space with hooks at the kids’ eye-level to encourage them to hang up their own coats, hats and bags, and floor-to-ceiling shelves. I would never design another house without a space like this now.
What are some key pieces you used to style your home?
I tend to collect pieces that have a history and tell a story. There’s nothing I love more than combing a flea market while on holiday and bringing home a treasured memento. I bought a gorgeous vintage kimono in Tokyo a few years ago which I loved, but never knew what to do with. It is made of a beautiful, whimsical fabric with paper cranes and puppy dogs printed on it and is in hues of red and pink – one of my all-time favourite colour combos. That was pre-kids, and it now hangs proudly above my daughter’s dressing table. I guess the moral of the story is that you will find a way to display pieces that you truly love, even if that use isn’t immediately apparent to you when you acquire it!
I also have an original, Danish mid-century chair upholstered in Florence Broadhurst fabric which I adore. It was my first grown-up furniture purchase. At the time I fretted about lashing out on it, but I needn’t have worried because it’s been such a versatile piece – I’ve used it as an armchair in the lounge room, a reading chair in my bedroom and a breastfeeding chair. I love its timeless appeal: the beautiful organic shape, the way the backrest cradles my shoulders and the well-worn, perfectly curved armrests, smoothed from years of service. You really can’t beat well-designed, authentic pieces like it.
How do you wind down after a long day? What does self care look like for you?
I’m definitely an introvert by nature, so winding down involves some alone time. Pre-Covid my guilty pleasure was taking myself to the movies and scoffing down a fancy choc top (the premium ones they sell at the Dendy and the Palace are the best!) Obviously that kind of thing is off-limits now, so my latest habit is to go for a walk after the kids have gone to bed (in a Covid-safe manner, naturally, and with my husband holding the fort!) Apart from the fresh air and exercise, I really enjoy meandering the streets of my hood, appreciating the little details of people’s homes. It’s food for my creative soul. Even better, from early Spring through late Summer/early Autumn all those heady scents from people’s gardens waft and linger in the air. It’s like walking through a postcard! The port magnolia in my front yard is gloriously fragrant at the moment, I can’t get enough.
What do the next 12 months hold for you?
Career-wise the next 12 months is all about laying the foundations for my future professional life. I finish my interior design qualification in December next year, and between now and then I aim to hone my design skills, build my portfolio, and soak up as much knowledge from other creatives as possible. I hope to land some casual styling/decorating gigs before graduating, too, although will have to conjure extra time in the week for that to happen – what’s the secret!?
My eldest daughter starts big school in 2023, so the next 12 months will also be about priming her for this huge transition. My youngest is only 18 months old, so I get to relish that delicious time when she’s learning to talk and developing her little idiosyncrasies.
Let's get personal…
1. What else are you passionate about besides your work?
I’m passionate about gardening. There’s something therapeutic about having your hands in the soil and nurturing a plant from a sapling to a mature tree. Being in lockdown these past few months, each new flower and shoot has sparked joy. It’s the little things that get you through times like this.
2. What is your most treasured belonging?
Discounting loved ones – of both the human and fur variety – it would have to be a watercolour by Belynda Henry, an Australian landscape painter. Her compositions are beautiful, and her use of colour stunning. The piece we have was purchased using some of the money we received from our wishing well. Its titled ‘Make Me Want to Stay’ and it’s in a dreamy blue and pink palette. It reminded me of the Southern Highlands where I grew up, and where we got married. It’s very special.
3. If you weren’t studying interior design, what would you be doing?
Definitely something plant-related, most probably landscape architecture. Outdoor living is a huge component of house-design in Australia – we have such an affinity with the natural landscape. I treat my front and back yards like any other room of the house – it’s all about combining shape, colour, proportion, texture and tone in ways that are stimulating, yet cohesive.
4. What’s one thing in your home you can’t live without?
My husband, as he looks after all the life admin things I neglect, like when we need to get the car serviced, pay that bill, and administer Advocate to our cat, Millie! I’m also loving my new work desk. It’s made of wood and steel and has an Art Deco aesthetic. Despite having built-in drawers on both sides, it doesn’t feel monolithic, as the corners of the desk are curved. The design is so clever – there’s an ingenious void between the top of the drawers and the surface of the desk, so I can pack away my large A3 visual diary and sample boards at the end of the day, thereby clearing the visual clutter. This is so important, as my workspace doubles as our master bedroom and it needs to feel serene.
5. In 10 years, I'd like to be...
… working for myself, dictating my own hours and workload, and taking on projects that excite me conceptually. I would love to have explored more of this beautiful world we live in, exposing my daughters to diverse cultures, languages and cuisines. We were lucky enough to travel to Europe and Asia with my eldest daughter when she was 4 and 9 months old respectively, and I look back on that time with nostalgia and incredulity. It seems like such a foreign and fantastic time. My husband is Korean-Australian, and we’ve often spoken about having a stint back in Korea someday. It would be wonderful if the girls became fluent in another language, and they developed an intimate appreciation for that part of their heritage.
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Every Monday, Clare Makes sits down with an Aussie creator or business owner to discuss their life and work. These articles are curated with you in mind, to enjoy alongside a cup of coffee and your favourite scented candle. If you'd like to be interviewed for the blog or know someone else who would be perfect, please email firstname.lastname@example.org