We have all flicked through ‘lifestyle’ magazines and been mesmerized by the images of beautifully designed and decorated houses. The perfectly set dining table promises a delicious meal and good conversation, whilst the cosy living room beckons you to come in and sit down. These are real homes occupied by real families. It is stylist Jo McComiskey who creates the images that engage the reader and draws them into the life of the home.
From art teacher to Creative Director for Australian House & Garden magazine, Jo’s portfolio is impressive. “I taught for five years at Brigidine College in St Ives, and did a part-time course in graphic design because I knew that I didn’t want to teach forever. I got into publishing starting off at a small publishing house. Then I went to Murdoch and then A.C.P. [Australian Consolidated Press]. Now I source and style houses for photo shoots. Gardens as well. Because I freelance I don’t work for any particular magazine.”
Jo doesn’t take herself too seriously though. Read her blog Beautiful South (jomccomiskey.blogspot.com) and you will be enchanted by her quirky ramblings about photo shoots, renovating her own home and life in the Dandenong Ranges. “It is my indulgence,” said Jo.
Moving from Sydney to Melbourne thirteen years ago, Jo admits that part of her heart was left across the border. Since 2011 Olinda has been working its magic as Irish husband Dermot, teenage daughter Aisling and faithful dog Ruby have settled into their ‘hills retreat,’ Somerton. Nestled protectively amongst the grand eucalyptus trees and rhododendron bushes that characterise the area, Jo concedes that it is fifteen-week-old labradoodle Teddy who actually rules the house.
With a bit of graphic design work on the side, it is the styling that Jo enjoys most. “It is a lovely experience. I’m styling houses that are lived in and loved. People are only too pleased to open their house. There is always a curiosity about the procedure.” After sourcing a home for a potential photo shoot Jo prepares a small ‘package’ of shots to present to a publication. It could be Australian House & Garden, Home Beautiful or even Country Style. “It all depends on the style of the house. They all [the magazines] have their demographics,” said Jo. “Once the editor says ‘love it, go ahead’, then it’s up to me to organise the shoot.” And that is when the fun begins!
Jo explained that she doesn’t alter the design of the house; her role is to style the rooms for the photo shoot. “I make it appear as if someone has just left the room. That’s what you want. You want that lived in layered look. I ruffle beds, add cushions, or flowers and I bring a lot of product. The big French bread boards, strawberries, lettuce so that there is colour. I will spend a bit of time setting up a table outside. You get that whole exterior room that Australians love. It looks like we are just getting ready to sit down to eat.”
For the homeowner it is rewarding seeing their home showcased. “They take pride in their homes. People genuinely love the fact that they are getting images of their children, family and pets interacting in their home.” For the reader, they are viewing real houses. “It is inspirational too,” said Jo, “giving readers more ideas they can aspire to achieve.” And at times the reward can be even greater. “Most people I shoot have an interest in home décor or a connection with the industry whether as an interior designer, builder or owner of a home wares store. I think it’s a better advertisement than an actual advertisement. You’re not in it [the magazine] because you have paid to be in it. The magazine is requesting you be in it.”
Respected within the industry it is no surprise that Jo’s own home, Somerton, is to be featured in the Christmas edition of Home Beautiful. This has Jo frantically finishing her own renovations.
Creating a warm family home is important to Jo. “I just love houses that have layering. Not too cluttered, but I’m not into the minimalist thing. I like houses that are functional, and you know rooms are used and loved. This is reflected in their styling. There is also a continuity through the house.” Describing Somerton Jo said, “It is a kind of warm, not too rustic, vintage country style, that allows for a bit of modern. It’s not all slick surfaces.”
Revamping the majestic weatherboard home is an ongoing project. “We haven’t finished painting the exterior, but we’re getting there,” remarked Jo. What was once a buttery cream with burgundy trim has been given a new perspective with warm brimstone grey, a neutral trim and black accents. Behind a bold black front door stretches what Jo describes as a marathon hallway. It is twenty meters long. Great exercise for energetic Teddy! Jo has given up searching, and will have to get a runner purposely made for it.
Staying true to her styling mantra, Jo has creatively blended the modern with vintage country throughout the renovation. Demonstrating creative genius Jo revealed that with her recent bathroom makeover, “I re-plated the tap wear instead of buying new ones. I bought the buffet from Provincial Home Living and turned it into a vanity. I’m really thrilled with that. I really like the style of it. Not too rural, with nice edges.” Not afraid to get her hands dirty Jo tackled the job of painting her cast iron bath. Achieving the right colour for the claw feet was a process of trial and error, and at one stage she referred to them as looking like dirty hobbits feet!
Textured black wallpaper, an elegant black piano and sophisticated chesterfield lounge come together to create a stunning theatre room. Affectionately known as the ‘black room’ Jo said, “it’s fabulous. My husband is very into his music and the black room is something that he wanted.”
It took six months to complete the landscape renovation. The wonderful ‘exterior room’ has replaced an area that Jo described as originally “falling away to a meandery nothing.” She excitedly pointed out that the centrepiece is quite unique. “It’s a huge copper pot from the Cadbury factory that was used to turn chocolate. Now it’s filled with plants!” Another impressive feature is the fire pit, where Jo and the family roasted chestnuts during the autumn. With carefully selected vegetation to accompany the design, the gumball liquid ambers will grow horizontally to create a lovely shady spot and Jo is looking forward to the cleveland select ornamental pear trees blooming in spring.
A self-proclaimed bowerbird, Jo is always on the look out for new ideas. “If I stumble upon a piece I’ll collect it. I’ve always got my beady eyes out. I can’t help myself. If I walk into a house I’ll be thinking ‘I’d put that over there and change that’, or ‘mental note love that idea’.” And it’s not just the editors that Jo has to impress; her daughter Aisling has developed her own artistic flair. “She is a very good photographer. She can take lovely images and has a very critical eye.”
Whether it is transforming sideboards, pondering philosophical quandaries such as ‘why are women addicted to cushions?’ or stalking houses for photo shoots, Jo is a vibrant individual who embraces life. Part of Jo may have remained in Sydney, yet despite that, life in Olinda certainly is special too. As she beats her weary path around the town Jo can’t help but confess that, “we love it up here. It is gorgeous.”
Words Alana Bilston Pictures Adele Van Es