Taking it Personally – Sassafras

This elegant hills cottage was created by the sympathetic hands of Justin Bishop who has shown that sometimes the best designs come with time and from the heart.

The Dandenong Ranges are renowned for their charming cottages, set within ancient forests and its stylish villages have become a Mecca for visitors wanting to soak in the cool mountain air. The Ranges had the same pull for Justin Bishop, who has spent the past five years restoring this classic cottage in the heart of Sassafras.

An idyllic childhood, living at historic Pigeon Bank in Kangaroo Ground had a major impact on his approach to the renovation project. The result is a largely traditional, authentic interior with a fair dollop of pizzazz. Justin had long admired the cottage in the centre of the bustling township.

“I knew of the house but was told, that the lady who owned it was never going to sell.” The for sale sign did eventually go up. “But the price was too high then.  It went for auction a year later and I bought it. I had been living in the city for most of my adult life but, I always knew I would move back to the country.”

With family living in nearby Ferny Creek, the move to the hills was an obvious choice. “It (the cottage) was tiny and run down, it was a rental for a while and it needed a lot of TLC. There was a really bad kitchen and a 70’s bathroom. But, it was the perfect place and it reminded me a little of Pigeon Bank.”

“I love the symmetry it has and it really is like a big cubby house.” Justin started with the bathroom. Today, it is a stylish take on a traditional theme in white. In fact, a different shade of white is used in each room to match the variable amounts of natural light that floods through the windows. Justin mixed the colours himself, using yellow ochre and a hint of black, the mix bespoke to each room.

The overall colour scheme of the interior is simple and elegant, and the white on white is the perfect backdrop to the many antiques Justin has amassed since he was a child. “I have collected since I was about 10. At Pigeon Bank my parents wanted it to look like it did 100-years-ago. And I started collecting antique toys. In my childhood there was a lot of renovating on the weekends, or planning and talking about renovating and antique hunting with my parents.”

One of the front rooms is furnished with his grandmother’s piano, a desk from Pigeon Bank and stacks of antique books.

The walls of the central corridor are lined with pictures of his ancestors at Pigeon Bank. Lengths of linen billow to the floor to furnish the windows in the room opposite and, another early experience, this time a visit to Como House as a child, shaped the decision to colour the original Baltic Pine timber floors black.

“I can remember as a child visiting Como (Como House) and I distinctly remember the floors there. Black is a great base for everything really. I don’t really like colour as such. I like natural colours, timbers and neutrals.”

At the end of the hallway, the home transforms into a wonderful open space with views through French Doors to the Mountain Ash forest. Overhead in the kitchen and main living area are chandeliers, saved from a house demolition in Oakleigh.  They provide a sense of drama to the room and also symmetry, an important element in Justin’s design work.

He also likes to get his hands dirty on a project and proudly shows his handiwork on the decorative kitchen cabinetry. While the home is traditional, it doesn’t forgo modern decadence. “The taps were imported from Florence and arrived in a velvet bag,” said Justin.

“I have always been a bit theatrical. I don’t mind mixing proportions,” he said referring to the oversized skirting boards in the kitchen and living room. “I love that play on sizing and because it is white, it works.”

In this room, an old Chinese cabinet is host to more items in Justin’s collection. On the wall above is a sketch of his father and a set of wooden oars he claimed from Pigeon Bank before it was sold. As a teenager he collected a pair of wooden pullies, most likely used to haul stockfeed to the top of a barn. At the time, he remembers wondering why he bought them, but today, they sit on the kitchen bench top and are part of a magical jigsaw that brings together warmth and nostalgia to the interior.

When Justin was a boy, he and his father found his exquisite dining table at a clearing  sale in Kangaroo Ground, under a tree. Justin points to the words ‘pie and sauce’ etched into the tabletop.  “You can see where I used to write out my lunch orders (for school).”

Justin Bishop at his hills cottage in Sassafras.

“There are chips here and bumps there. I don’t like things too pristine, I like things set up beautifully but it also has to be lived in,” he said. “I try to take that approach with clients. Sometimes they are in a hurry to get things finished but I try to slow them down. A home should reflect the people that live there and sometimes it takes time to find the right pieces.”

On another antique dresser sits a miniature of the Titanic. “I love the look and the design of the Titanic’s interior. It was architectural with a stately elegance. It had many beautiful things based around white on white, and more white,” he said. “I like to keep things simple and work on the overall look rather than anything specific. I suppose it is traditional, but a fresh take, and not too fussy.”

He sources many pieces from “different haunts” locally and he will often stop into antique stores on his travels for work. “It is interesting that a lot of the old things that I have, are now being re-produced commercially. I like to keep true to having the originals.”

When Justin first moved into the house, the surrounding garden was completely overgrown. “You couldn’t even get down to the back garden,” he said pointing at the corner of the garden where he hopes to one day establish a B&B. Plans include a traditional cottage garden in this area, with fruit trees and vegetables. The front gardens are more formal with Justin’s required symmetry, through the use of clipped hedges and Cranford Pear Trees. As well as being beautiful the home is intensely personal. “I wanted it to be a showcase of my design. After designing homes for other people I wanted a project that was me… this house is me.”


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