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Four years before furniture designer Rachel Donath and her husband, Michael, bought their first home just outside Melbourne, she impulsively bought an extra-large round Danish table without putting it anywhere — until now. She had put it away in her parents’ garage for safekeeping, but she did not stop to think about it, so often that she would check her prized possession, making sure that it was not warped and that the lid remained watertight. “It was just a dream I had,” Rachel says with a sigh, “that one day I could have a space that a table could fit in, for people to sit around.”
Fortunately, her dream was not long in coming. “I was looking through some junk and found a magazine in the mailbox with some real estate for sale in it. Normally I would never have read it, just thrown it into the recycling,” Rachel recalls. But there he was: a 120-year-old two-faced Edwardian like those who often passed on neighborhood walks with her son Toby, now 12 (he was later joined by Luca, 10, Hamish, 6, and Grace, 3). “It was very old and falling apart, but I saw right away that it had beautiful bones,” she says. But a closer reading revealed that the auction was held the day before. I must have missed that. I’ll just drive her goal and see.”
Though, when I did, there was no “For Sale” sign to be found. I called the agent, just in case. “It was probably the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done. We didn’t even have structured funding. Nothing!” Says. But like the dining table, she couldn’t leave the property, even after realizing it was in practically pristine condition—down to the outbuilding in the backyard—save for a few ’70s-era upgrades, like shaggy rugs and floral wallpaper. To say it needed a lot of work was an understatement. However, “she had such a sweet energy. I remember it smelling like a vacation home,” she shares.
Next thing Rachel knew, she and her husband were selling their tiny apartment and figuring out how to move in ASAP. Among all the chaos, she made a point to pick up her beloved table: “It was the first thing we moved to, before we even brought the clothes. It was like: first come the table.”
But it will be some time before her family can enjoy it to the fullest. The first phase of the renovation involved a lot of hard work: they had to redo the house stump (an Australian term for repairing a foundation made of logs), put back all the plaster and electrical, and replace the plumbing. In other words, the things that eat into your budget, quickly.
One of the most terrifying things he told her builder, J.T. Todd, was that he didn’t know what they would find once the floorboards were pulled back. “We had rotten wood in some areas, and that was oh my god expensive To fix it,” she says. “Not only that, there’s a termite menace…all sorts of unknowns. But I wanted to do it all at once, right, and deal with the consequences of having to pay the bills.”
Those first three months of structural updates also meant having to sacrifice some of the fun things—fixtures, finishes, and furnishings. But just when everything was finally starting to come together – i.e. it was fun living there – her growing family had to suddenly move to Sydney for Michael’s job. “I have to say that the hardest thing is leaving my home. For me, home is more than four walls and a roof. It has become part of my identity,” she testifies. “It really is my comfort zone, the breeding ground for my creativity.”
But it wasn’t goodbye, just see you later. They got back together less than a decade later — and Rachel had big plans.
After feeling the rush in the first round, I made sure to set aside enough time during the second to come up with custom solutions. This included custom-made steel doors that line the living room wall and lead directly to the back garden, which Rachel painted herself.
“I went to a few different steel manufacturers, asked them for a quote, and it was a fortune,” she recalls, laughing. Fortunately, her builder was in touch. Determined, Rachel set off into the country, about an hour and a half away, to visit the craftsman, and together they fashioned the panels to go up to the roof.
This wasn’t the only time Rachel stuck to her vision: She went to the manufacturers right after being told to use a gas stove instead of an actual wood-burning fireplace; She had a local company sew her own seamless 100 percent linen curtains; She found unused space in the roof floor with her architect to ensure that the second-floor extension to the house—critical to fit the now family of six—would be approved by the city council. (Hiding any extras just happens to be one of the many rules when one owns a heritage home in Melbourne.) And even though it was just an extra 300 square feet, I managed to squeeze in a kid-focused space (or what she lovingly refers to as a rumpus room) into the final project. which they completed in 2021.
The ceiling height may only be 1.5m, but Rachel made the most of it all. “It was actually the builder who had the idea to use it and keep it open as a seating area. Together, we designed the low stools with bookshelves built in underneath. It gave us so much more space,” she notes. It’s the ultimate reading nook.
Rachel, who was pregnant with her fourth at the time, needed all the extra space she could muster for her family. In addition to the hidden upstairs, they extended the property line to increase the downstairs space where the kitchen, dining and living rooms now mix openly – they also attached an additional bathroom. Most importantly, the move enabled her favorite table to assume its designated position as the focal point of the home. It is the place where they gather daily for meals and every other moment in between.
Now Rachel swears she will never leave again. Every detail was considered down to the 9th, she says, from the quarter-circle headboard (it looks most natural with her son’s bed pushed up against two walls), to the sculptural lamp on her kitchen island that doesn’t even have a lamp. the lamp in it, to the Murano vases her children may or may not someday drop, as well as her own furniture designs. “There are pieces all over the house that were bought with the intent of being beautiful,” she notes (and she often has nowhere to put them, a risk that always seems to give her reward). “And that’s a good enough goal for me.”
Architect and builder I loved working with: Elements of Home and JT Dodd were an amazing team who collaborated to bring my vision to life. I really felt like they let me have a say and were very open to my input.
The object in my house that I use most: An antique Danish dining table.
Where I always go for old scores (and inspiration): Vintage auction house catalogs and local flea markets.
The coolest discovery I made: How much extra living space is there in our roof cavity!
The item is for me: Stucco light fixtures are by local artist Anna Charlesworth. They have a ruggedness to them, which is what carries their beauty. I believe our strength and our potential lie in our originality and our imperfections. They also give off an incredibly nice light. I also hope to provide inspiration and gentle light through true communication and engagement in my profession.