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Posts from the ‘Escape to’ Category

A cafe full of personality: The Grub Food Van, Melbourne

Fitzroy used to have a pub on every corner in the 19th century; in the 1980s, these pubs became live music venues; today Fitzroy is probably more famous for its cafe scene. Yet it is a sad fact that many serve dismal coffee and uninspiring food. Not so with the wonderful Grub Food Van which sprung to life earlier this year in the front yard of long-time Fitzroy residents, Tim Mann and Mark Murphy. The van was born out of necessity: finding a way to pay the bills. After they bought a 1965 Airstream on eBay and somehow got it all the way from Iowa to Australia, they turned it into a kitchen, with outdoor seating on an unsealed patch of dirt, albeit covered with rugs and outdoor seating on fine days. On sunny days, the camouflage netting above creates wonderful dappled light. This is design at its best: finding innovative ways to create atmosphere on a tight budget.

They serve simple wholesome food and when I visited in early autumn, on a bright crisp day, I wondered how they’d manage Melbourne’s colder (and rainier) months. Tim told me there’s a green house that’s being fitted out with a small kitchen and a wine bar inside the adjacent disused warehouse. It won’t be streamlined deco-inspired Americana, but like so many Fitzroy icons, it will no doubt be unique and attract a crowd.

Now the weather is cooler the Grub Food Van still is open for business and you can sit outside (as long as it isn’t raining). And for those of us who feel the cold, there are crocheted ‘nanny’ blankets for our knees.

All photos by me (Kate Challis)


London Calling: Early 20th century aesthetics

What struck me in the 8 years that I was absent from London is the new-found love that the British have for early- to mid- 20th century aesthetics.

Two shops that do this particularly well are Leila’s Shop and Labour and Wait, both in Shoreditch. While they embrace this aesthetic neither shop can be called retro or nostalgic. They sell things that people need: in the case of Leila’s it’s mostly independently grown food and at the Labour and Wait a variety of functional English classics still required today.

Labour and Wait has only been around for 12 years, but when you enter it is like stepping into an earlier time: lidded enamel buckets, aluminium dustpans and brushes, chalk and slate, wooden dolly clothing pegs, waxed linen string, a selection of wooden handled brushes with real bristles, stainless steel razor blades, heavy linen and cotton cleaning cloths, balls and tins of twine, British Army Knives, soup laddles, feather dusters and even the humble potta-dotted handkerchief are all for sale.

The selection of stock is the antithesis of the $2-Made-in-China-Shop filled with cheap plastic disposable items which won’t last. Labour and Wait takes you back to a time when things were made to last and were a pleasure to use.

I was introduced to Leila’s Shop by a long-time friend, the bespoke furniture maker Marianna Kennedy. In her showroom in Spitafields one afternoon lamenting that “there is nowhere to buy food around here anymore” she untied her paint-covered apron, invited me to dinner and said “let’s go for a walk”. I had no idea where we were going and I didn’t care. Half an hour later, having discussed a variety of topics including Spitafields real-estate, the Basel Furniture Fare, blogging and Georgian architecture, we were at Leila’s Shop.

It is a small, but well stocked shop selling groceries from independent suppliers and producers including seasonal fruit and veg, locally made breads, juices, chutneys and jams as well as cheeses, Polish sausages and small goods. The way you shop at Leila’s is to look at what she has and then decide on what you are going to cook. The stock is limited, but everything there is of the highest quality and is beautifully presented, including Victoria Sponge on the counter. It’s slow food at its best. While I took some photographs Marianna busied herself choosing supplies for dinner.

Several hours later dinner we devoured our dinner of succulent English asparagus with real salted butter, salad with radishes and an olive oil, lemon, mustard and garlic dressing, barbecued chorizo sausages withcrusty bread and a chunk of cheddar. Hmmmm . . .

Photos by me (Kate Challis)

London Calling: V&A Reading Room

 On one of my first days in London I headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is in the library of that museum I spent years writing and researching my doctoral thesis. So, as I arrived at  South Kensingston tube station I felt that mix of feelings just before meeting a dear friend after many years apart: how have they changed, how have I changed, will we still like each other?

Pondering these thoughts, I strolled down Exhibition St, now a pedestrian mall, and stumbled across the sweetest little bookshop-bar-cafe-gallery: the V&A Reading Rooms.

An adjunct to the actual museum, the V&A Reading Rooms is a small super-stylish place to read, chat, have a coffee or even something a little stronger (there were times when I was writing my thesis that I would have greatly benefited from a stiff drink). Carefully selected and affordable art hangs on the walls while the well-selected stock of books centres around the theme of art and design. The shop boasts that there are “no three-for-two offers on books you didn’t really want to read”.

What’s not to love about that?

Photos by me (Kate Challis)

London calling: Columbia Rd and more coffee

Every Sunday morning rain, hail or shine flower and plant sellers set up in Columbia Rd. My last day in London happened to be a Sunday and just before leaving I snuck in a visit between photographing a very cool London apartment and packing my now over-flowing bags.

Apart from the flowers what attracted me there was a coffee stand recommended by a reader (thanks Lizzie!), but which was no longer there. The legendary Gwilym Davies has moved onto other things and is now part of the Prufrock Coffee team in Leather Lane, Camden. Instead I happened across another: Start Coffee. Only as wide as a doorway the long queue was encouraging and gave me a moment to pause and reflect. The pastry was delicious and the coffee was pretty good too.

Walking past Columbia Cafe with their window filled with trays of bagels bursting with scrumptious fillings made me regret having just eaten.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time to explore and photograph the shops along Columbia Rd, but what I did see delighted me: a mix of vintage, retro, hand-made, quirky and well-selected second-hand items. Columbia Rd is on the top of my list for my next visit.

Photos by me (Kate Challis)

London calling: A Master Class with Abigail Ahern

Last Friday I spent the day in the fabulous home of Abigail Ahern. Yes, the interior designer extraordinaire, who also has an interiors store, writes a captivating blog, appears regularly in magazines and on television and is now contemplating opening up a cafe. If that wasn’t enough, she also runs a Design School. The participants in my Master Class were a variety of women: many creative types (graphic designers, artists, web-designers), some looking for inspiration for doing up their homes, another who manages a charity shop and after ideas on how to make that amazing and a number of women like myself who just love interior design and are between careers and thinking about their next steps.

The day was informal, fun and yet incredibly informative. Abigail describes her style as eclectic and said that this is more difficult to pull off than any other style. The morning was spent with Abigail taking us through the essential elements of amazing spaces: for her it’s all about breaking the rules. While our houses are incredibly different (at the moment, I only have one dark room in mine while hers is dark from top to bottom), I seem to embrace almost everything she advocated without previously realising it. Furthermore, 90% of the images she used to demonstrate her points I have used for my blog. That was a huge confidence boost.

The best part of the day though, was being in her own home and being able to look every single room (nothing was off limits). I took loads of photos but am unable to share them with you as Abigail has a book of her work coming out next year featuring her home and the publishers (naturally) have put a ban on the publishing of her house in the meantime. What I can show you is one photo of Gemma Ahern, Abigail’s talented florist sister who talked to us about the basics of really gorgeous flower arranging using fake flowers that, amazingly, truly look real. You might say that floral arranging is a rather middle aged and middle class thing to get excited about, but it was great.

I left yesterday with 8 pages of ideas for things I would like to do at my home scrawled in my notebook – and with the challenge to take what I learnt and morph and synthesise it into my own style. After all, I don’t want to be an Abigail Ahern wannabe. Spending a day with her and in her home has given me a new found confidence, which as Abigail says is really one of the most important aspects of design: having self-belief.

Stay tuned as Abigail is taking her Design School to New York and possibly Australia later in the year.  In the meantime, I’ll be posting about the content of the Master Class and my essential learnings over the next few weeks.

Image credits {1} The Selby and {2} me (Kate Challis)