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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 up – yet. She hid it in her parents’ garage for safekeeping, but never stopped thinking about it, so much so that she regularly checked on her prized possession, making sure it hadn’t warped and that the cover remained waterproof. “It was just a dream I had, to one day be able to have a space that the table could fit in, to have people sit around it,” Rachel says with a sigh.
As luck would have it, her dream was not delayed too long. “I was going through some junk mail and I saw a magazine in the mailbox with some properties for sale. I would normally never have read it, just thrown it in the recycling,” Rachel recalls. But there it was: a 120-year-old double-fronted Edwardian like the one she often passed on walks in the neighborhood with her son, Toby, now 12 (here later with Luca, 10, Hamish, 6, and joined Grace, 3). “It was very old and had fallen over, but I could tell right away that it had beautiful legs,” she says. However, a closer reading revealed that the auction was held the day before: “So I thought, forget it. I must have missed it. I’ll just drive past it and see it.”
Although, when she did, there was no “For Sale” sign to be found. She called the agent, just in case. “It was probably the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done. We haven’t even organized financing. Nothing!” she says. But like the dining table, she couldn’t let go of the property, even after realizing it was practically in its original condition—right down to the outhouse in the backyard—except for a few ’70s-era upgrades, like shaggy carpet and flowers. wallpaper. To say it needed a lot of work was an understatement. And yet, “it just had such a nice energy. I remember it smelled like a holiday home,” she shares.
The next thing Rachel knew, she and her husband were selling their tiny apartment and figuring out how to move in as soon as possible. Amidst all the chaos, she made a point to pick up her beloved table: “It was the first thing we moved into, even before we brought in clothes. It was like: First comes the table.”
But it would be a while before her family could fully enjoy it. Phase one of the renovation involved a lot of grunt work: They had to re-stump the house (an Australian term for restoring a foundation made with logs), redo all the plastering and electrical, and replace the plumbing. In other words, the things that eat away at your budget, quickly.
One of the scariest things her builder, JT Todd, told her was that he didn’t know what they were going to find once they pulled up the floorboards. “We had rotten wood in some areas and, my God, that was it duration to fix,” she says. “Not only that, there is the risk of termites… all sorts of unknowns. But I wanted to do it all at once, properly, and deal with the consequences of paying the bills.”
Those first three months of structural updates also meant sacrificing some of the fun stuff — fixtures, trim, and furniture. But just when everything was finally coming together – ie it was nice to live there – her growing family suddenly had to move to Sydney for Michael’s job. “I have to say the hardest thing was leaving my house. For me, home is so much more than four walls and a roof. It has become part of who I am,” she testifies. “This is really my comfort zone, the breeding ground for my creativity.”
But it wasn’t goodbye, just see you later. They moved back less than a decade later—and Rachel had big plans.
After feeling rushed with the first round, she made sure she invested enough time in the second phase to find tailor-made solutions. This included custom steel frame doors that line the living room wall and lead directly to the rear garden, which Rachel herself installed.
“I went around to a few different steel fabricators and asked them for a quote, and it was a fortune,” she recalls with a laugh. Fortunately, her builder had a connection. Determined, Rachel drove to the countryside, about an hour and a half away, to visit the craftsman, and together they designed the panes to go up to the ceiling.
It wasn’t the only time Rachel stuck to her vision: She went straight to producers after being told to go with a gas fireplace instead of a real, wood-burning one; she had a local business sew her seamless, 100 percent linen blinds; and, with her architect, found unused space in the slope of the roof to ensure that the house’s second-floor extension – essential to fit the now family of six – would be approved by the city council. (Disguising any additions happens to be one of the many rules when owning a heritage home in Melbourne.) And even if it was just an extra 300 square feet, she was able to squeeze in a kid-focused space (or what she affectionately referred to) as the rumpus room) in the final project they completed in 2021.
The ceiling height may only be 1.5 meters high, but Rachel took advantage of every bit. “It was actually the builder who had the idea to use it and keep it open as a seat. Together we designed the low benches with built-in bookshelves underneath. It gave us so much more space,” she notes. This is the ultimate reading nook.
Rachel was pregnant with her fourth at the time and 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 lower footprint where the kitchen and dining and living rooms now openly mingle—and she also tacked on an extra bathroom. Most importantly, the move allowed her favorite table to take its destined position as the focal point of the home. It’s where they gather daily for meal times and every other moment in between. .
Now Rachel swears she will never leave again. Every detail, she emphasizes, has been researched to the ninth degree, from the quarter-circle headboard (it looks 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 light bulb in it, on the Murano -vases that her children may or may not one day knock over, as well as her own furniture designs. “There are pieces around the house that were bought with the intent for their beauty,” she notes (and often before she had anywhere to put them, a risk that always seems to pay off for her). “And that’s a good enough goal for me.”
Architect and builder with whom I had a lot of fun: Elements of Home and JT Dodd were a fantastic team working together to bring my vision to life. I really felt they allowed me to have a say and were very open to my input.
Most used object in my house: Our vintage Danish dining table.
Where I always go for vintage scores (and inspiration): Old auction house catalogs and local flea markets.
Coolest discovery I made: How much opportunity for additional living space there was in our roof cavity!
Item that so I am: The custom plaster light fixture by local artist Anna Charlesworth. They have a rawness to them, which holds their beauty. I believe that it is in our authenticity and imperfections that our strength and potential lie. They also emit incredibly soft light. I hope that through genuine connection and sharing of my craft, I also provide gentle inspiration and light.