Karlee, Oliver & Ced: Crazy, Creaky Wonderland

Karlee Sangster and Oliver Hextall are a multi-talented couple who live in a shopfront on Brunswick’s busy Sydney Road. Between looking after her 13-month-old son, Cedric, making clothes, writing for car magazines, and running her plant consulting business, Karlee gave us a tour of their greenery-filled home and locale.

Karlee Sangster and Oliver Hextall live above a shopfront in Sydney Road, Brunswick. A multi-talented couple, Karlee is a dressmaker, works at Mr Kitly, writes for car magazines, is an avid photographer, experiments with textiles and clay and has a small plant consulting business called Good Green Plant Hire. Oliver makes music on a variety of analogue devices, works for Aesop and designs costumes as part of his art practice. Karlee and Oliver have been together for almost five years, and have a 13-month-old son, Cedric (Ced). According to Karlee, the pair are both “adapting to the surreal mess that is parenthood whilst attempting to maintain their own interests and sanity.” [can totally sympathise there! – ed.] Karlee guides us through the importance of plants at home and her locally focused lifestyle.


Karlee, Oliver and Ced (dressed in a Karlee-knitted ensemble) at home. Photo by Nusha Gurusinghe.

“Oliver and I had always loved this building from the outside, and we were looking for a new house, as I was newly pregnant. I saw a ‘for lease’ sign in the window on my way to work one day and after weeks and weeks of negotiating, we signed the lease. We rent the entire building and sublet the shop to our friend’s record store. It’s our dream home, and we often reflect on how lucky we’ve been to make it a reality. It’s a commercial lease, which means long term (15 years!) affordable rent and the freedom to renovate, which we did before moving in and will continue to do as we have the time and funds.


The exterior of Karlee, Oliver and Ced’s place on Sydney Road. Photo by Nusha Gurusinghe.

It’s much bigger than you’d expect – we both have our own studios, Ced has his room and our bedroom is at the very back, and it’s much quieter than we had imagined, living on a main road. It’s old, it’s cold, it’s certainly less than perfect, but there are fireplaces, pressed metal ceilings and well-worn wood floors that make up for that. If we had the money to completely polish the floors, re-plaster the walls and install a proper kitchen, we wouldn’t, because then the space would lose the feel that we loved so much when we first walked in. We’ve had to kid-proof it a bit, but that’s about it. I like that Ced will grow up here, a crazy creaky wonderland hidden above the Sydney Road madness.

“Having a child, your home space becomes host to a myriad of items you would never own out of choice. Baby stuff… We have a ride on bee, for chrissakes.” Photo by Karlee Sangster.

“Ced on a horse in a Tokyo playground. Japan’s playgrounds trump ours in every single way except ground cover. No grass anywhere.” Photo by Karlee Sangster.

I’ve been making and repairing clothes for over 10 years now, and up until I had my son, I had various studios in the city, making made to measure garments for anyone who wanted them. I’ve now got a nice little client base that I continue to sew for from home. When I moved to Melbourne five years ago, I was very much enamoured with vintage styling from the 1930s-‘50s and that became my specialty. But as time has passed, my interests have shifted, as well as my own personal aesthetic, which has meant I’ve been able to broaden my horizons, so to speak.


Karlee’s home workspace. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

I work from the room at the front of our house, which overlooks Sydney Road. It’s the brightest room in the house – good for sewing and for my plants. We watch the sunset from this room and you can see the New Moon Café sign. I also write for a few magazines on a freelance basis from this room. The house is in the perfect location for all my jobs – I also work just down the road at Mr Kitly, and can easily collect sewing supplies at the fabric shops on my walk there. Sewing clothes for Ced has also been one way I relate to motherhood – I am not a gushy person by nature, and actually really struggled with believing that he was MY son – (growing and birthing a child is the most surreal experience), but using my skills to clothe him has been a nice way to feel like he’s a part of me.

Karlee’s creativity spans dressmaking, writing, textiles, photography and ceramics. Here, some Karlee Sangster mugs and spoons. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Ced with Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Pumpkin’ on Naoshima Art Island (one of our most treasured places, too). Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Motherhood also forces you to use the time you do get to yourself as productively as possible. Oliver and I decided to structure our work out of the house so that we don’t need to use childcare – we share looking after Ced between us every week. We also get two family days where we are all home together. On the days where it’s just Ced and I, I work in the studio while he naps. This limited time has really influenced the items I make at the moment – I’ve found ways to make the most of that window through both construction techniques and overall designs. In a way, the limitations of having a baby open up new ways of thinking about your work… a nice surprise.

The green-too next door to Karlee’s place. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Karlee’s vintage wheels. “This year is hopefully the year I teach Ol to drive.” Photo by Karlee Sangster.

I’ve shot film since high school. I use two cameras from the 60’s and 70’s that I’ve found at garage sales. A big part of it is tracking down the manuals and learning how to properly use them. I like old cars for the same reason: they’re both so obviously mechanical, and there’s something satisfying about teaching yourself to operate them as they were intended. Digital is too mysterious for me. It’s funny, the first photo I ever took of Ced was on film, after four days labour (no sleep and crazy medical procedures). We were actually planning a homebirth, but he got stuck in the wrong position, and we had to transfer to hospital at the last minute. As I was packing between contractions, I remembered to throw in my camera and a roll of film. I forgot my toothbrush, but I remembered the film!


Textile and twigs in the studio. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Paper and keyboard in Oliver’s studio. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

The women of the Bauhaus did some amazing work with colour and design – my personal favourites are Gunta Stölzl, Anni Albers and Marianne Brandt. Svenja Specht from Reality Studio is great at re-imagining items that seem unchangeable and my friend Stanislava Pinchuk is one of the most driven people I’ve ever met. Pene Durston is a textiles wizard, Anna Varendorff continues to blow my mind conceptually and Rowan and Saan (Rowsaan) design and make beautiful, practical objects. Lenka Clayton is an artist who made me see motherhood in a whole new light and Piet Oudolf designs some of the most fantastic gardens I’ve ever seen.

Karlee in Mr Kitly mode, tending to more plants! Photo by Nusha Gurusinghe.

A vase by Cecile Daladier at Mr Kitly. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Working at Mr Kitly, I’ve become pretty spoilt in regards to amazing ceramics and homegoods, but Japan was pretty fantastic. I carried home a backpack full of ceramics, posted beautiful linen back to myself and shot a whole lot of film. I purposely chose places to stay that were in more suburban areas, as Ol and I love just walking and looking and are easily overwhelmed in busy places. The thing that really struck me was the amazing relationship between beauty and impracticality and function and necessity that exists in Japanese living spaces.

Outdoor potted garden, Koto-ku, Japan. “It is rare to see a home without at least a small potted garden outside. We tried to stay in out of the way neighbourhoods whilst travelling, and Koto-ku was a great choice. Such beautiful suburbia.” Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Ced playing in an overgrown field. “We snuck into this field on Naoshima and discovered an abandoned slippery slide, broken swingset and this plastic panda.” Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Archways in Kyoto, from Karlee, Oliver and Ced’s recent Japan trip. “This was an ancient and still operational aqueduct near the Jishō-ji temple. Totally mind-blowing gardens and architecture.” Photo by Karlee Sangster.

The ubiquitous plastic peg hangers dangling from balconies, dripping with freshly washed socks and underwear combined with crazy beautiful potted street gardens and dinner served on a thousand tiny dishes creates this surreal atmosphere where it’s almost like someone has decided what matters and what’s worth beautifying and creating ritual around, and what just needs to get done as quickly and effectively as possible, so that there’s maximum time left for the beautiful.


Plant-adorned fireplace. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Plants are something I couldn’t go without. Plants remind me not to be selfish. Years ago, I was having a pretty hard time and wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind. It was around that time that I started collecting plants. The decision to bring a living thing into your world, especially indoors, means you then have to care for it. Caring for a plant means looking at it daily, considering its needs, when it was last fed and watered, how it’s growing… You have to think about something outside of yourself. And if you’re not attentive, or not around, the plant dies. Collecting plants, for me, was an exercise in sticking around, to be honest. And they’re so communicative. They reward you in small ways, which in itself causes you to be observant and thankful. A new leaf, a flower, a cutting taking root – they’re not massive, earth shattering events, but the more observant you are, the more you notice.

The commitments: Karlee’s enduring love affair with indoor plants on show. Photo by Karlee Sangster.

Ced wakes up around 6:30 on a good day. We lie in bed listening to him sing to himself until it becomes clear that he isn’t going back to sleep, and both of us go and change him and bring him into our bed, where we read and play with him for as long as he’ll put up with it. Every morning starts with several cups of tea, a record or two and then depending on who is working and who has Ced for the day, we get organized. If I’m at home, I try to get in studio time while Ced naps, and when he’s awake, we go to Ceres, meet up with friends, hit the park circuit and the pool, or take long baths. Ol cooks dinner while I breastfeed Ced and put him to bed about 7 and then we eat together and savour the quiet, usually with a whisky.

Home is where the plants are.

A huge thanks to Karlee for her beautiful insights and photographs. Visit her tumblr for more analogue goodness: karleesangster.tumblr.com

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