How to revive a farmhouse: interior designer and founder of SOUL Home, Simone Mathews guides us through her restoration success story.
“We always say that the farmhouse found us,” says Australian interior designer Simone Mathews, “It is a love story between a tired-looking farmhouse and our family of six.”
Simone’s referring to the lovingly restored 1800s farmhouse, Soul Home of Gerringong, which she and her husband Ben (a builder) purchased, renovated and established as a luxury accommodation destination. “We had no plans to purchase a property or relocate; we were in town for a friend’s birthday. I stumbled across the building, and there was something about it that drew me in. Little did we know that the property was for sale. A few months later we were the new owners.”
The farmhouse sits on the edge of Gerringong, a coastal holiday town 90 minutes from Sydney on Australia’s New South Wales South Coast. With a population in the single-digit thousands, it’s a quiet, escapist destination set between rolling green hills and unspoilt beaches. “It’s a place where the locals know each other’s names,” says Simone. “We were attracted to the area as we enjoy a slower pace. And being foodies, we love the paddock-to-plate dining at its restaurants, all sourced from local farms.”
Built in the mid to late 1800s by the Cooke family, the farmhouse was typical of buildings of the time – constructed with timber weatherboards and a wrap-around veranda. A potbelly stove positioned in an outhouse was used to cook meals. For the entrepreneurial Cookes, the farmhouse served multiple purposes. “They were the first people in the town to own a car. Apart from farming, they had set up a side business collecting guests from the train station and bringing them back to the farmhouse, which doubled as a boarding house,” explains Simone.
“In many ways you could say that we’ve restored the farmhouse to its former ways.” We chatted to Simone to find out how.
Recognise the farmhouse’s appeal
“There is something about old houses that you just can’t get in the builds of today. Ben and I were drawn to its original character. It had been neglected over the years and had a few additions that really didn’t fit with the home. Hard to believe, but we had to fight the local council to keep the building – it was zoned to be demolished and the land redeveloped. It wasn’t heritage listed as the prior owners had replaced the roof. Once we had council on our side, and in turn the locals’ support, it was all systems go. We knew we wanted to restore the property to its former glory but also transform her into one that would suit today’s way of life. It truly was a passion project.”
Honour its past
“Every piece of original material was reused. Where this wasn’t possible, we sourced from the grounds of the property and from local farms. Many of the original timber floorboards had rotted and couldn’t be reused in the farmhouse, so these were repaired and used in the barn at the rear. The original timber weatherboards were repaired and remain on the front façade, the mismatched boards adding to that original charm. The stone fireplace had to stay, but it had previously been rendered over. Once the render was stripped and the basalt stone revealed, we chose other materials to compliment the colours in the stone.”
Establish its defining elements
“A farmhouse needs texture. Think: a mix of timbers, stone and panelling. To create a home that has a lived-in feeling, it needs to have a warm palette and be inviting. So, I worked with warm whites on the walls, timbers such as oak, and brass finishes throughout. Pitched ceilings will create drama in a home. Pair these with ceilings lined in timber boards and you have a home with character and space. A fireplace regularly becomes the hero of a home regardless of the season. I’d suggest using natural stone for its surrounds.”
Push beyond comfort zones
“I have a signature style that includes a combination of black, white, timbers and brass. Pitched ceilings are also a feature I try to incorporate into houses that I work on. These aspects aside, Soul of Gerringong isn’t my own aesthetic. I’m a big believer that each home deserves its own identity and not just that of my own style. This is how homes develop feeling and ultimately I believe this is what all designers need to set out to do.”
Define the farmhouse’s new aesthetic
“I was inspired by my travels over the years as well as the local surrounds. I wanted to create a coastal aesthetic that had both the classic and rustic touches that a farmhouse demands. I have always loved the seaside homes in the town of Byron Bay, and this influence comes through in the colour scheme of black, white and timber. I am also inspired by the farmhouses of Italy – restoring the fireplace was a nod to that. I also wanted to include the tropical surrounds that are typical in Balinese villas. The tropically-landscaped garden reflects this influence.”
Choose a textured palette
“I love using natural raw woods, soft linens, wicker, rattan and stone as they inject personality into a home. It’s all about grouping them together rather than using them on their own. I am a big believer that homes are to be lived in and that chosen materials need to cope with day-to-day living. I enjoy linens, as the more you wash them the better they become. I do also love rattan, as its perfection is in its imperfection.”
Keep it in the family
“Ben and I are definitely yang and yang, which is why we work so well together. I have an understanding of how I want properties to make people feel and the vision of how to achieve this and Ben takes these thoughts and makes them a reality. When we work together on our own projects and with clients, magic happens. We both have similar aesthetics; we lust over natural timbers and lean toward properties that have timeless touches.”
Face its challenges head-on
“The challenge here was working with an old home. We never knew what we would discover, good or bad. This meant we needed to be flexible with budget, layout and finishes. That said, the biggest reward is seeing the house come back to life. Everyone who visits the property feels the soul of the home and that is the ultimate reward as both the homeowner and designer.”