The Perfect Imperfect World of Sibella Court

Extract from Perfect Imperfect - the beauty of accident, age & patina - by Karen McCartney, Sharyn Cairns and Glen Proebstel.

While Sibella Court has many and varied roles (retailer, interior designer, TV host and consultant), it is her training as an interiors stylist that is almost always in play. Forget the basic ability to put things together in a pleasing fashion – that is a given – it is more the adaptive skills she has learnt along the way that serve her present set-up well. She thinks on her feet and doesn’t worry if something doesn’t work, understanding that accident is simply part of the process. ‘On set you need to be able to re-edit quickly,’ she says. ‘If the bowl you are relying on to make a certain image work doesn’t show up, you need to think quickly, reconfigure and be open to the shift.’ The same is true of the spaces she curates. While they present with apparent ease, they are the result of a rigorous imaginative process. She enters into an elaborate narrative whereby a space is lived in by a certain character and the interior becomes a manifestation of their surroundings. This serves to add a layer of meaning, and gives the decorative plan a clear sense of direction.

In a time when collecting, and even curating, have become everyday terms, Court has upped the ante and refers to her ‘imaginarium’. ‘I want to create worlds that are more than display and verge on something magical, a touch of fantasy and an atmosphere of transportation; a sense of another time, even another world,’ she says. 

And, of course, there is a very specific time to which Sibella Court is drawn. ‘For me, it is all about 1851, the year of The Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace,’ she says. ‘It was a time of enlightenment. Religion was questioned in a broad social way, and the Royal Society, the British national academy of science, was doing so many quirky, but significant, experiments.’ Importantly for someone who is visual as well as cerebral, it was also the time of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, where collectors amassed never seen-before objects from around the globe. ‘I love that they were strangely random – a stuffed crocodile was shown beside a massive sword, some exotic coral, a shrunken head and a pineapple.’ She points out that this interest wasn’t only for the rarefied few, but that more than two million people, fascinated to witness artefacts from these brave new worlds, attended The Great Exhibition.

But don’t mistake Court for someone who re-creates pastiches of what has gone before. For her, this was a time of wide-eyed wonderment, a window on the world, and it is the spirit and philosophy of the period that provides an inspirational trampoline. There is nothing literal or museum-like in her approach. ‘I don’t want people to feel that they can’t touch things, take notes, be inspired, linger and stay longer,’ she says. It is Court’s overriding priority that any space she creates, be it a restaurant, shop, bar or B&B, must feel welcome. ‘I love rich, layered visual experiences and want people to leave with an idea – no matter how small – that they can execute in their own home.’

And the B&B, shown here, has no shortage of ideas to appropriate – the more you look, really look, the more you see. The shallow shelves in the bedroom are filled with pinky, translucent shells (‘I think of it as 3-D wallpaper,’ she says); artworks are casually taped to the wall, sometimes far from straight, and a walrus head oversees a melange of objects, including an old typewriter case, her signature twine and a tiny purposeful polar bear.

‘For me it is about creating excitement and intrigue,’ she says. ‘The bed is high so you have to climb into it like a child, and old photographs have the resonance of another time.’ But the clock has not stopped in her interiors; everything pivots around as new pieces come in and others are spirited away. Court has seen thousands of items come and go but there is only one thing that keeps boomeranging back into her mind as a regret. ‘I brought this unusual leather-covered flagon back from New York,’ she laments. ‘It was sort of Falstaffian with a beautiful waxed interior and then I sold it.’

Court’s kitchen is small but is dominated by a massive characterful sink bought from the prop sale following the filming of The Great Gatsby movie, which was shot in Sydney. ‘As soon as I bought it, I got on the phone to my dad, who is a builder, and asked him to rip out the existing kitchen ready for the new sink,’ she says. ‘It was done by the time I got home.’ And therein lies the difference between Ms Court and the rest of us.

Photography by Sharyn Cairns.

Perfect Imperfect is a beautiful, inspirational book, with thought-provoking text by Karen McCartney and stunning visuals by Sharyn Cairns and Glen Proebstel. It is a celebration of accident, curation, collection, hesitation, collaboration, reuse, reimagining and true originality. It explores an established aesthetic in a new way, as illustrated by the homes and studios of creatives all over the world. It embraces current design objects alongside well-worn ones, and features interior settings that mix comfort, design and an off-beat beauty. 

Available from Murdoch Books, £25.