Tracey Withers, HARPER’S BAZAAR
The Entertainer: Designer turned dinner-party doyenne Stephanie Conley found her fit in an Old Hollywood-style Sydney pad, where her passion for hosting finds full expression.
Not everyone would have seen what Stephanie Conley, former fashion designer and now luxe-dinner-party blogger The Hostess (thehostess.com), saw when she first skimmed her eyes over this 1930’s apartment in deepest, leafy Woollahra, Sydney. An inner something clicked as she stood in the doorway. “It had lived a lot of years,” she remembers. And it looked like they’d all been lived harder than you’d expect in this postcode. “But the place had beautiful bones — high ceilings, stunning old windows and original steel-framed doors. I just had this sense of what it could be as a home.” In a beat, a vision laid itself out like a blueprint. “I’m a visual thinker — I conjure. I could see plush textures, colour and wallpaper,” Conley says. She knew it was going to take several months and the works, but this old eastern suburbs dame would be reinvented into a glamour-era Hollywood Hills babe.
There are enough Bentley’s on the bendy crescent streets around here to fit the fantasy, although no chemical LA haze blurs out this apartment’s rock-star view across a valley, Double Bay and the harbour out to the heads. “I wanted the interior to have that Hollywood glamorous boudoir feeling,” Conley says. “I couldn’t have anyone else decorate it. I had this fantasy and I wanted it to be.” Do we detect some detail-freakery? “Yeah, it’s exhausting,” she says with a laugh. “But I get a lot of joy out of it. I love interiors, I love antiques. I’ve always loved colours, textures and fabrics.”
The fashion force is still strong. You’ll remember the Stephanie Conley label, all swing coats, belted sundresses and printed empire lines — retro respun for the mid-Noughties. The Naomi’s, Campbell and Watts, were fans (Conley was engaged to Watt’s brother, Ben in 2007). “In fashion and also with interiors, the thing that has always influenced me is film from the 50’s and 60’s. My father was older when he had my sister and I, and he had a mad love for musicals. Ginger Rogers, Rodgers and Hammersmith, the classic movies. I grew up loving everything from that period: the style, the sophistication, the manners.”
We’re not saying it doesn’t happen, but it is truly difficult to imagine Conley in mumsy denim. She’s a dress person, she agrees, noting that dresses too can be casual and easy. “I love Australian labels; I wear Camilla and Marc a lot. But whenever I travel I find Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. They do great shapes, fitted at the waist. That suits me.” She’s got Louboutins and Guiseppe Zanotti’s lined up in the walk-in wardrobe, nudes at the front: “I gravitate to more practical heels these days.”
Conley wrapped up her fashion gig in 2008, but kitting out each of the rooms in this place triggered creative muscle memory; the knack for styling form together with function doesn’t wear off. “I used velvet on the couch in the more formal room, and it’s glamorous and luxurious but still comfortable,” she says. In her bedroom, an all-mirrored dresser she found in New York and a leopard -print chair drip glitz into an otherwise hushed creamy-toned space. “I also wanted to make the home feel casual in places,” she adds, pointing to a deliberately unframed Emilio Leofreddi artwork, a smiling sunburst, on the living room wall. “I like that it’s on tent canvas,” she says. “It’s cool, it’s relaxed and the texture gives the room a liveable feeling.” The blue that flows from the walls of the formal area, past the Knoll Pedestal dining table and out to the kitchen has guts enough to hold its own against plush cushions, gleam-tallic Art Deco side tables from The Country Trader, vintage crystal decanters of whiskey and a frankly magnificent bust of Hercules. Yet the colour also has a calming effect. “It took me a couple of go’s to get the depth of the blue right—you’ve got to think of the light in the room, and sometimes you just wont know until it’s on.”
Conley, 37, and husband Oskar Buhre, 34, a financial advisor, finally moved in before their now two-year-old son, Hugo, was born. Buhre had kind of left her to it. “It’s not always a meeting of the minds,” Conley says, laughing. “My husband has got really great taste,” she emphasises. He’s Swedish, after all. “But he can’t visualise something before it’s there. We were travelling in France and I wanted to buy this photograph and he was like, ‘No, it wont work in the room,’ and we came home without it” We are, it turns out, talking about the leopard picture by Anke Schaffelhuber currently very much working on the blue wall. “A few months later, I tracked it down,” Conley says. “He loves it now.” Was it mayhem when the baby first hit the freshly renovated, finely curated scene? “I’m actually not too precious about things — everything’s touchable and you’ve got to be able to sit on everything,” says Conley, who is now pregnant with her second child. “I always want people to walk in and relax.”
We are, you see, in a hostess’s home. Have some wine. Eat something. As Dean Martin croons from a speaker around the corner (Conley commits to her vintage Hollywood theme), she will do her Hostess thing over a commercial-sized oven. “We’ve got two living areas in the house but we invite people over and everyone wants to stand in the kitchen and have a drink while I cook,” she says. “The island is a meeting place.” Slim Aaron’s photograph Poolside Gossip, the archetypical chic cocktail-party-scene, hangs near the fridge like a motherhood. “Everyone goes to restaurants now. People don’t invite people around to their homes enough anymore,” the revivalist-entertainer says. “I love when someone invites me to their table.” The couple are wanderlusty travellers and Conley takes as souvenirs inspiration from far-flung celebrations. “Seeing what people do in their houses in different cultures is so interesting—how they do a birthday in Brazil or France. That’s a beautiful thing to bring home and share with friends.”
The kitchen is forensically spotless for such a hard-working space. “That would be Le Cordon Bleu,” she says. Conley once did an “intense” six-month stint at the French culinary institution. “It taught me the basics: sauces, butchery, stocks, served at the same time. It was bloody hard.” Still, years later, Conley runs a cook-up with military order. “Have you been watching My Kitchen Rules?” she asks, eyes wide with a mixture of horror and empathy. “These people are a mess!”
Conley also dresses an impressive table, hydrangeas and greenery an amuse-bouche for the eye. The trick for rookies: think friends first, then florals. “Nobody wants to bend their neck around a candelabra or talk through a wall of flowers. I think it’s nice to have arrangements that can stay through the meal.” She lays them low, for ease of bowl-passing and keeping the red flowing. When she plates up, forget the Le Cordon French fussiness: she serves loud, robust flavour bombs. It’s modern, rustic and very Italiano.
As newlyweds, Conley and Buhre lived for a year in the Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome, in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment. “We didn’t have a car — we rode bicycles everywhere,” she says. He did contract work and she studied the lingua; they hung sheets out of windows to dry, as the locals do, and bought only what they would eat each day. The couple revisits every year. “Out of that time in Italy, the biggest influence was the food culture. I like to cook more southern than northern food — I love the vibrant colours, the produce, the country style.” Coney lives “polished” yet eats wild. “I put a lot of emphasis on having on having a healthy lifestyle and the Mediterranean diet… Even my dinne rpart food is really simple — there’s not a lot of ingredients.”
Her blog is a gastro tour: the menu from dinner at a Sicilian villa one summer; the recipes for an autumnal lunch at home; flash meals she does daily. “One of the greatest luxuries in this world is food; to walk into a supermarket and have the freedom to eat what you want,” she says. “I love the growers’ markets at The Entertainment Quarter — they’re best on Wednesdays.” It’s breezing home to fix dinner for a lot of fabulous people. “In real life it’s much more of a rush than that,” she says, laughing. “Getting my dry cleaning is a mission. Could I actually live, practically, every day like the classic movies I love? No. Sleeping in rollers would be hell.” But she loves the idea of it.
“Life is monotonous sometimes, but you can create that space at home and think, ‘This is amazing,’ and have a glass of champagne and eat together and forget about everything else,” Conley says. A slice of Roma in the Hollywood Hills in Sydney will do it. “If you can create your fantasy at home, why not?”