With a keen eye for collecting and a wonderful array of furniture, art and other pieces with a meaningful backstory, interior design-trained EL reader Kate Wilson has a Hong Kong home that really does feel like home.
Tucked away in an antique trunk in the corner of Kate Wilson’s candy-pink sitting room is a vast and carefully wrapped collection of silver perfume bottles she collected as a teenager. They rub shoulders with bundles of Christmas cards she has received from friends over the last thirteen years; the cards are neatly packed in plastic envelopes, labelled by year.
Peek inside Kate’s Hong Kong home at The Peak in the gallery above
“I do like a bit of a collection,” confesses Kate, whose current passion is antique plates. She recently unearthed some beautiful dragon-embossed Chinese examples from the 1950s and 60s in lustrous mint and sea-green shades. They’re safely packed away alongside a delicate blue-and-white porcelain set she found at Bowerbird in Ap Lei Chau. “I have no room to display them at the moment, but one day I will have a mango-coloured wall and these plates will look beautiful hanging on it,” says interior design-trained Kate. “In the meantime, if there’s something to collect, I’m going to buy it!”
Avid collector Kate has had more opportunity than most to scour the globe’s antique marts, markets and craft shops; she’s lived in the world’s major cities, from New York (three times) to San Francisco, Hong Kong (three times) to Singapore, and Sydney to London. As a result, her house on The Peak is a collector’s paradise – a treasure trove of unusual and quirky finds from all four corners of the earth. On a coffee table in the sitting room there are delicately wrought silver Christian crosses from a craft shop in Johannesburg. An imposing armoire sourced by husband Murray John – also a keen collector – came from an old Swedish shop in Manhattan. A much-loved zebra skin, complete with mane and tail, is from South Africa. A giant tin parrot, suspended from the ceiling, imperiously watches over proceedings from a corner of the room; Kate spotted him in an antique shop in Locust Valley, New York, two years ago. “I was adamant I could not leave without the parrot,” she laughs. “It came packed in a huge box the size of a coffee table, and I checked it in with my luggage. In fact, I have never come home from a holiday with the same amount of luggage I left with!”
Elsewhere in her sitting room, a striking antique iron table has a smooth glass top, beneath which a large collection of pink-tinged shells and driftwood nestle in sand. “Some I’ve picked up on my travels, some I’ve bought,” explains Kate. “I love shells. But I even went through a stage of collecting sand! One of our favourite places in the world is Harbour Island in the Bahamas, where the sand is pink. I’d fill a Volvic bottle and pack it in my suitcase, then use the sand to fill the bottom of a hurricane lamp at home”. With typical Kate flourish, she has matched the iron table with French-style chairs she found at an old estate sale in Locust Valley, and covered them in contemporary Missoni fabric in swirls of pink, grey and sand beige. The colours complement the shells perfectly.
Upstairs in the master bedroom, a pair of quirkily kitsch white porcelain cockatoos was found online at a consignment store in Palm Beach. They stand guard over Kate’s dressing table, which is heaped with every style of necklace you could imagine, beaded, sequined, pearlised, semi-precious and plastic. Naturally, Kate is a collector of unusual costume jewellery. “I can find something everywhere. There’s so much furniture and art, and so many ornaments in the house – and more in storage units – I sometimes wonder if I’m bordering on hoarding. But every piece of furniture or trinket has its own story, and I can’t bear to throw them away,” she says.
And the stories behind the pieces are endlessly fascinating, from the sumptuous pink silk cushions she picked up on her travels in India, to the blue and white porcelain in the hall that belonged to her expatriate parents, to the numerous eye-catching artworks that fill the walls. In one particularly striking piece, a shadowy aloe vera tree set against a fuchsia pink background is surrounded by photographs of African scenes taken by Canadian fashion photographer Raphael Mazzucco. A collection of maps (one to commemorate Kate’s birth, one her husband’s, and one from their first move together as a couple) is framed next to safari-style photographs of big game above an antique writing desk. “When Murray John climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania he came across an old junk shop in Arusha at its base” explains Kate. “He found these three big game photographs by a Dutch artist and bought them for me for our first wedding anniversary – which is paper, of course!”
More meaningful artwork hangs in the hallway by the stairs; three exquisite paper sculptures by artist Elisabeth Lecourt. Each sculpture is constructed from a map of the city Kate’s three daughters were born in: New York for 13-year-old Isabella, San Francisco for 11-year-old Minty, and Long Island for 6-year-old Florence.
Anchoring the artwork and ornaments are much loved heirloom pieces of furniture inherited from family, or decade-old pieces bought and kept by Kate. There’s an antique mahogany chest of drawers from Lots Road in London, which Kate’s parents gave her for her first apartment. There’s an old Chinese-style wedding cabinet, also from her parents, that Kate had silvered and distressed. It sits alongside a mahogany table in a peaceful, neutral dining space, in contrast to the riotous pinks and jewel tones of the downstairs sitting room. The rattan and whitewashed Louis XVI-style bed in the master bedroom was bought in New York. “We didn’t get it properly finished because we could barely afford the bed at the time” says Kate. “Murray John whitewashed it himself in the corridor outside our tiny apartment in Manhattan, and it’s aged naturally. The children have nibbled on its edges while watching TV, and someone has scribbled a crayon on the footboard; it’s all part of its character – the bed has history!”
History and family are vitally important to Kate, perhaps because – as the child of expatriate parents and now an expatriate wife – she’s never lived anywhere in her life for more than four years. In fact, ask her where she’s from and she hesitates. “I’m a mix; I have Australian and British passports but as I’ve lived all over the world, I never know what to say!”
So does she surround herself with meaningful antiques and trinkets to firmly anchor herself to her far-flung family? “Homes are homely because they contain your grandmother’s silver, or your dressing table is hectic with old family things. It’s all about making a home, wherever you are. Even in the most ghastly of circumstances, you can create a feeling of the English countryside, for example, simply with a few leather chairs, the odd silver frame, and a roaring fire. My advice to first time expatriates is to bring your favourite things with you, even if it’s a little silver pot or a painting. Come with a base, because that is what makes it home. That’s where the memories start.”
Upstairs in the cloakroom, Kate has devoted a wall to family memories; there are old colonial pictures of her parents; her mother and grandmother photographed Cecil Beaton-style on the street in Sydney. There are ancient photos of Murray John’s grandparents, and photos of him as a child growing up in South Africa. “Both sets of our parents were collectors too; it’s in the blood!” says Kate.
Now the family’s happiest moments are spending time together, in the house they’ve lived in for four years. So is another move on the cards? “It’s weird how you start itching for a change,” says Kate. “Last week, removal men arrived with boxes to ship stuff to our new holiday home in South Africa, and just hearing the rip of the packing tape gave me a bit of a thrill. I guess Murray John and I are both addicted to the excitement of new places and new people, and mindful that opportunities to travel like this don’t come along too often.
“Still, it gets trickier as the children get older, and there are fewer places I’d be prepared to go. Even though this is my third time living in Hong Kong, it was much harder coming here than I expected. I didn’t take into account how hard it would be for the girls to transfer from their friends and school in New York, and so we make a point of going back there every summer to keep those friendships alive. At the end of the day, moving regularly or staying put – whatever makes the individual happy is right for them”.
Given the huge collection of beautiful things in her house, what would Kate grab if the house were burning down? She doesn’t hesitate for long. “I have made books for each of my daughters with photographs of every birthday, every party they had, every visitor and what we served. They’re a record of their lives. They are my most prized possession”. Family first, every time.
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