Stylist, teacher, traveller, writer, Megan Morton’s career began at Inside Out magazine at a time when Australian stylists were elevating the art of the edit. On the eve of her next trip to France and India, we catch up in her Sydney studio to discuss the creative process, her belief in the power of sharing, and the “tangents and random threads” that shape a layered life.
Working behind the campaign scenes of 'A Life Individual', Megan Morton understands the art of the autobiographical and has brought to the project what Space Group Marketing Manager, Michelle McEwen, describes as the "MM Magic”. With playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, surgeon Terry Wu and artist Andrea Sullivan it all began with understanding who they are and staying true to their personal style.
In the following interview, Megan discusses making 'It’s beautiful here*', her work behind the scenes of 'A Life Individual', travels to India, interior insights, Instagram, sharing, life and rituals and the golden moments that can be found in the simplest of things…
MM: The reason I wanted to shoot 'It’s beautiful here*’ and 'A Life Individual', is that sometimes it is about looking beyond the magazine shot. That photograph from behind, or that glance when you walk into a room as an interiors enthusiast. Just where that beautiful trickle of light comes through. We could see the poetry of furniture, or in the case of 'It’s beautiful here*' not necessary beautiful furniture but a beautiful tone. I think there is a commonality in the two that is about looking at something in not the most obvious way.
Kevin McCloud talks a lot about the navigation of a person’s house. Looking at it from perspective of how you use it most. That’s what I love about the book and the Space campaign, it looks at the soft spots. Like Trevor’s house in Melbourne. It’s an impressive house, architecturally, decoratively, stylistically, there is a lot in there. But it’s really all about the study. He is a doctor and an art patron so not to shoot there would be wrong. It would not be a true representation of him. In artist Andrea Sullivan's 1950s house in Sydney, she has six Tufty-Time sofas in icy colours set in a room where the paint is like the breath of a marshmallow. It’s the yummiest interior. It is spot on. There is art and paintings, all the colours, then her boys come home and the dog comes in. It all works. I love those spaces that are completely autobiographical.
That autobiographic approach also explains my favourite house in 'It’s beautiful here*’, an 18th century chateau owned by Marie-Hélène Claudel Gilly who is French-Australian and had gone back to France to look after her 96-year old father. It was the family home where she grew up, full of family ghosts. I was sitting there looking at all the beautiful 18th century-ness, set against Harry Bertoia chairs outside and big standard poodles (I love all of that), and I realised that the best bit about that house was also the weakest part. It was a wing with tessellated terracotta floors and bright yellow silk curtains that was not very French at all. I asked why the yellow and Marie told me that her father is an old man so she wanted the sunlight to be everywhere. Of course! It’s my favourite picture because there is an idea behind it.
Do you think that by respecting the subject brings a kind of anthropology to the home and a true understanding of the people who live there?
Yes. Are they morning people and why does this room work so beautifully. We need the backlog. It deserves an explanation, otherwise you are just left with curated feeds of people taking photos of other people's work. There is a curation that happens in a book that doesn’t happen in a magazine anymore, and it certainly doesn’t happen on Pinterest or Instagram.
Sharing is really central to everything you do, from books to travel to workshops. What drives that openness with ideas?
I believe that when you produce something that is a thing of beauty you put it out there; you share it because you want more of it around. The night before I was doing my first styling masterclass I read this incredible book called 'Beauty as a Call to Justice', It was written by Elaine Scarry who is the Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard. In the foreword, it says that at the end of the day we all want beauty to replicate itself. We want to see beauty again and again, which is why we also screenshot things and keep them in our private Pinterest folders that nobody can see but us.
Earlier, we were discussing India and the generosity of the people and their open, sharing culture. How have your travels to India influenced you?
Three years ago when I first went to India, Jac Hunt gave me a list of 10 things I had to do. Four hours into day one it was a total love affair. I was just mad about the place. This is my ninth time coming up. In India anything is possible and nothing is possible. My eye was like, right that’s it, I start from scratch. My styling life starts from now. I know nothing, look at these people, look at what they do every day and their radiance. After that trip I knew I had to go back with my goggles on, and why wouldn’t I take a small group of people with me!
The India trip sold out in two days and I was a bit scared, what if I lose someone? Then I started shooting there and understanding how it works and felt that I needed India so much; to work out what I am doing in my work life, what I want to write about, the stories I want to put out in the world.
India is about generosity and spirit. If you ask an interior designer who their best upholsterer is, they won’t give you their third best or their pretend best, they will give you their best because they know that guy could go out of business. They want everyone to be as embellished. The spirit of generosity is amazing. Both women and men, people from all walks of life. That is the spirit of India and everything around it is chaos.
Where are some of your favourite places in India?
Jaipur is where I mostly go. I know it so well now. They have one coffee shop that has an original 1940s interior and all they serve is coffee. For them it is the reverence of what they are making. It’s why the gypsies sell you the best saris ever. In this day and age everything is so digital. So you can have a portal to destinations, you can go to Paris or Milan through the eyes of someone else on Instagram. Eyes are one thing but it’s the smell and it’s the sounds. I am interested in those things that are totally analog and for me India is so analog. You can’t really photograph it because it’s too wide, deep, vast and crazy. You can only capture it in small ways, in stylist ways, but you can’t get the real India that way.
Let’s talk about the balance you create between projects, how do you develop the synchronicity?
For me, when a job falls into our laps, or if we are going for one, I think about what I call the triangle of beauty. For us there is the making element, because when people see a deliberate hand that’s been there and shaped something, we respond. Even if it is only 10% of the whole project it’s enough for me. Then there is the sharing part. I want to give someone a portal through Instagram. Just the same way I like a portal. At the top of the beauty triangle there is the process, why do we need it, why does the world need another x, y, z, and if the world needs it, how do we tell a story that no one else has told before. When you have that triangle it separates jobs quite naturally and it also allows you to have a mixed bag of things going on. If I am touching all three I am keeping interested. India is exactly all of those.
How do you describe what you do to people?
House whispering. I know that sounds really cheesy, but the house tells you what to do. Sometimes it says leave me alone! Houses and where they are in the landscape of the street and the mood of the street and the tone, there is so much to mastering the inside of a house by looking at the outside. Not just because you want to get the most from your house when you sell it, but because you want the house to be the best version of itself for everybody.
I am really into airflow and I think it’s because I grew up in the country. In houses we can forget that. The circulation is so important. In relationship counselling they talk about the third space. As a couple you are two perfect people, and your relationship is the third space – I think the house is the third space and all the clues are there. Some houses have cleavage and legs, and other houses are like subtle French women. The house will tell you. Really sit down and interview the house. The architraves will give you clues, the door jams, the flooring. Once you have worked that out you have a good plan of attack and you are not wasting money.
I bought my house thinking it was this really pretty French girl and actually it is a cranky old Belgian. It’s quite dark and a little bit stuffy. I was putting up all of my artworks and my little French hangs and they just felt redundant, so it is now quite sombre and a little bit Soviet. I have been reading the Adolf Loos book and his philosophy on decoration is so beautiful. So I am listening to the house but also to Loos.
What else are you reading right now?
I love to read. I love fiction and non-fiction, interiors… what I love about books is they have to fight hard to get on the bookshelf. Sixty dollars is a lot of money no matter how beautiful the writing is or how great the pictures are. It’s a lot of money to part with. Right now I am going back to my art books, the ones you find in two dollar bins at Book World. I am looking at Giorgio Morandi, Caravaggio and a beautiful book called 'Nature and its Symbols'. What is really throwing me for six, in the best way possible, is this whole idea of luxe and the generous Caravaggio plates that are actually about what is going on behind the scenes. Like in Downton Abbey where all of the action was happening in the scullery.
That also seems to be the focus of your travels, getting behind the scenes and into some very private homes. Where are you heading to next?
We head to Paris in September for the exhibition Maison & Objet, and then we take a group on a styling excursion. We visit Wo and Wé, a lighting group that sources everything from a 10-kilometre radius. Olivier Abry has a really beautiful business and we also visit his house. Then we go to my vintage dealer who famously declined to work with the Kardashians, she is absolute heaven, we visit the Clown Bar in Paris that was once a clown school, and the studio of Tse & Tse who are incredible designers and such a hard-working team. Then we head to India for a whole month to shoot two campaigns, and in between that we take two groups on a tour. A highlight of that trip is a visit to the biggest rose farm in Pushkar where the oil is traditionally distilled and the smell is heaven. Through all of our adventures I am trying to show people that the slow things are actually the gold things.
So for you, the joy is in slowing down and appreciating the simpler things?
Yes, that is what I am trying to say to clients, if you love cups of tea let me buy you an antiquated teacup so every morning you feel wonderful. I want people to fall back in love with their house and the magic that’s in it.