Property developer, urbanist and shopkeeper Linda Gregoriou cannot understand why you’d go for a Hamptons look if you don’t live in the Hamptons. Or why you’d have a formal parterre garden out the front of a simple worker’s cottage. She is obsessed with sense of place: with identifying and then respecting the unique set of qualities and characteristics that make a place what it is. It’s as if knowing where you are helps you know who you are.
‘What does it mean to be Australian? It’s a question I ask myself all the time,” said Gregoriou. And you can’t find the answer in chain stores that could be anywhere in the world.
Growing up in the beachside Melbourne suburb of Brighton with a Cypriot-Greek father and an Anglo mother descended from the well-known West Australian Sharpe pastoral family, Gregoriou has always known being Australian could be many things.
She was called a wog, even though her mother’s family had been in Australia since 1840. She looked like a Cypriot, but didn’t identify with a lot of the migrant families around her because her father had moved to Australia to attend Melbourne University.
“I was kind of in no man’s land, not an Anglo-saxon or a migrant.”
This sense of being an outsider that has helped her take note of the many facets of what it means to be Australian; to look for the set of circumstances that makes a place what it is: to be open to the juxtapositions.
She’s taught urban design at university, she’s been an investment banker, a shopkeeper (her now-closed Sydney store Pure and General was named ‘best store’ in Louis Vuitton’s Sydney Guide) and the CEO of the National Trust of Australia, among holding many other executive and board roles.
Today Gregoriou, 55, is sitting on the grapevine-clad verandah of her 1860s Georgian cottage in Windsor, an historic town 50km north west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River surrounded by rich soil, farmland, bush and Sydney’s urban fringes. She has lovingly revitalised the two-bedroom cottage over the past three years, painting the tongue and groove walls, installing a bathroom, filling the walls with art and objects collected over many years from all over the world but mainly Australia. She liberated the split-slab barn in the back garden from a huge banksia rose that had almost entirely hidden the two-storey building. This is her weekender, her room of one’s own, her place to garden.
“From an urbanist perspective I'm finding Australian cities are becoming more homogenized. When I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, 25 years ago, it was a delightful place with a lot of small unique pockets and there was a very strong community feel in those different places. Now there is so much development it's like one big construction site.
Instead Gregoriou has her eye on regional Australia.
“I work with investment bankers and fund managers and I head up property and infrastructure for a boutique investment firm. We only invest in projects and businesses that have a cultural or social benefit, design excellence and a sustainable element. And predominantly we're finding that in regional Australia. A lot of the projects that we're looking at are regional.”
Gregoriou cites the convergence of unaffordable city real estate prices, the homogenisation of city retail and the cultural blossoming of regional centres as the reason the regions are so appealing.
“Regional Australian is being reinvented...There’s been more out-migration from Melbourne and Sydney than there has been in-migration. And they are going to places like Newcastle, the Gold Coast, Geelong Bendigo, Bathurst and Ballarat.”
“Now there's the perfect opportunity for a lot of regional and rural places to get their retail going again. It’s the perfect time to start up a business. It sounds counterintuitive, given the economic climate, but I think it’s perfect. There are so many people that are making beautiful things that are being very creative out in regional Australia, I say to them, go and open up a shop. Become a destination. Don’t try to be like anything else out there. You have to have a point of difference.”
Back in Gregoriou’s colonial-Georgian cottage in Windsor, her obsession with sense of place is evident. The cottage is understated. It has not been open-planned. The kitchen is dark with raw hardwood walls and a brick floor and simple pendant lights reused from the barn out the back. Upstairs, nestled under the eaves of the cottage roof is a light-filled living room, painted white with splashes of pink in the soft furnishings. The house has been filled with objects Linda has found, inherited, collected and commissioned over years.
On the colonial walls are Aboriginal weavings from Maningrida. The elephant bookends in the sitting room belonged to Linda’s father, which he picked up in Sri Lanka when he decided to get off a boat bound for Cyprus, turn around and move permanently to Australia. There is Australian art from Dee Smart, Victoria Alexander and an Ian Carr painting above the kitchen fireplace which was a gift from artist Luke Sciberras in exchange for the palm tree in Linda’s back garden.
She’s planted five shades of nasturtiums, foxgloves, holly hocks and cineraria in the beds flanking the brick paths out the back, and nasturtiums and fragrant jasmine climb up the picket fence at the front.
“You know, people go off and do meditation and yoga or whatever. This is actually about nurturing something. Gardening is for me a meditative space and it's about creating something that's beautiful.”
And with that she goes to make a pot of green tea in the dark kitchen, in the heart of this wonderful place that reflects nothing other than Linda Gregoriou and her many-faceted Australian life.
This is an extract from Issue 1 of Galah. For the full article, we'd love you to shop Issue 1!
Photos by Anson Smart.