Michael and Michele Bell turned a Kiama beach house from the sixties into a stunning seaside home that’s too good to leave.
It was supposed to be a fixer-upper. When Sydney architect Michael Bell and his interior designer work and life partner, Michele, went looking for a property on the NSW South Coast, they only ever intended to move there for as long as it took to renovate and sell a house. Michael had spent part of his childhood in regional Victoria and had fond memories of holidays at his grandfather’s beach shack on Phillip Island, and although Michele had grown up in Sydney’s north-west, she yearned to show their sons, Ewan and Thomas, the less-structured lifestyle she had enjoyed during her childhood. So it made perfect sense to move to Kiama.
A town famous for its surfing breaks and tourist-drawcard blowhole surrounded by a rolling green landscape dotted with dairy herds making their single-file pilgrimages at milking time. “It’s less than two hours to Sydney, so we could commute to our Ultimo office,” Michele says. “I’d researched the best areas in terms of real-estate performance and Kiama kept coming up. We initially intended to build, so when we went to inspect this property in Kiama Downs, it was more to gauge the market than with serious intention to buy.”
Michael’s considerable experience with heritage buildings means he’s well attuned to recognising potential when he sees it. So, when he saw the 1962 weatherboard cabin perched on a rise above the ocean, his instincts kicked in. “The garden was overgrown and covered in rabbit manure and internally it was just as neglected,” Michele recalls. “You had to look past the orange curtains and the flea-infested carpet. But Michael got a ladder and went up on the roof. He could see that adding another storey would open up the view of the ocean.”
Michele moved into the local caravan park while she supervised a big clear-out and cosmetic clean-up and enrolled the boys at the local primary school. While Michael commuted between Sydney and Kiama and Michele continued to fit her consultancy work in around her other tasks, they planned a renovation that included the upper level with 180-degree ocean views, an open kitchen and dining area and two extra bedrooms. Twelve years down the track, the two-year plan has well and truly expired and the Bells are thoroughly embedded in their beach-house lifestyle.
“The boys felt immediately at home,” Michele says. “They relished the freedom of being able to ride their bikes to school and enjoy all the outdoorsy activities at their doorstep. At first, I felt a bit isolated, but I joined a book club and a few school committees and gradually made friends.”
After a 29-year hiatus, Michele resumed ballet classes and says it’s now a “don’t-miss” weekly commitment. “The beauty of working for yourself is you can rearrange your work life to fit in with other priorities,” she says. “Michael and I usually stay in Sydney Mondays and Tuesdays, then he works from Kiama on Wednesdays and returns to the city for the end of the week, while I work from home.”
Most days are bookended with walks along the coastal tracks with Bentley the Weimaraner and dips in the ocean when weather permits. The Bells have many visitors from the city and interstate and love sharing the region’s delights with them. Highlights on their guests’ itineraries include cycling through the hinterland to the Jamberoo pub, walking all or sections of the Kiama to Gerringong coastal trail and visiting local wine bars and bistros.
While the restoration of their beach house is an ongoing project, the couple has been mindful to retain a laid-back coastal vibe and stay true to the sixties detailing. From Michael’s grandfather’s plywood fishing boat — rescued from the Phillip Island shack — and the crazy paving at the front to the original pink and black mosaic-tiled bathroom out the back, Michele and Michael have taken great care to preserve the essence of the sixties at the same time as making the house more amenable to contemporary living. True to Michael Bell Architects form, they opted to retain the original roof for aesthetics, but found that the eaves serve the practical purpose of making cleaning the upstairs windows easier.
While the original lime-green, pink and lilac colour scheme has been replaced by a more subdued palette, the Bells have been respectful of the home’s era and searched out finishes and fittings that suited. Michael added a porthole window to a bathroom that needed more light and installed a timber-panelled, copper-painted feature wall in a downstairs sitting room, while Michele tracked down tiles and fabrics that fitted the sixties vibe. She sourced an original light fitting on eBay and then serendipity intervened when a friend of Michael’s mother found two almost matching ones during a household clear-out. These shades are now a feature of the upstairs living space, alongside a sixties lounge and bathrooms tiled in black and white mosaics.
Creative energy runs strong in the family as Thomas is a cabinet maker who shapes surfboards in his spare time and Ewan is a fashion stylist, who also makes arthouse clothes as a sideline. Michele makes most of her own clothing, including her own wedding dress, which, with uncanny prescience, featured sixties influences right down to its empire line and a pillbox hat.
“I guess the era always held the attraction of a simpler lifestyle,” she says. “That’s certainly what we have achieved with our move to Kiama. We may have intended it to be an interlude, but it’s hard to imagine ever returning to live in the city now.”
By Kirsty McKenzie, photography Ken Brass