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Sibella Court steers a life of style & adventure

02 September 2023
By: Emily Armstrong

Is there anything Sibella Court can’t do? The Australian interior and product designer, author, historian, TV presenter, and creator of The Society Inc., describes herself as ‘part-pirate, part-gypsy,’ and always ready to ‘jump on a ship, plane, train or rickshaw at the drop of a hat’.

Sibella is the captain of both her Imaginairum - the 300m2 shop-cum-gallery-cum-studio of The Society Inc., in a hip industrial part of Sydney, and her family home surrounded by bush and water an hour south of Sydney which she is currently renovating. She runs a tight ship where curiosity leads and where tools and rituals from days gone by are reimagined with best practices for retail, hotels, and homes around the world.

Sibella’s infectious passion for history, curiosity about culture, love of travel, nature, and craft all seem to hint at a former life, and perhaps her particular fascination with the year 1856 may hold the key to her past. There is a feeling she’s been here before - an old soul with a cavernous mind holding a library of visual storytelling to rival her actual collections (ranging from shells to ships in boxes to sailmaking tools). Sibella’s adventurous spirit draws parallels with heroines in film - Karen Blixen, the Danish author and main character in the 1985 classic, Out of Africa perhaps and there is more than a hint of Katharine Hepburn about her (the Tracy Lord character in The Philadelphia Story is also Sibella's muse). But there is only one Sibella Court - a modern-day seafaring, pioneering, industrious, and well-travelled woman creating beauty and practicality against a backdrop of chic safari tents and sailing boats with stunning natural backdrops.

Romance aside, Sibella is a grafter with a no-nonsense fearlessness. She began working at age 15 while still at her all-girls school on Sydney’s lower north shore (The Society Inc shield emblem is borrowed from her old school house) and went on to study history at university. A chance encounter at the Vogue offices led her to a serendipitous career start - as a stylist and prop designer, the type of job she’d never heard of but that was simply made for her. A New York chapter followed during the interiors heyday of the 90s which included a pivotal association with Anthropologie. Many successful books followed, and hardware product design unfolded, all while embracing endless travel. Finally, she returned home to Sydney to set up The Society Inc. and her very own Imaginarium. 

Here we chat with Sibella about how her lifelong curiosity has led to endless crafting, collecting, designing, dreaming, and doing the things she was destined to do; how her mother has both inspired and shaped her life of adventure (and poignantly named her daughter Silver); and how to live a life dedicated to passions and purpose…

Sibella on set with a perfect beach and pirate flag. Photographed by Katrina Parker.

On growing up & adventures in Sydney
I grew up in the Lower North Shore of Sydney in a rambling property that ran down to the water with a boathouse. It was the 70s into the 80s and consisted of us as little kids racing around on bicycles and surfing behind a dinghy. We all had little runabouts, finding blue ring octopus and the like. I am one of four children and we were a gang in our own right - we were always in the water, on the water, near the water. 

I’ve always loved flowers and seasons. My grandparents on both sides were big gardeners and that had an impact on me. I’ve always loved watching seasons change and have always been curious and happiest immersed in nature.  My grandparents lived on Smiths Lake, a 3 hour drive north of Sydney - we would walk on the edge of the lake, row, and catamaran. I started collecting shells at the age of 3, and have vivid memories of going a deep shade of brown in bikini bottoms and collecting pink shells with zig zags. I would collect for hours and hours and hours. I still have the collection today. I don’t do this anymore of course as I’m very conscious of the natural ecosystem and try as best as possible to operate with a ‘leave without trace’ philosophy in our natural environment. 

On studying history at university…
I could have chosen art school but decided against it - I was very immersed in craft and art but I chose to do a BA with not much direction within that, so the first year I tried a lot of things. I thrived within the university structure where I didn’t when I was at school. Within the format of history, I was able to choose my essays and what I wanted to study within the framework. It was a truly eye-opening experience. I adore libraries, surrounded by books and an object library so to tap into big resources I find endlessly inspiring. History is always a perspective. My parents were incredibly supportive even though they didn’t think I’d use it in any way. When you thought of historians back then it was quite dusty. I don’t think anything like this (my career) existed then so I had no idea what was ahead of me but I loved every part of the university history journey. 

On the serendipitous Vogue encounter…
The Vogue thing was funny. My friend Edwina McCann was working there and got me work experience and very quickly I realised fashion wasn’t for me. However, I would loiter around the Vogue Entertaining & Vogue Living offices and be smitten. I assisted an Editor (a free gig for a year) and it was all interiors. I fell madly in love with it and knew what I wanted to do at age 20. I knew Sydney back to front so could zip around quickly, I knew all the names of the flowers and leaves so knew that language very well. My aunt was a stylist, my dad was a residential builder and my mum was a collector, educator, and heavily into textiles. These base foundations made me feel very comfortable within the prop and styling worlds. It also helped to have so much crafting in my background -  I could sew, decoupage, had so many collections, could take photographs (I even had a dark room under the house). It was like the job was made for me…

A lesson for us all in the Imaginairum space of The Society Inc HQ - part gallery, part shop, part studio; Sibella at home (photography: David Hutton).

I started collecting shells at age of three, and have vivid memories of going a deep shade of brown in bikini bottoms and collecting pink shells with zig zags. I would collect for hours and hours and hours. I still have the collection today

    On her ingrained love of travel…
    Growing up, I travelled quite a bit, but only with my family. My mum would go off on archaeological digs in Thailand and then I would go off to Europe with my dad. We weren’t travelling like people do now but for the 80s we were definitely travelling the world quite a bit. It wasn’t travel per se, it was part of an environment growing up where we were encouraged to try new things and explore different cultures - whether at home or abroad.
    While I was establishing myself as a young stylist, I waited for a couple of years then started to do bigger trips independently and would save up and stay in amazing hotels! I loved staying in beautiful hotels with inspiring interiors. I was obsessed with all the touchpoints for the guests and the finer details. I stayed in hotels like Anouska Hempel’s - The Hempel & Blakes in London at a very young age. 

    On becoming a well-known stylist, the 90’s interiors scene & the New York chapter…
    I started my own company at 21 - working on my own - as a freelance stylist. I have never been an employee and have always loved the freedom that comes from this. I was shooting a lot with Geoff Lung. Donna Hay and I were Editors. My portfolio by this stage was pretty impressive. At one point I was put forward for a big catalogue job in the US. I never worried about being too young. They picked mine! J Jill was the company - largely clothing and homewares. The job was very much in the style of Elle UK when Ilse Crawford reigned supreme. I was fearless - ‘scared of the dark but not of adventure’. It was a very exciting time for interiors in the mid 90’s. I was commuting back and forth to Australia for about 9 months. I started dating photographer Hugh Stewart and one time we stayed on after a job. It wasn’t planned but I then stayed for 10 years.
    On adventures with Anthropologie and a fateful trip to India…
    I used to work with Anthropologie all the time - in the early days literally putting their product in magazines and the business relationship grew naturally.  At the time, I was flying over four times a year to New York from Sydney. One day I was in the gallery of Anthropologie in the Rockefeller Centre and started talking about the paint range I had with Murobond in Australia. They said, “We want to do that too.” So I went on the train to Philly to their HQ. The paint project didn’t work out but I became firm friends with the then GM, Aaron Hoey, and was subsequently invited to accompany them on their inspiration trips. I had just written (my book) Etc.  They bought a huge amount of copies of books to sell and they did well. The invitations kept coming, ‘Do you want to meet in Galapagos? Come to Dutch Design Week?’  We went on to collaborate on two more books - Nomad & Gypsy. Aaron knew I loved hardware (no one else was doing any interesting or styled offering of hardware at the time) so he said, “Come to India and do a range for us.” We struck a deal that I would come up with a design and he would introduce me to the manufacturers and I could sell in Australia too -  it was a handshake deal. It stuck in their top sellers for years so I knew I was onto something, and off the back of the success of Etc. It was serendipitous and the stars aligned. India is a very important place to me - my mum died while in India. There is an unbroken lineage of craftsmanship. Over time we have broadened our makers but are also still working with the first manufacturer that Anthropologie introduced me to.

    On her love of history and in particular, the year 1856… 
    1856 and the surrounding years were a really interesting time in history - religion was being questioned, more discoveries around the world, cultural awareness, lots of seafaring and exploration, navigation tools, longitude and latitude - all these things coming together. A fascinating and inspiring period in history and I really feel there is no reason we can’t continue those big thinking times and make them relevant today but with the best practices.

    Sibella in her beloved nature; visiting beautiful retail spaces in Paris (photography: Jo Yeldham); a chic safari set up

    On her love of retail spaces & creating her own Imaginarium
    I was planning on opening in America. By then I had been styling for 16 years. I felt I could showcase all the amazing people I had met and worked with and realise some whacky visual merchandising. There was a lot of exciting retail happening at the time - J Crew, Club Monaco, DKNY were really leading with very exciting retail spaces. I shopped all day every day so I really knew my retail market very well and I felt ready to do something more than styling. I had already come up with The Society Inc. concept and when I returned home to Sydney I set about making it happen. With my friend James Merrell, we would imagine what it would be like and look at places. Edwina (McCann) went and bought the corner house for me in Paddington. I would make a quarterly change to correspond with the Murobond palette. It was madness but so much fun. From that studio, we started Mr. Wong, Miss G’s, The Beresford, Palmer & Co, revamped The Ivy, with Justin (Hemmes) and then did The Watsons Bay Hotel, The Oaks and the Hotel Palisade Bar, Accommodation & rooftop lounge, Henry Deane

    On favourite projects from her enormous body of work including presenting Restoration Australia for ABC TV
    I got the Restoration Australia job through my editor at ABC when I did Bowerbird who introduced me to the producers. 'Sibella really likes hand-forged nails' she said. And I do! All the nostalgia and historical architecture were wonderful. TV is not my normal format but it was right for me at the time - the projects were largely Georgian and colonial architectural history that I've always been drawn to, houses built around 1850. I shot it over a period of 2.5 years. The week I started I found out I was pregnant. I would shoot on the weekends as I was busy with design work during the week. It satisfied a lot of things including seedling a lot of Australia I hadn’t yet explored. I got work in the Northern Territory which was incredible. My favourite projects are now all remote or heritage like Bullo River Station.

    On her need to create & collect
    I love to create and dream about spaces - I can see them in full visualisation, I have my own 3D vision in my brain and it works in hardware and homeware design, dreaming up all that you see. That’s why I had to have my own company! It’s just me having all these ideas and making them happen. It’s such a joy to do this and collecting is a part of this. I'm constantly saying, 'Oh I’ve got that vessel that I bought in France, I was up this mountain and found an artifact and that’s the patina I have' and so on. I might forget what I did yesterday but I am like a librarian on what I have (in my collections). My shop is my Imaginarium.

    On finding life's passion & purpose
    You’ve got to be open and learn what you don’t like. Try new things and be okay with walking away. I didn’t know the job of a stylist existed. I didn't even realise what my aunt's occupation was (a stylist). It's a huge defining factor of who I am now. It came in the last 15 years and it’s been honed. It was embedded in my DNA that was lurking in the background for a long time but it’s risen. I tried everything. Say yes - do every craft workshop. I had been selling things on the side to my mum’s friends in the capacity that I could. I started working at 14 and 9 months (legal age) - in a supermarket, in a bar, selling my wares. Real-life experience and meeting people from all walks of life and cultures are so important.  At the end of the day, I am the GM, I am the CEO, I’m the founder. I find the jobs, I’m the creative director - a female director of the company with an incredible team.

    On the lessons her mother taught her
    My mum taught me about how many chapters you have in your life. She had three degrees: a children’s literature degree, an Australian literature degree, and an educator degree. She became a specialised teacher who would take the gifted children. She taught me curiosity and an interest in almost everything. One year I received a Sydney Theatre Company season ticket in my Christmas stocking - the theatre, and the orchestra were visited regularly. We learned to read music at an early age. She was open to everything. She did decorative art tours all around the world and specialised in central Asia and landed where her knowledge led - especially about textiles. She was taking tours for the gallery of New South Wales. She was only 63 when she died. She chose a spot in a tented camp in the far desert,  doing exactly what she loved with an incredible group of people. I then saw my mum not as a mother, or as a wife, but as her. It was eye-opening. She taught me a love of research and reading - curiosity - to try food, see what others do, and to keep the spring in your step.
    My mother also named my daughter. When I was in New York she sent me a book - Jeanette Winterson’s, Lighthouse Keeping. She wrote, 'If you every have a child, I think she should be called Silver'. The passage reads, 'My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal, part pirate’ Well after Mum died, whether I had a boy or girl, they were destined to be called Silver.

    On her recent tree change out of Sydney
    We now live in Budeena to the south of Sydney. We moved because my husband was from Byron Bay and didn’t deal with Sydney so well. A girlfriend was building a site down there I would go down twice a month to see the pores. The more I went, the more I loved it. Not consciously, I’m moving to Bundeena. We saw the house, bought it and started building and designing it the next month. We are currently in the finishing stages of a major renovation.

    Thoughts on aging
    I turned 50 last year and I’ve lost both my parents now. I see a lot of my parent's friends aging. I have now been doing pilates for 15 years and I love being in nature - I'm a big hiker. The book, Landlines really spoke to me.  It’s so important to keep your mobility and for me, it’s the connection to nature. I need to hike to keep fit and healthy. The idea of being static or stationary could be my biggest fear. Walking in the bush or getting on a plane is so important to me. As my mother said to me, ‘Keep a spring in your step’, - keep yourself fit and healthy. She said that to me when we were in Central Asia and noticed the range of mobility of some of the guests on her tour. Movement and ease of movement as you get older is so crucial.

    SIbella's New York loft, home for 10 years and housing many of her artful collections from travel and adventures abroad. Photography: James Merrell

    I was fearless - scared of the dark but not of adventure

    Sibella in some rare downtime (photograph: Hugh Stewart); nautical styling (photograph: Chris Court); scheming colours with Murobond paints (photograph: Victoria Aguirre); a signature cabinet of curiosity at the Bullo River project.

    On being a self-confessed 'part-pirate, part-gypsy’ 
    A creative thinker who throws caution to the wind on many occasions (although usually with a plan of attack) and ready to jump on a ship, plane, train or rickshaw at the drop of a hat

    On how she hopes to inspire daughter Silver
    My hope is to inspire Silver to be a curious independent entrepreneurial dream follower who likes to go travelling with me! You can only lead by example and love. I don’t push her into anything she doesn’t want to. Mum taught me so many good things including that everything is in a phase and she instilled in us an amazing confidence in what you want to do. It’s not arrogance or over-ambition but simply doing what you want and owning that space. My brother Chris and I both implement this in our lives

    On being a trailblazer in designing beautiful hardware
    Learning about metals and fabrication is key, I lean on my master blacksmith, craftsmen in India, heritage trade knowledge holders and books I pick up along the way. Many of my designs are steeped in nostalgia as I refer to history to shed light on age-old processes, shapes that work and different metal's idiosyncrasies

    Tips on decorating for a collected & comfortable home
    A blend of new and old is key. Pieces that spark a memory of where you were and who you were with are favourites of mine. I definitely live by the rule of a home is never finished, and you add & subtract as you find new pieces and shuffle what you have or pass on what you no longer desire

    Favourite places to trawl for collections, antiques, & art
    Porte du Vanves flea market in Paris
    I trawl the auctions weekly in Australia
    French General in LA
    Paula Rubenstein NYC
    And any travel trip always has a vintage shop, salvage yard, fleamarket or antique fair on the agenda  
    This could be a book in itself

    On her collections
    I can not choose favourites but a few of my many collections are:
    Sailmaking tools
    Things that fasten
    Shop display cupboards, drawers & paraphernalia
    Old lights
    Ships in boxes

    On creating her happy place
    I love the world I have created in my design-studio-cum-shop. It's 300m2 of my products, collections, reference books & object library that I draw on daily for my hardware, publications and interior design projects. But en par is my home in the Royal National Park, one hour south of Sydney – surrounded by bush and water

    Dream travel itinerary
    I have a colour hunting round-the-world itinerary that I am dreaming up that takes me from Japan, France, and Italy to the USA and finishing in Central Australia. Stay tuned

    On how she unwinds
    Hiking, snorkelling, paddle boarding, travelling, beachcombing, making perfume, painting, making paint, stitching, reading, cooking. I don’t think I’m very good at completely unwinding

    Wellness to Sibella means ...
    Mobility, health, happiness
    Immersing in Nature
    Taking care of what I eat
    Postural and skeletal maintenance
    Spending time with my friends
    Letting it all go and just having fun, and lots of it

    On mentors & a network of strong supportive women 
    Although I have not had any formal mentors at the same time I have had plenty of them. Perhaps it goes back to leading by example, and as a curious observer for much of my early career, my learnings were by doing exactly that. From the beginning  I was surrounded by strong supportive creative women in the magazine world – I worked with editors Karen Mccartney (who I continue to call on) Jacqui Frank, Sharyn Storrier Lyneham, Jane Roarty & food trailblazer Donna Hay. Then in NYC so many women from my agent, editors, advertising agency heads, producers, and photographers, working with Martha Stewart, Oprah, and Anna Wintour. So many wonderful women! To this day I continue to have the support of my dear friends and contemporaries as we share stories and knowledge that guide my decision-making for my companies, dreams, trials, tribulations, joys, successes and losses

    What’s next for Sibella Court…
    More hardware, more interior design, interesting hospitality projects steeped in history in unique places, travelling the world for curiosity, buying antiques & curiosities for projects, writing another newspaper, making colour, painting – I need to make another list!! 

    Lets Play Favourites - Sibella Court

    Flower – Flannel
    Artist –  Joshua Yeldham
    Interior Designer – Roman & Williams
    Scent / Fragrance – Mandy Afterls’ Palimpsest
    Travel destination/s – train trip in Manch Pichhu (yet to happen)
    Place in Australia – Bundeena where I live
    Book – Victoria Finlay's, Colour | Travels through the Paintbox
    PodcastThe Rabbit Hole Detectives
    Film – Anything by Mike Leigh, Wes Anderson or Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro
    Wellness ritual – Facials at Luna Apothecary and fortnightly physio tune-ups, bushwalking, being in the ocean
    ColourThreadbare from my paint collection ‘Objet Trouve’ with Murobond
    Beauty product essential – Dermalogica
    Make-up must-have –  Chanel Les Beiges water fresh tint
    Fashion label – Hermes
    Wardrobe essential/s – Golden Goose boots, safari jackets & hats
    Season – all seasons
    Restaurant and/or Meal – Freemans in NYC, Au Petit Fer à Cheval, Paris
    Muse – Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story
    Era or decade – 1890’s to 1920’s
    Time of day – Sunrise
    Day of the week – Fridays
    Quote/Mantra – Eat your Greens

    For more of Sibella's life and work, visit & follow @sibellacourt @thesocietyinc

    Photography: William Meppem, others stated or by Sibella Court. Interview by @emilyflorence_