No one could have imagined the last five years of Dee Tang’s life, least of all herself. The creative, stylist, and author of Love Is was living with her husband, artist Desmond Sweeney, in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, when Desmond suggested they move to Western Australia where Dee grew up.
‘I was like ‘NO WAY!’ Dee recalls. She eventually reconsidered, but with conditions. ‘I had the following criteria; we are not moving unless it is an old house, has a studio, and is in or around Fremantle.’
Naturally, Desmond found a home online right away. Seeing photos of the 1940s California bungalow’s doorway and studio was all Dee needed to fly over and check it out, where she was fortunate to meet the home’s owners of 30 years. ‘While the home was in dire need of attention and care, there was a beautiful vibration to the space that you can’t replicate or just create immediately,’ Dee says. She was sold.
The family moved in a few months later, but in between, their first-born daughter Kawa Leaf, tragically passed away. During this time of incredible grief, the Fremantle house, nicknamed The Lady California, and its two studios, became a sanctuary where the family could heal.
‘We always remain deeply in love with our home and what she has done to shelter and nurture our family, particularly through our early stages of deep grief,’ says Dee. ‘I feel very blessed there’s these little separate abodes that we can wander off into and do our thing; be it to grieve, create, or simply tune out.’
Over the years since, Dee and Desmond have made numerous cosmetic updates to the home. Their intent is to maintain the soul of the space, as instilled by its previous owners, who were a multigenerational family of glass artists. ‘They imbued the space with a creative energy that is felt immediately as you stroll the grounds or wander through the garden and into the studio,’ says Dee.
Most renovations have been contained to the studio, where a nook was converted into a bathroom/kitchen inspired by a specific Beaches film (1988) scene. Dee explains, ‘The fancy friend is visiting the struggling artist Bette Midler character in New York, and she lives in this tiny shoebox of an apartment where the bathroom and kitchen are in the same space. They are conversing while one is making tea in the kitchen and the other is having a shower. I loved the intimacy of this scene, and it served as the main source of inspiration for the studio renovation. I felt that anyone who stayed in this space would have that kind of relationship.’
More recently, Dee and Desmond have tiled the sunroom and laundry, levelled the floor (‘which is excellent for skating through the house to the backdoor’), and installed a new kitchen. ‘We tend to do things in tiny stages and have tradesmen help us with the major work,’ Dee says. ‘Desmond will finish in the spare time he has, which means we often live in a somewhat manageable state of renovation.’
The couple’s renovating motto is, ‘If in doubt, paint it white’ — so you’ll see plenty of Dulux Natural White throughout this home! Dee’s shack is the only exception, painted in Porter’s Paints Newport Blue in a nod to her former home in Sydney’s Newport Beach. ‘I wanted it to feel like an old fisherman’s shack; a little bit “salty dog” and tapping into the working class roots and spirit of Fremantle,’ she says.
Most importantly, Dee and Desmond’s home is a place for living and creating with freedom. ‘While I do focus on maintaining her sense of old school beauty and charm, it’s got to be un-precious and inviting at the same time,’ says Dee. ‘There’s not a chair you can’t sit in or anything you can’t touch, and there are no fancy plates or cupboards.’
Dee is thankful of the role this home has already played in the young family’s life, in addition to those who came before them. ‘I often feel like the custodian of this home, rather than an owner…That it is our job to care and honour her and in return she nurtures our work, creativity and provides a warm home for our family,’ she says.
‘There’s an unspoken feeling that this home is a magical space filled with the souls of creative characters who have been here before, and continue to do so.’