How Interior Designer + Expert Renovator Leigh Ellwood Creates Beautiful, Lived-In Homes

Leigh Ellwood is the interior designer and expert renovator behind some of the most special homes that have ever featured here on The Design Files — she’s also the latest guest on our TDF Talks podcast!

From her calm and perfectly eclectic apartment inside Melbourne’s iconic Beverley Hills building, to a dreamy beach house along the Great Ocean Road, Leigh has a magical creative touch for designing lived-in interiors that we can’t get enough of.

Having completed an incredible 10 personal renovation projects in the last 24 years, it’s safe to say Leigh knows a thing or two about renovating, and we recently picked her brain to learn what she looks for in a project, and how she brings these beautiful places to life!

Listen the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, as we reveal some of her words of wisdom below.

Christina Karras

Interior designer Leigh Ellwood in her South Yarra home. Oak wardrobes designed by Leigh and built by Alex Penfold. Leather handles by MadeMeasure. Great Dane Furniture Tati Mirror. Upper artwork by Matlok Griffiths. Lower artwork by Dom Gray. Photo – Eve Wilson. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Akari pendant light. Togo Ligne Roset sofa and footstool upholstered in lilac Kvadrat velvet available from DOMO. Painting by Heather B. Swann from Station Gallery. ClassiCon side table. Photo – Eve Wilson. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Artworks from left to right: Ken Whisson, STEN LEX, Ollie Guyon, Joe Furlonger, Terri Brooks, Rob McHaffie, Eleanor Louise Butt, Noel McKenna, Graham Collins, Louise Gresswell, Kevin McNamee-Tweed. Togo Ligne Roset sofa upholstered in lilac Kvadrat velvet available from DOMO. Photo – Eve Wilson. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Antique plate on left by Noel McKenna. Plates on right all by Stephen Bird. Photo – Eve Wilson. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Le Klint The Bouquet pendant. Hans Wegner for Carl Hansen & Son CH29 dining chairs. Artek table. Loom vintage rug. Photo – Eve Wilson. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

An art wall inside Leigh’s pared-back beach house. Photo – Nikole Ramsay for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Her aesthetic channels elements from modernism, and eclectic inspiration from Danish designers. Photo – Nikole Ramsay for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Skantherm Shaker Fireplace from Oblica. Korbo Classic 24 Galvanised Wire Basket and Akari Pendant Light from Finnish Design Shop. Artek Day Bed from Anibou. Duvet by Marimekko. Photo – Nikole Ramsay for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

‘The banquette dining hooked to the back of the kitchen was a solution to create a central social space within a small footprint,’ Leigh says. 6286 Dining Table by Fredericia from Cult Design. Oyster paintings by Lewis Miller. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Christina Karras
14th of July 2023

Despite the fact that she’s about to start her eleventh renovation, Leigh Ellwood says she doesn’t have a master plan, or even a business model behind her projects. Instead, it’s more about creating homes that feel good to live in — even if it’s not a forever home.

‘I just try to bring something of myself to each project,’ Leigh reveals in the latest episode of our podcast, TDF Talks.

Leigh has an intuitive and personal approach to renovating, that sees her typically work on a property for a few years, and live there until a new challenge comes along.

Her light and eclectic apartment in the Beverley Hills building manages to feel brilliantly contemporary, without losing the charm of its historic 1930s architecture. Meanwhile her plywood-clad beach house is a lesson in restraint, where amazing water views are enhanced by a less-is-more design, and sentimental details, like oyster shells painted directly onto the walls.

Each property looks perfectly at home in its location, as if it had always been that way — when in reality, it’s a result of Leigh’s thoughtful vision, and the expertise she’s gained over many years.

Find some of Leigh’s renovating advice below, before you listen to the full podcast!

What to look for in a fixer-upper

Like most people, Leigh’s earlier renovations were simply about picking a place that she could afford, in the location she wanted to live in. But even now she says there’s not a lot of ‘deal breakers’, as long as a property has the basics like good natural light, a nice floor-to-ceiling height and good structural ‘bones’. Most of her homes have also had some character or history, and she prefers places that have been ‘knocked about’ as it gives a home a bit more of a soul! ‘I’ve bought a lot of ugly houses,’ Leigh says. ‘There’s just got to be something that sort of makes you feel a bit joyful about it.’

When she walked into her Beverley Hills apartment for the first time, she fell in love with the the master bedroom’s bay windows looking out into the trees, but it can be something as simple as a charming front door, or any small details that give you something to feel good about, that you can build on!

Tackle the essentials first, design second

Leigh says rather than making mood boards, she always starts off with the ‘really boring things’, asking questions about the services, like: ‘Does it have any heating? Does it have a good roof? Does it have insulation, does it have cooling?’

‘I have a chat with myself about what you can live with and what you definitely cannot live with, because there’s going to be a stage when you’re going to need to move in. I try and do the messy stuff first and then pick away at the other projects while I’m living there.’ Planning for the ‘boring’ practical elements first also gives you an idea of what you have to play with in the budget when it comes to the more cosmetic updates later on.

Build a personal relationship with trades you can trust

One of the most impressive things about Leigh is her ability to turn her vision into a reality with the help of some impeccable craftsmanship, and she puts that down to building a strong personal relationship with all her builders and tradespeople.

She says this comes from seeking out ‘can-do people’ who seem just as invested in the renovation as she is. A red flag is anyone who comes to the first meeting with a negative attitude, pointing out nothing but obstacles. ‘When they start talking it down before we even begin, I’ve already sacked them and I’m onto the next!’ Leigh says.

Ask everyone for recommendations

Almost all of Leigh’s tradespeople have come from asking around, or looking into the teams behind project you love. She begged an architect friend for her current builder’s number, and they’ve been working closely together ever since. ‘When you’ve got a good trade, often they know another good trade,’ Leigh says. ‘If you have somebody good, ask them if they know a good cabinet maker, and you just keep asking the questions.’

Don’t put pressure on yourself to make it a ‘forever home’

While Leigh creates truly beautiful, personal homes that most people dream of living in, she’s also careful not to pin her identity to a property, to avoid feeling like it has to be perfect — or that you can’t leave. ‘As things change, your needs change as well,’ she says, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

‘I always try and do my best with that house that I’m in, because I want it to be good. And I like to think that the house I’m passing on to the next person that will give them some enjoyment from the changes I’ve made’.

Listen to full podcast with Leigh below, or find TDF Talks on Spotify and Apple Podcasts!

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