Karen McCartney is well known in the world of interior design as a celebrated author and pioneering lifestyle editor of Australian magazine titles, Inside Out and Marie Claire Lifestyle. Lesser known as her role as tried and trusted friend in so many peoples lives. I spent the day with Karen and her daughter Ava, who is venturing out into her own acting career, at their holiday house on Dangar Island.


You grew up with traditional roles reversed. Your Mum worked full time and your dad did the cooking...how has this affected your outlook?

It meant that right from an early age I had a close relationship with my dad and I could also see my mum as a role model of women in the workplace. We have always sat around the dinner table at night, to discuss our day, and I have a love of food which dad has encouraged.   


Interior design has been central to your parents careers... how important are our surroundings to you?

While at one point I could see how different our house was to that of my friends over time I have come to love the unique qualities it has. The house is designed to make it easy for the family to be together. I have developed my own sense of what I like through exposure to architecture and design and I have a strong visual sense of what I would like my home to be in the future.   


Who are your conscious role models?

I admire model Emily Ratajkowski for her activism around the sexualization of women in the entertainment industry and Australian actor Margot Robbie for her ability to challenge herself by taking on risky roles and blurring the line between actor and producer – working both in front of and behind the camera.   

Do you see your personality reflected in your clothing choices?

I come from a family who favour muted colours and like to keep things comfortable and relaxed. For every day, as I’m currently working with children, it has to be robust and easy in natural fabrics and baggy shapes. When dressing up I tend to go for fitted outfits as long as they look good with sneakers!  


Why are you drawn to acting?

I enjoy, even for a short period of time, being someone else and looking at the world through their perspective. As this changes for every different character there are a lot of emotions and circumstances to explore. Although challenging I do like the thrill of performing and collaborating with like-minded people.   

What's important to you in a partner?

First off, someone who has a sense of humour and makes me laugh and is prepared to go out of their way to do things you like – small or big. Thoughtful gestures that result from close observation really shows that someone listens and cares.   


Is there one thing that concerns you most in the world today?

There are so many things. But at the moment the impact of the reduction of the Amazon Rainforest is a concern. 20% of our oxygen comes from that eco-system and the impact of its destruction will be enormous. I also feel ashamed at the treatment of refugees in Australia – there should be a much more humanitarian approach to people who have already faced such huge risks.


What do you admire about your mother?

My mum is a very positive, good-natured person and I like that I can be very open with her about the things that are going on in my life.   


Your career is built around interior style – what's vital in the home environment?

We have been in our house a long time – 20 years this month – and as I look around it is filled (perhaps too much) with things bought from student shows and from auctions in London in the 1990s alongside pieces gradually gathered over the years. We recently bought a coffee table, having gone without one for 10 years, seduced by a Jon Goulder for Spence & Lyda brass and travertine table.. We are lucky to have many creative friends whose work I admire – a crafted throw by Jacqui Fink, artworks by Cara Gordon and by Martyn Thompson. We have also collected pieces by Australian artists over the years – Rover Thomas, Ildiko Kovacs and Heather B. Swann It is a very layered slightly chaotic look. Recently I have taken to plants – orchids that thrive on a sunny spot and neglect, hardy succulents in Anchor Ceramic pots, books piled everywhere.  

At Dangar Island it is a slightly more pared back look but the same principles apply with the mix of art, books, ceramics, new designer and vintage pieces. I think that old things, that have lived a life in another context, add a richness to a place.  


What dictates your clothing choices?

For many years I worked in a more corporate environment and clothes had to be more formal. Now working from home, there are days when elasticated sleeping trousers are replaced by elasticated day trousers. Going to a meeting I have to smarten up my act and I favour simple, plain clothes – often in black, grey and navy. I do love a stripe and have introduced a muted forest green into the wardrobe recently . I am always drawn to the comfort of cashmere, linen and wool. Coats are my weakness and I have far too many for a Sydney climate.  


You've maintained both a lengthy marriage and lengthy career.. and brought up two beautiful children.. what's your secret?

I don't really know. David and I are very different in our personalities but very similar in our core values. He has always supported me in life choices and I him. We both work hard and have a sense of the importance of seeing things through. I try to always work with people who I like and have a connection with and it is effective in making every project I take on enjoyable.. My relationship with both my children – Mac and Ava – is a surprise and joy to me. I was such a difficult teenager I sort of expected the same from them. I do reflect on what a ‘life win’ this is and feel very grateful for our family relationships.  

What quality you most respect in another human being?

At risk of sounding too worthy it is, without a doubt, integrity. I value it highly in my existing friendships and seek it out in new ones both in the professional and personal context. It makes life more enjoyable and straight forward to know that the people you are giving your time and energy to value the same things. 


Who are your conscious role models?

I am in awe of people who make brave life choices at personal risk to themselves and their families. I read recently about how Alexey Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist was poisoned and nearly died. After recovering in Germany he intends to go back to Russia to continue his cause. That kind of personal sacrifice and determination is remarkable and inspiring.   


If you were offering one piece of advice to Ava what is it?

I remember when we visited you in New York and we were out to dinner and giving the 11 year old Ava advice about what to look for in a partner. I said watch out for how they treat people in service roles -waiters and taxi drivers. You said make sure they have long term friendships. I think that advice holds true 7 years later.  


What do you like/admire about Ava?

Ava carries a certain joy about her and has a good sense of humour both of which are great assets in life. She also has an ability, beyond her years, to handle awkward situations, finding a way to draw out a problem so that the air is cleared. She is also immensely kind – an attribute of which I feel very proud.   

Words & Photography: Martyn Thompson

Karen McCartney