entry via "Stuart Rattle's Musk Farm"

I'm not usually one to pick a book from the True Crime genre, however when it revolves around the murder of Stuart Rattle, one of Australia's most lauded Interior Decorators then it piques my interest.


For those uninitiated, Stuart Rattle was a highly regarded Australian Interior Decorator in his 50s, murdered by his long-term life and business partner Michael O'Neill two years ago. O'Neill plead guilty to the murder, thus sparing a long, drawn out trial that would no doubt have been filled with salacious detail as their lives were picked apart. He has never divulged exactly what it was that lead to the murder on that night (it appears unplanned), preferring to 'protect' Stuart's legacy. Suffice to say that he is extremely remorseful, is a broken man, and it seems to have been an out of character crime.

Stuart Rattle

The author of this book (who only writes in the True Crime genre) wrote about Rattle and O'Neill's life in a biography of sorts, with the detail provided through interviews with the families, their friends, colleagues and former clients, adding in her own slightly sneering asides (she has no understanding of design/ why people would hire a designer/ how wealthy people live) and distracting personal stories. There is clear sympathy toward the murderer, and she portrays Rattle (whom she had never met in person) in a very unflattering light as a driven, exacting perfectionist and thoroughly nasty person. He seemed to be widely loved by suppliers, clients and his many friends and was charismatic and personable. After reading it all, I felt like having a bath in disinfectant.

Corner of the Library

At first it was essentially an account of a wholesale makeover of a life - from their respective starts in country Australian towns in the 1960s with working class families, the bullying they each endured due to their sexuality (O'Neill quite severely), their respective wholesale makeovers in Melbourne into urbane upper class men about town, and then it gradually evolved into a tale of when business goes bad. Despite being at the top of the tree in the Australian design world, and despite decorating houses for people worth tens and hundreds of millions of dollars (and more), Rattle's design business was imploding due to complete and utter mismanagement. When Rattle died, there were 56 jobs on the books - all run by just O'Neill, who acted as his assistant. This is an extraordinary number of jobs to have on the go in an office being project managed by just one person.

The kitchen at Musk Farm

Design itself is a fraction of the overall job as a Designer. Successful execution involves meticulous planning/ checking/ double checking and an awful lot of paperwork and project management. From what was written in the book, it would seem this was not being done well, and things were falling apart at the seams as a result - clients were angry their projects were taking so long or that things were turning up incorrectly made, suppliers were not being paid, clients were not being billed and everyone was confused as to where things were at with budgets. Additionally they were not making a lot of money considering their client base (taking home approximately $300,000/ annum between the two of them, but spending $700,000 on living expenses). 

Outdoor pavilion

As part of the so called "A Gay" scene in Melbourne they were certainly looking the part, mostly due to borrowing money from the business accounts, and utilising the business overdraft facility for their own personal expenses. At the time of the murder they were propping up the bank accounts by syphoning off money from their Superannuation (pension) fund (illegally), had a $130,000 overdraft with the bank and $90,000 on credit cards. The money had gone toward living at a level of perfectionism and luxury in their homes and lifestyles similar to the life their clients lead, the difference being their clients had incomes with many more zeroes on the end. The Melbourne Antique dealer Graham Geddes had some interesting observations to make on the business aspects of working in that world and commented specifically on that point.

Bedroom

It's an interesting glimpse into their lives, but ultimately it was the descriptions of what went into his renowned farm that were the only saving grace in this voyeuristic book. I already have a copy of "Stuart Rattle's Musk Farm", a book  written and photographed immediately after his death to memorialise it prior to the house and contents sale. The additional information on the interiors from the "Smoke and Mirrors" book was interesting, especially that almost all the 'antique' furniture in the house was in fact new - made to his exact specification by a specialist furniture maker as Rattle had neither the patience to wait for the right piece to turn up, or wanted very specific sizes and styles which can prove impossible to find in Antiques.

Formal Sitting room via "Stuart Rattle's Musk Farm"

I will be upfront and say that I'm not overly fond of the house and interiors themselves - they are too heavily Anglicised for me, and I personally find the house top heavy and awkwardly proportioned due to the conversion Rattle undertook of the structure from its original single story school- house to two story American style farm house (complete with flag over the front door). However, I am clearly in the minority, as it's been widely lauded as a building and interior of immense beauty and style, and it certainly has a sense of place. The gardens are beautiful, and the overall estate is interesting.

Musk Farm

I had a very mixed reaction to the book. As I said upthread, it did leave me feeling like taking a disinfecting bath due to the very voyeuristic information contained within, and the lack of any impartial journalistic- style of the part of the author. I'll be interested to see if there is a biography of Rattle's work and life published by a more sympathetic source in the future, or if the Musk Farm book is the only one we'll see - certainly his family wanted to emphasise to the Author of Smoke and Mirrors (prior to refusing to meet with her again) his natural talent, and the fact that he was completely self taught with no formal education - this was a point of pride to them.

As I have recently read a few books along the theme of Design and Crime recently, I will follow up this post at a later stage with another - next will be the mysterious disappearance of Jim Thompson, and his celebrated house on a Klong in Bangkok, both books of which I enjoyed and perhaps have less of a mixed reaction to than the subject of this blog post.

34 comments:

  1. Interesting. I was vaguely aware of this. Sad they were living well beyond their means.
    Have a great Sunday eve x

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    1. It was all over the papers in Melb! But I think in the end due to the lack of trial it quietened down fairly quickly, probably why you weren't more than vaguely aware. I think the tale of lifestyle and financial pressures is sadly not a one off. Enjoy the evening xx

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  2. Heidi
    A new post! Fabulous! Fascinating account of Stuart Rattle and partner and "Smoke and Mirrors" book. After your review, will def not be buying this, though I already have Musk Farm. Dreadfully sad story. What a waste and sad loss! Such a shame they had no business sense or mentor to advise. So often the case that creatives are lacking in this crucial side of business. The pressures from all the money they owed and the excessive number of commissions they took on, with no hope of completing well or in a timely way, must have been immense and intense.

    Will now be looking forward to your post on Jim Thompson. Have long been fascinated by his story and the mystery of his disappearance. We first visited his house on the klong many years ago before it became a popular tourist destination (we were living in Asia at the time). It's still wonderful - love the mix of fabulous European chandeliers and traditional Thai furnishings - and now there's a large Jim Thompson store there and, if I remember correctly, some kind of café in the gardens. Love visiting his stores in Bangkok, particularly less touristy ones - or at least going to higher floors where they sell rolls of the amazing fabric that you don't see in the shops in Europe. I once met two American interior designers there who were buying rolls and rolls of stuff. They said they visit twice a year and always sent heaps home.
    This afternoon while we were enjoying a coffee I noticed a very handsome young man sitting by himself who was quite overcome when another handsome young man came up alongside him, kissed him on the cheek and then produced with a flourish a Valentine package of beautiful red roses! So sweet!
    Remembering those red roses, have to admit that I do love that Stuart Rattle pic above with the red roses, wing chair and book case!

    Also, Annie and I were singing your praises at lunch yesterday! Pammie xxx

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    1. Well at least some one was getting a V-day's present! Not I… haven't had one since I was 20 years old! That's so nice of you and Annie xxx
      I will await your Thompson insights with interest P, the books are fabulous, and hopefully I'll have time to write and post it this week - have been snowed under with back to school/ work and settling S into Reception (and lots of school drinks/ info nights etc etc). The story is so sad, and yes, such a waste. I can send you the Smoke and Mirrors one if you're interested? I just got it back from my mother in law who had a similar reaction to me! xx

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    2. Heidi, Many tks for offering, you've made me curious about it now. Yes, plse. Do send and I'll return once I've read it. Must make sure I've got the disinfectant ready for that bath once I've read it.
      Did you ever watch Millionaire Decorators? Found that illuminating about how these guys and girls work - and often unintentionally funny. It became a guilty pleasure but it totally put me off ever having a decorator, even if I could afford one. There were the gay guys who often disagreed with each other and who broke up mid series - and Katherine thingy who often spoke about her "chest" and kept getting into fights with her client. Also she tended to turn up dreadfully late for appointments I seem to remember. It all looked terribly unprofessional.
      On Jim Thompson stores' in Bangkok, agree with Naomi, some of the designs for scarves and cushions covers etc are disappointing these days and some seemed rather kitsch, yet they're quite expensive (Jim would probably be rolling). The things I liked more were the fabrics in their main store (I think - on Silom?) in the building that has several floors. Most of the really touristy stuff was on the first couple of floors. But it's a while since I've been. Pammie
      Pammie

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  3. The gay decorator/antique dealer gone awry could be a genre in bookshops once someone writes about certain stories once they pass on. Midnight in the garden of evil, Jeffrey bilbuher and the issues he had that brought up whole other issues, Geoffrey Bennison but it seems his disciples only recount stories off the record and so forth. It's odd they weren't maximising their client book or any part of their life. I do wonder what the heck happened in every aspect.
    I adore Jim Thompson's Bangkok home! I haven't read further on his life though I keep meaning to but you must have read that it was predicted he would disappear and in his home they have that scroll from the fortune teller predicting that but I couldn't read it so I had to take their word for it. But I was a little disappointed at the cushion covers this time around and I wonder if they changed their process BC the screen prints were a bit messy so only got a tea towel bug I wonder if the Bangkok version is a different company completely to the one that sells to the trade? I do wonder if this story might be made into a series by channel ten tho?!

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    1. I think the shops are different to the fabric house, although they do use a lot of the prints etc. I went into the JT shop in Singapore, and it's nothing like the fabric range (and interestingly the fabric range has a lot of synthetics in it now, utilising the latest fabric technologies, so it's not solely reliant on the silk industry now. But I will save the rest for the post :) I loved Midnight in the Garden, and sadly this book doesn't hold a candle to it in the writing stakes! Have not heard the Bennison stories and will now go and see what I can dig up. Can't remember hearing any gossip when I worked in London, but then again it was ages ago, and I am fairly vague and elderly now!! You're right though about a genre. I think decorating/ dealing can attract a perfectionistic type, and a fairly extreme character, and this perhaps leads to a more interesting ending than the normal, boring straight laced accountant type perhaps?! Am going to read the billing article and get back to you… but the info in Smoke & Mirrors on how Rattle was going about it was fairly interesting, and probably not going to give a lot of people confidence on how decorators charge...

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  4. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/05/02/garden/decorators-bills-air-kiss-and-tell.html?pagewanted=all

    That's a link to one of the articles re New York billing

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    1. That was interesting reading. US has been similar in price structure to the Australian model, so it's interesting to see that other than the big name old school decorators the model of billing is changing to reflect the times. The first paragraph about making up prices is pretty much what was contained in Smoke and Mirrors - one client says she thinks the very expensive William IV dining chairs she purchased through Rattle might be fakes and is too scared to have them appraised. They also apparently would tweak things depending on whether they thought it would be costing too much/ too little. I'm also aware of a local designer who sells bits of fabric left over from jobs to the public. This is essentially double dipping because the client has already paid for the estimated quantity of fabric, so it belongs to them, not the designer who is making money again off the fabric. Not uncommon in the industry though...

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  5. Lovely to see a post - I really enjoy your thoughts, and although I probably won't read this book it is so refreshing that you offered an honest appraisal!! I find so many reviews are inflated!
    I often wonder how many people are living beyond their means. So many seem to live extravagantly and I imagine many do feel pressure to "keep up with the Joneses". Not me. I have the oldest car in the car line and I can only imagine people think I am the nanny!!!

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    1. I couldn't honestly recommend the book, and I've sat on reviewing it for a while as I had such mixed feelings about it… but ultimately thought others might be interested, as it was the talk of the decorating world for a while there.
      I think there are a lot of people living beyond their means - social media has fuelled and fanned it to huge levels. Plus easily available credit. How people present in terms of carrying/wearing/ driving/ living in luxury is largely irrelevant to me because you can't tell a thing from it these days!

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  6. Interesting Heidi - I haven't read that book (and won't!) but have read the extended extracts about the trial and of course Musk Farm. It left me feelinn that it was all very sad. So much striding for absolute (and immediate) perfection in your lifestyle, home and belongings when behind the scenes things are falling apart.
    x

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    1. It was very sad, and ultimately I think that is why the author felt such sympathy for the partner, rather than the victim. It seemed there might have been some sort of psychological abuse going on… although that is all complete conjecture due to the way the trial played out. x

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  7. Hi Heidi - I haven't read this but I can see how narrative asides could ruin the story telling - I read Taman shud - not design related at all :-) but found the authors opinions about Adelaide reminiscing and many asides belaboured and ruined the story I hope to read. To much obvious telling from the authors and not enough showing the reader. Opinion seems to usually be used in absence of substance and certainly can test you as a reader when opinions differ. I look forward to your other post on the next one! rebecca

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    1. Hi Rebecca, I think that books I've read in a similar vein in the past have been more in the investigative journalist style, so the complete lack of impartiality and strange tangents into the authors life, or her comments on their life in a manner than was putting her view on it very jarring. Just as you said you don't get a straight story and it does tend to ruin things. It was also written in a sort of gossipy style, which was probably why I ended up feeling so voyeuristic at the end. x

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  8. FF thought I might like this book. Though the last thing I need to read about is an exacting, obsessive, heavy-spending gay man being murdered. Makes me glad I'm single this Valentine's Day!

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    1. So funny!! I did think it was a slightly dampening post for Valentine's Day… not exactly a romantic end to their 15 year relationship. I think you'd find the author annoying too… some of her personal comments on them as a couple were condescending I thought. Hope you're battling off the winter blues x

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    2. HAHAH!!! laugh out loud funny Stephen xxx

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  9. I was thinking of reading this book, but I'll pass! Wouldn't mind having a look at the Musk Farm book though (very fancy for a farm?), I'll check my library to see if they have it.
    Sounds like a very sad tale though. Living beyond one's means causes huge stress and people do get themselves into really difficult, tangled situations. A tragedy though that this kind of stress and scandal could lead to loss of life.
    Hope you're well Heidi! We're in four feet of snow and -20C temps at the ski chalet but my kids were on the slopes all day with my husband and are loving it (it's Uni reading week here).
    Thanks for the post, I enjoyed and the interior images of the over-the-top farm! XO

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    1. I think it's more a hobby farm Dani - the cows on it were a special Heritage breed that he chose because they were attractive in the fields (he was quite the perfectionist), so not exactly a going concern. It was a sad tale, and left me feeling quite depressed. O'Neill had a lot of Catholic guilt in him - his parents and family had never met Stuart, despite them living and working together for over 15 years, and were unaware he'd been so badly bullied in his childhood. But to give them credit, they have supported him after the Murder.
      Wow, the snow sounds fantastic!! I've been seeing lots of instagram posts of people in Europe skiing and am looking forward to our own (fairly pathetic by comparison) ski season. Have a wonderful time xx

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  10. Hello Heidi, I agree with you about the interiors of Musk Farm. I have not read the books and so I have only seen press photos, but I thought the house looked very over decorated in a heavy handed version of "English country house" style. How intriguing to hear that most of the 'antiques' were fakes. But alas, the usual story.. people who have talent but absolutely no business or management skills. Haven't we seen it time and again?
    Clearly there is a very complex unknown and never to be told story here - that of O'Neill. Without doubt, a tragedy. Judith

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    1. It's a funny thing Judith, but probably those readers from overseas won't get it - but these sort of very English style interiors feel very 'hot' to me. I'm all for layers, especially in the occasional room, but where every room turns inwards when our climate suits turning out always looks wrong to me.
      And yes, a terrible tragedy, and one we'll likely never know the where or whys of, despite the authors best digging.

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  11. I had not hear of Stuart or Musk Farm (my ignorance ;)), but their story sounds so sad. I like the exterior of the house and the library chair, but otherwise not my thing either.
    I'll be very interested to hear about Jim Thompson - I have a few lovely treasures from his shop from the 90s but don't know much at all about the man.
    Good luck with the start of the new school year! xx

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    1. I liked that library chair, but otherwise it's a very heavy interior for Australia I think. I bet you do have fond memories of Jim Thompson given your time in Asia Charlotte, and he has a fascinating back story… just need to get a few photos to add to the blog post. Sorry for the delayed response - it's been a bit of a frantic couple of weeks getting sorted! xx

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  12. I couldn't put it down and found it fascinating and disturbing, esp the macabre domestic rituals played out post murder (cups of tea/Indian take away).

    I can't enjoy the photos of the house because of the history.

    The author had an Agenda xxx

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    1. She definitely had an Agenda!! It was unputdownable, even though I was filled with self loathing for even finding it all so fascinating!! xx

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  13. That old saying "All that glitters is not gold"... the more I live, the more truths unfold, the truer this saying becomes.

    Linda C.

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    1. Agree Linda - in these days of easy credit things are usually not what they seem. x

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  14. Fascinating. I'd not heard of this case in Canada. It's so sad how the talented often squander their gifts.

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    1. Yes, it is sad Jen. I think he was getting sick of the whole thing toward the end and wanted to retire (don't we all) but the money was needed… it was a sad story all round.

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  15. Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Rattle, whom I'm unfamiliar with. A tragic ending, indeed, and how very sad that he and his partner felt a need to wildly live beyond their means, a recipe that can only ever end in disaster.

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    1. I think it's most definitely not an uncommon story (well, the murder part is) with the living beyond their means. And yes, it always ends poorly and in this case was such a waste of talent. x

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  16. Ta Heides, a great review. The 'Tiser is missing a very good Reviewer for their Saturday mag. Sounds like SR's domestic & business life was a train wreck & he was in total denial, too sad xx

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    1. Well, he was completely disinterested in the financial/ business side, and his partner was having to carry the burden on that (and was definitely not suited to it either), so it was a disaster all round. Not sure this book really made a lot of waves outside Melbourne though! x

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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