For Desmond Sweeney and Dee Tang, home is a beachy refuge above a fruit shop in Newport, on Sydney’s northern beaches. Dee is one half of the homewares label Kawaiian Lion, while Des works as a wallpaper designer and scenic artist, creating backdrops and props for performances. Their new home is warm and cosy and they have a seven-month-old baby to keep them busy. “Kawa is so wonderfully distracting,” says Dee. There is a tangible joy to their home that spills into every wooden floorboard and resting place. Distressed, beachy furniture is casually placed in each room, claimed by Dee’s scavenger heart. To any outsider, they’re living the dream, so we pick their brains to discover the values – design and otherwise – they live by to create this curated but laid-back space.
Dee met Desmond when she returned to her hometown of Perth in 2010. She wanted to learn the art of airbrushing while she was back in town. Her ex-boyfriend organised it for her through an airbrushing artist he’d met on the beach. Dee had expected a “salty dog” of an old man in board shorts to be the teacher. But Desmond introduced himself and taught her to airbrush over hours of drinking tea and talking. Within a month the two had separately moved to Sydney and met up again to pick up where they had left off. Four years later, the couple share marriage, parenthood and creative work together, proving that ex-boyfriends are good for something after all.
Their home is dotted with palm-tree decor, a staple in the Kawaiian Lion range. In a quest to create homewares that weren’t too “mumsy”, Dee and her business partner Laura Liles founded the brand in 2013, and were overwhelmed by the number of people who loved their “design baby” as much as they did. The collections are sold through stockists from Berry to Byron Bay as well as through the website. The label boasts “Aloha” and “Mahalo” throw cushions, Hawaiian- printed tote bags and lace blankets, all of which lay on Des and Dee’s lounges and beds.
After training in sign writing and airbrushing, Desmond now spends most of his time designing, painting and airbrushing backdrops for Opera Australia and shows including La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House, and Madame Butterfly which showed recently at Sydney Harbour. He also teaches airbrushing at NIDA and works on his own wallpaper business, 8 Foot Walls, with plans to expand to a collaborative space for many artists. “Wallpaper can be quite mesmerising,” says Dee of her husband’s art. Many of his pieces depict dreamy ocean scenes with sepia sunsets and palm trees. This wallpaper is not the messy dilemma it once used to be; the water-soluble pieces are easy to spray with water and roll onto the wall. “It creates a simple ambience,” adds Des.
The pair has recently moved from a small caretaker’s cottage in a garden nursery in Ingleside, which they lovingly named the Cowabungalow. Their new home is eight-times bigger than the one-bedroom shack, but they attribute their easy-going lifestyle to their humble beginnings in the sea-green cottage that was divided into rooms by sheer curtains. Their first home taught the pair to be thrifty and inventive with their furniture, but with a curious newborn, they were ready for a move. “We needed something a bit bigger,” says Des. A friend of Dee’s had lived in the space for years before deciding to move on. “I had always loved this place,” adds Dee.
The ’70s surfer atmosphere is created with thrifted, cream leather couches and sanded-back surfboards and the neon peace sign and pom-pom futons in the relaxed living area. A vintage set of mint-green school lockers sits by the window of Des’ design space, alongside a pre-loved wooden easel for his paintings. In the lounge room, a wooden rocking horse sits in the corner, rescued from the local tip by Dee.
Dee adjusts her Osh Kosh pinstripe overalls to feed Kawa and talk about work. Juggling two creative careers and a seven-month-old baby seems effortless for the pair, but they attribute the ease to each other. Designated parent duty on the weekends allows the other partner to have half the day off for free time.
The pair collaborates; Dee uses Des’ prints as backdrops for her photoshoots, which now act as feature walls for their bedroom and kitchen, to remind them of how they do everything as a team. Their dreams for the future are grand, with collaboration and creativity fuelling their aspirations. “We’re very different but we meet in a very calm place,” says Des.