Several years ago Corbett Lyon sat in his office at Lyon Architects looking up at the artwork on his walls, a very small portion of his vast collection. This art was part of the largest private collection of contemporary Australian art in the country, and most of it was in storage. It seemed a shame so little of his collection was on display, all tucked away for nobody to see, so in 2004 he came up with the solution. He would build a house on a property in the suburbs his family had owned for over 30 years; it would be his new home, but it would also be his art’s home. They would live there together, side by side, the art on display in his house, where patrons would be able to visit and view the work as they would in a gallery. This would be a ‘housemuseum’.
Citing inspiration from a lineage of private collections in domestic settings such as The Guggenheim Museum in Venice, The Frick Collection in New York or, more locally, Melbourne’s Heide Museum, Lyon wanted to take this concept of ‘art in the home’ one step further. He wanted to create the very first location – to his knowledge, in the world – where a family could live in a contemporary gallery; where a private space, such as the home, would co-exist as a public art space.
The Lyon Housemuseum took five years to design and two years to build. It is a fantastic work of architectural design that intentionally blurs the lines between art gallery and domestic environment.
Eight kilometres from the city on Cotham Road, the Lyon Housemuseum does not draw attention to itself; it doesn’t feel out of place in its suburban surrounds. The fence, up close, appears as a clean pattern of brickwork but from afar you see the names of the streets it sits on the corner of spelt out in the bricks (Cotham and Florence). A pink polyurethane sculpture – a Christopher Langton piece titled Swell – may also pop up above front fence when it inflates in the sun.
Once inside the difference is clear. As a domestic setting the Lyon Housemuseum is a home where Lyon lives with his family; as a gallery it has some of Australia’s most notable contemporary artists sitting in its wings, hanging from the hallway walls, and sitting in the living room, behind the dining room table, near the kitchen and in the garden. This collection is made up of paintings, sculptures, weaves, collages, installations, photographs and prints by some of the most notable Australian artists of our time – many of them Victorian – including Howard Arkley, Peter Hennessey, Andrew Brook, Callum Morton, Anne Zahalka, Rose Nolan, Caroline Rothwell, Jon Campbell and Patricia Piccinini.
Much like in any home, there are signs of living here: bits of homework lying on the dining table, sheet music on a bench under the stairs, a birthday card propped up on some coffee table books. But this is a most deliberate hybrid, creating ambiguity between house and art space. With exception for the bedrooms, this home is a public place. Some rooms heighten the feeling of being in a gallery, so visitors behave as they would in a gallery and creep around quietly, careful not to touch anything; other rooms that feel more homey allow for a more comfortable, laid-back demeanour, as though you are visiting a friend for tea, albeit in their very clean house.
At either end of the house is a white and black cube, the two anchor points of the building. The white cube is the most gallery-like space, at the moment displaying a video installation and photographic prints by Patricia Piccinini, titled Sheen 2007. Piccinini is currently the featured artist, so there are several pieces by her around the house: a large bronze sculpture, The Uprising, in their formal living room; Panel Work in the hallway; Truck Babies watching TV in the living area; and another video installation, Lustre, in the black box, where there are also some Car Nuggets. The black box doubles as a home cinema, where a large screen is tucked away in a cupboard.
There are no didactics on the works anywhere, which would feel strange in a home; this makes a guided tour by the homeowners an integral and personal part of the visit. And with only 20 percent of the art on display at any one time, the gallery is on rotation, changing every couple of years, never permanent.
It feels strange to think of this home as a gallery, which is why the term ‘housemuseum’ is so suitable, especially as it allows for a space to combine architecture, art and family life in a single setting, in a way that no one has done before.
The Lyon Housemuseum is available to view by appointment only.
219 Cotham Road, Kew