Welcome to Rebecca and Jorge's warehouse apartment in Islington
Meeting Rebecca and her husband Jorge in their recently renovated warehouse apartment in Islington left me feeling energised, inspired and just a little bit in awe.
After spending many years travelling, Rebecca had fallen in love with New York architecture, and in particular, warehouse conversions. In 2001 the opportunity came up to purchase their own New York style abode in the Soque Apartment development, which had been converted from a Wool store Warehouse to 96 warehouse apartments back in 2006.
The developer had taken great care to retain many of the original features, including 1,000 hardwood timber columns, exposed beams and soaring 6.3m saw toothed vaulted ceilings. Ensconced in history, it was originally constructed in 1940 as part of the “Wool Row” in Milford and Annie Streets to help meet the demand of Australian wool in the UK during World War II.
I sit with the couple in their dining room over a coffee made by Jorge with their new shiny coffee machine. They bounce, enthusiastically between tales of their renovation and the love story of how they met in Hong Kong whilst on business eight years ago.
Travel and adventure, it would seem, run through their veins.
Rebecca explains, “After meeting in a bar in Hong Kong and striking up a conversation about our watches, we spent the next few years in a long distance relationship between Jorge’s Canadian home and my home in Australia”.
Rebecca moved to Canada for a while, where they undertook some challenging development work together.
“We bought old buildings in Timmins, Ontario and converted them into apartments upstairs and commercial spaces downstairs. We did this in some of the most extreme environments ever, where the temperature actually plummets to -53degC three weeks of the year. We renovated three buildings there, then came back to Australia and have been renovating ever since.”
Rebecca, what was this apartment like when you first bought it?
“It actually felt really cold and dark, like a prison cell. The flooring in the main living area was all small, grey tiles and the carpet in the bedrooms was a disgusting yellowy/brown colour. It would have been the original carpet from 2001. The light fixtures were white cigar pendants and the ceiling fans were stainless steel. The main living area of the apartment was just one long room, which made the end of it very dark, even though the walls were all a stark white.”
So what was it that made you want to buy it?
“When I originally heard about these being converted back in 2001, I thought I would love to live in a converted warehouse. Then when I went to New York and stayed in Soho I just fell in love with the meat packing district. This apartment reminds me exactly of that. The beautiful timber, it’s like a little bit of New York in Newcastle. I love the scale, the ceilings and the exposed beams. Its history means it tells a story. I really think that Islington, Wickham and Maryville is becoming a warehouse district. Jorge says it’s definitely changed since he arrived here in 2015.”
The couple set about a two and a half year renovation, where they did much of the work themselves. Rebecca is the visionary and Jorge is in many ways, the innovator. He devised a lighting solution for the living room and learned from YouTube how to master joinery work and lay flooring.
Just as Rebecca and Jorge are living proof that people from two separate worlds can join in love, so too does their interior show that a juxtaposition of styles can create a successful design aesthetic. Their home is a shining example of how converging styles can come together in triumphant design success. At the core of the interior is the New York warehouse style, but then add in Rebecca’s inspiration from Byron Beach Abodes and throw in a smattering of street art the couple have collected on their travels and you have a home that tells many a rich and vibrant story.
Rebecca goes on to say, “So many things in this house have a story. The painting of the lady smoking the cigar in the library, I just love her attitude. We bought her while holidaying in Cuba. If he could Jorge would have a de-humidifier in there and a cigar bar”.
Did you need to do much structural work during your renovation?
“We only made slight changes to the floorplan. We added in a wall to the bedroom that sits to the right of the front door. The master bedroom was huge but there was a lot of wasted space, so we moved the door and added in an island wardrobe which allowed us to change the orientation of the bed. It’s created a much more intimate space and we now get to enjoy our outlook over the patio.”
Rebecca has used texture extensively throughout the interior which creates a warm and cosy vibe. A hanging cane chair swings from the bedroom rafter above a circular jute rug and a white sheepskin throw draped across the ottoman at the end of the bed.
“We also changed the orientation of the kitchen so as to break up the long living room, which forms the main part of the apartment. We’d always wanted a library so we were able to build one behind the kitchen, making it a snug and private hideaway. The library was a process. We’d both wanted a library before we bought in here. We were hoarding books. Wherever we could find World Books or Encyclopaedias we’d be buying them to force us to eventually build one”.
Jorge explains, “The library is my favourite room of the house. I built it from scratch, including the wainscoting on the walls and the joinery. The ladder came from the oldest running business in Cessnock that was closing down. He was a tailor and the ladder was used to get materials up and down from the shelves. I love that any day of the week you can go back there and just grab any of those books, some from the 1950s, and go Wow”.
The library is also home to a magnificent crystal chandelier, which happens to be Jorge’s pride and joy. He tells me about his journey to procure this light…
“We found it at Beacon and it took a year and a half to purchase. Originally priced at $5,000, it was way too much. It’s all crystal. I looked at smaller versions but didn’t like them. A year and a half later it came down to $2,000 so I put in an offer and we met half way. It took 4 people to carry it to the car, then 4 people to bring it in. It went up before the floor even went in.”
Outside space is a premium for apartment dwellers so a great deal of effort has gone into extending the living space outdoors. Rebecca and Jorge worked closely with Bryce from GRDN Newcastle. In addition to running her own successful boutique real estate business, Lair Real Estate, Rebecca and Jorge also purchased the contract for Soque and Rebecca operates as the Building Manager and Caretaker for all 96 apartments. It is through this work that she had previously used the talents of Bryce so he was a natural choice to design their patio.
With access from both the master bedroom and living room, the patio is divided into two spaces, using similar design techniques to the interior. At one end of the patio is a gorgeous hanging bench seat that was salvaged, restored and customised by Rebecca and Jorge. It has been paired with two sumptuous, oversized occasional chairs from Ikea and a long, stone topped bench table on casters with accompanying stools for outdoor dining. Rebecca has accessorised with rugs, ottomans, cushions, statement planting and a huge mirror, making this a truly inviting year round space.
Rebecca explains, “It’s such a beautiful space. We love that we can come out here of a night and see the stars. I love how it’s rustic. I’m a perfectionist at heart so living in an environment that’s not so perfect is good for the soul.”
Another feature of the patio is the lining of the walls with VJ panelling, which continues down the length of the living room to the kitchen.
“We wanted to continue the story through into the house when it’s all opened up,” says Rebecca.
The home presents as high end and luxurious, so it was incredible to hear about how this ingenious couple were able to achieve this look for less. The floor to ceiling walk-in-robe cabinetry and striking black kitchen all came from Ikea. The engineered timber flooring throughout and the oversized sheepskin rug in the library were from Costco. The bespoke, hand crafted vertical wine rack was constructed by Jorge.
Jorge says, “The wine rack was difficult to construct because of the hardwood. I went through a lot of drill bits! My Grandfather was a Finish Carpenter so I’ve always wanted to build stuff. It can be frustrating during the process but when it’s put together you go ‘Wow, I did that!”.
With a south facing orientation, natural light can be scarce so Rebecca and Jorge applied their ingenuity to let the light flow. In addition to placing high windows in the internal hallway walls, and beautiful fluted glass between the kitchen and library, Jorge also came up with a brilliant lighting solution.
Rebecca explains, “We had strip lighting put up in the hallway which is perfect but it was just too bright for the living room, where we wanted a more ambient solution. Jorge came up with an idea where the lighting strips be placed on an angle, so it alters the direction of the light and you could see the chipping away to make the timber posts. Our electrician was able to execute Jorge’s idea, then we painted the wood around it black and it highlights the wall beautifully. It’s such a gentle light.”
Jorge goes on to say, “Our electrician is Greg from Grid Electrical. He’s amazing because he’s willing to work in creating new lighting systems that aren’t off the shelf. He’s a young guy who in my mind is a true, honest tradie.”
Greg’s wife is Hannah from May Clay Ceramics and her first ever hand crafted wall pendant happens to be Rebecca’s favourite piece in the house and takes pride of place in the kitchen.
What is it that you love about living in this area?
“The community here is amazing, it’s like a village,” enthuses Rebecca.
This is no accident. Rebecca has worked tirelessly to build a community within the development in the three years she’s been there. Her mission was to create a culture of people getting along and being neighbourly. In addition to organising seasonal get togethers in the enormous shared space that all residents get to enjoy, she has also managed to engage much of the community in her fund raising endeavours. One of her many initiatives was to ask residents to donate their empty cans and bottles. All funds raised from Return & Earn then go to social endeavours as well as furniture and flowers for common areas. Every Christmas they also choose a charity for the community to donate to. Seafarers, Got Ya Back Sista and Hope in a Suitcase have been some of the lucky beneficiaries of their kindness.
“Last year we had over 30 suitcases filled with necessary items for foster children under the Christmas tree,” explains Rebecca proudly with a tear in her eye.
Soque Apartments even have their own coffee shop. Milford Espresso is operated by fellow resident, Vanessa and opens every day. Rebecca and Jorge can often be found there having breakfast alongside their neighbours.
“We’re so close to everything here. We can walk to the Yacht Club, to Maryville Tavern and Delucas Pizzas have just opened at the Croatian Club. Oh, and Flotilla is nearby too!”, says Rebecca.
You both have so much building experience behind you. If you were going to give one key piece of advice to prospective renovators, what would it be?
Rebecca: “I hate living in a construction zone but I really think you need to live in a space before you really commit to it”.
What are you most proud of?
“The fact we created it together. It’s been such a fun project”
I get the feeling this isn’t the end for you two. What’s next on the horizon?
Jorge tells me, “We’re renovating a cottage at Congewai, just out of Cessnock, and building another dwelling on the property. Rebecca’s dream is to open homestays. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to build one from scratch myself and consequences have made it that I can so I’m living the dream”.
Their love of building and renovating is infectious and I can’t wait to see their next project. If you fancy a luxe weekend away in Congewai sometime in the future, look them up!
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