As much as we love new, modern houses, there’s something so warm and cozy about an older home full of beautiful secondhand goods. One step inside Dee Tang’s home, and that sense of comfort and love is felt right away. Dee, along with her husband, Desmond, are the creatives behind the West Australia-based studio space and creative service, Kawa Heart Studio. Together, they spruced up their 1939 home, helping it go from a dark and somber-looking space to a natural light-filled home, perfect for their growing family. Step right in and enjoy.
We love how you embrace all of your natural light! How can others work natural light into their décor?
I am a creature of the light. I always look to the light side of life and that extends from life into our home. When we first moved into this house, the Jarrah timber floors were a dark red—atypical of the era our house that was built (1939), and timber that’s local to Western Australia. It made the house feel dark and somber. The first thing we did was sand the heckles out of them and paint them white to literally lighten and bounce as much natural light around. My husband Desmond is an artist and really particular about paint, so he mixed up his own concoction of floor paint and limewash and then brush-painted each plank by hand. I love natural light in the home as it creates instant warmth and maximizes the sun’s rays. We both work from home, and there is never any need to turn on and use lights during the day.
Having said that, the light is extremely intense here in Western Australia. There are plants all around the house and the studio, which help filter the sharp summer rays and creates that pretty dappled light. I am also in the habit of adjusting the shades/blinds and curtains according to the time of day and season to adjust to the intensity of the light.
Your home is so cohesive! Did you always know how you wanted to style your home or did it come along naturally?
I often feel like it’s so higgledy-piggledy and I just try my best to make sure all the pieces get along somehow or tie in with each other. Sometimes you just need a rug, or a cushion mate to make the whole room cohesive. I change cushion covers, move artwork around and shuffle throws according to rhyme or reason or even no reason. I have drawers of spare cushion covers, day bed covers and floor cushions, which I switch out on a regular basis. When I find a fabric or prints I dig, I get custom pieces made so I can easily switch things up. I am repelled by straight angles, ultra-modern and shiny surfaces, which means everything looks lived-in and pre-loved.
The other thing I do, which others may find highly irritating, is that I’m not afraid to find something, lug it home, give it a go and if it doesn’t roll with the vibe, or if my tall husband finds it uncomfortable, I’ll just put it back up for sale on the secondhand train. I have absolutely no remorse and no problem with moving pieces in and out and around the home. There is no harm done to anyone (except for the poor suffering husband who drives the van). Give it a go, and if it doesn’t go, let it go. And hopefully next time, you have more of a trained eye as to what will work in your space and what to look out for.
I do also believe it is actually a bit of a smoke and mirrors! If you live in an old house—a house which already has beautiful bones and lovely ornate features—when you paint the floors white it acts as a blank canvas, so suddenly all that old sh** you all have collected over the years from the flea and Gumtree (Australia’s Craigslist) will look eclectic and happily at home. You can get away with more random and odd pieces with an older style home. At least half of the stuff in our home is secondhand or vintage—with another good portion being artwork, ceramics and decorations, which are made by friends or people I have encountered through the Insta-world. As much as possible, I always look to source pre-loved pieces over purchasing new goods.
Like most things in life, I try my best to allow things to happen naturally. When you’re a crazy market lady, you have no control over what the market gods will be offering that day. It’s handy to have an idea or keep a Pinterest board of stuff you like, but at the end of your trawling day, you may end up with something completely out of your usual suspects, but it still works with the rest of the house gang. It’s cool to keep an open eye and mind out for things that grab your attention and tug your heartstrings.
Why did you choose to sell Kawaiian Lion?
It felt right to let it go. My heart had sailed on and I no longer knew how to continue running a business that did not fuel me creatively and as passionately as it previously had. My firstborn baby girl, Kawa, passed away almost two years ago, which hugely affected the decision. I created Kawaiian Lion while she was in utero, so in many ways, the Kawaiian Lion always felt like my firstborn and she followed shortly after. After Kawa passed into spirit, I knew instinctively that my time with Kawaiian was limited and that I would soon let him go but wasn’t quite sure when would be the right time. After saying goodbye to Kawa, nothing felt difficult to let go of anymore, even a business I had built up and adored intensely for 6 years. It was a bit like being with a dude who is bloody awesome and a total babe. The relationship is going perfectly well but deep down in your heart, you know that he’s not the one for you anymore and you have learned all that you could from the relationship. After you experience insurmountable trauma, grief and loss that shakes you to the core, you are changed forever and the way you view your reason for being here on earth is clarified. But how do you let go of someone or something when it’s going so well and still serves a sense of purpose, creative outlet and financial security?
It took about over a year to get to the stage of selling and then emotionally and physically letting go of the Lion. I began by speaking openly about selling to friends and folks in the industry so I could be honest to myself letting it go. Then last summer, I embarked on a solo mama trip to California to visit my best mate in San Fran and to shoot with Seaesta and the House Inhabit gang. While roaming around in the mystical redwood forests of NorCal, I took part in an ancient Ayahuasca ceremony where Grandmother spirit showed me in visual and emotive language that my true purpose in life was no longer to serve Kawaiian but to hold the space for folks who were suffering through grief and loss—that I could provide some form of comfortable blanket for their sadness. To put the whole experience into CliffNotes, it was pretty much summed up as, “OK, I know life is f*cked sometimes and you’re hurting like hell and this pain is completely unbearable in this moment of time, but hey, sit back, here’s the softest linen cushion ever, unload and unwind and cry like a baby—it’s totally cool. I got you.”
After I got back from California and given that green vision light I had been searching for, I began the actual practical motions of selling the business. With the help of a more business savvy mate, I began compiling data with all the figures and information about the brand that someone interested would need to assess. Next, I sent out an email to folks in the industry and followed it up with an EDM to all our Kawaiian Lion followers about the sale. Instantly, I received replies from all over the world. One email in particular struck an instant chord, as the responder spoke about her love for the label and the island of Kauai. I knew immediately that she would be the one to sail on with the Kawaiian ship. A couple months later, on the eve of Chinese New Year this year, the deal was done and the Lions fate sealed. As I sat down to meditate on the morning of the handover, I saw my little Lion muse once more on the sand dunes of the island looking woefully over to me. I gave him the nod, “Go on now. Go on! It’s time to go.” He looked over at me wistfully one more time and scampered off into the wild.
From a business perspective, I knew that I did not have the right brain to grow the business. As a person who had built their business based on creative outcomes and less toward financial gain, the prospect of growing, going into bigger production and having to move into a larger space and having employees unsettled me. I knew that was not where I wanted to go but growth was imminent as I could feel it itching to expand. I understood that the next captain would require a more balanced blend of creative and business savvy to take the Kawaiian Lion to the next stage of its growth.
Can you tell us about your new brand, Kawa Heart Studio?
Kawa Heart Studio is not so much a brand but more a physical studio space and creative service. It comprises of the ‘Lady California’—the main house, the art studio simply named ‘The Shack’ and the ‘Kawa Heart Studio’ named after our angel child, Kawa Leaf. Kawa translates as ‘river’ in Japanese and the ‘Heart’ is derived from the decision we made when she passed, to donate her organs to help other children live on. And to this day, her heart—physically and spiritually—beats on.
We hire the studio space out to folks who are looking for a space less ordinary to shoot their new range or collection. When we lived in Sydney, our apartment was often used for shoots and we were accustomed to having folks and camera crew traipsing through the home. When we moved to West Oz, we decided to share this incredible studio space and utilize it the way I knew best to do—helping brands create a certain look and feel and realize their vision. It’s been the most awesome way to connect to local talent here and I have made friends from people literally coming right to my door.
I also started freelancing again as a stylist and creative consultant. It’s like going full circle, but this time around, I make more conscious decisions about who I work with and brands with values in line with my own—working with brands that are conscious and mindful of the Earth’s fragility and working toward sustainable business. To be honest, I’m not sure what Kawa Heart Studio could develop into or what it will bring, but I have created the space to allow things to happen now and trust it will happen in its own due time. I’m not in a constant state of busy as I was with Kawaiian, which is refreshing and grounding as we are expecting our third child this spring.
What did you learn from starting Kawaiian Lion that you’re bringing into your new business?
After 6 years of Instagram and using it as a selling and connecting tool for Kawaiian Lion, I found it a smooth transition to move across to Kawa Heart Studio and start afresh with a new look and feel. I am grateful for all those years of trial and error and the connections made with folks from around the world in learning how to use words and pictures to convey a story or idea. I knew instinctively how to brand the business, build a website from scratch and how to utilize social media to engage and bring awareness to the studio.
You and your husband are both creatives. What’s it like to collaborate with your spouse? Do you have any advice for other creative couples?
We are both creative in a extremely different ways. Desmond is a creature of habit, structure and method when it comes to creating art. He maps out large-scale murals in his head and on paper before he commits to paint them. He has a method and technique to creating any kind of distressed wall you could possibly think of—from 18th century French quarters to Prison Wall Chic. He loves talking about color theory and analogous colors, meanwhile, my consistency is having no consistency. I have trouble following steps and just trust that I will eventually make my way. I work on feelings and intuition and usually just know if something doesn’t work or look or feel right.
The biggest lesson of all when it comes to living with a creative partner is accepting that money will flow in and out and there is no real constant to it. You will have months where the work and funds are flowing and then others where it feels like organic beans on toast will soon become a daily staple. We have learned to adapt accordingly and to lean on each other and take turns in being the breadwinner. When I had great sale months with Kawaiian, I would foot more of the bills and in turn, when Desmond was busy with murals, he would hold the fort. It has happened quite naturally over the years and it has also meant we maximize the time spent with children. Kawa was and now Rafa is also accustomed to swinging between her mama and dada as her main caretaker.
It also means that you have to be frugal at times and not make extravagant purchases. I rather enjoy periods like this because it forces you to be resourceful. When you simply don’t have the funds to renovate, you either don’t do it or you find a more hands-on way to approach it and make it happen. We do a lot of work on our house ourselves, which is a lengthy process between dealing with grief and family life. It also means we have adjusted to half-finished projects and living among the chaos. It drives some people mad, but there is also an art to accepting things exactly how they are in their imperfect state.
The second big lesson is trusting that the universe will provide, which can sound so hippie liberal, but ain’t it the truth. You must trust that your work will be valued and the next project will come and you will be able to continue to provide for your family by creative means. There have been many close encounters where Desmond has almost succumbed to soul-destroying work just for short-term financial gain. But in the end, we decide together there is no real gain in temporary soul-sucking solutions. There is so much power in saying ‘no’ and what it can do for building value in yourself and your work.
How do you balance so many creative projects and passions at once?
I am not a very social creature and aside from hanging out with my family, going to the beach and working on creative projects, I don’t do much else! I try not to cram my day with much, as I get overwhelmed and tire easily from too much activity and drama. I drive as little as possible and walk locally as much as possible. And luckily for me with this new business, people come to me as I am such a homebody!
I don’t engage in filler activity. I make sure the people I hang out with are people I find inspiring or heartwarming or both. I even say ‘no’ to family events if I feel it’s not going to serve much purpose, however, good food always wins me over. I feel when people say they don’t have time to *insert pursue passion or interest* it is purely due to the fact they are so accustomed to doing sh** they don’t really care about or hanging out with peeps just for the sake of it. Life is short and time really does fly, so I find it is best to make the most of it doing what you love and nurturing relationships with folks you genuinely care about. Most friendships that form in my adult life stem from having a working relationship and being able to hang out while working on a project together.
What do you love most about being an entrepreneur?
I love having ideas and making them into a reality and seeing them take form in physical space. My favorite process of designing is the sampling process. Seeing your drawing come alive and tweaking pieces to fit into a collection, picking swatches and creating a story. Now as a freelancer, I am helping others tap into that space—gathering information from them to form stories and visuals to elevate their labels.
I never realized I would become an entrepreneur. I grew up with my parents running their own restaurant and I used to see how hard they would work and make us work for them and I never thought I would inflict that upon myself! But then, over the years, I found that I was not a very good employee. When I was younger, I used to get in trouble at work for not seeming like I gave a toss, but it was more due to the fact that I never felt like there was any real need to panic or stress. I used to wonder why folks get so worked up about things. In the end, working for myself is always where I am most motivated. I don’t have any trouble in being self-motivated and working on passion projects, as I understand all the work you put in will lead to fulfilling results.
Who or what inspires your work?
This is a constantly evolving process! I use Pinterest to find new sources of imagery in the interior world. I love how quickly you can find artists or designers from the past and present. My old love however is Etsy. I trawl regularly looking for pieces of fabric or clothing that inspire from their texture, print or embellishments.
Recently, I’ve been venturing out more and enjoying the rugged beauty of Western Australia. I grew up here and it’s been a 15-year absence since I last lived here. It’s a bit like rediscovering the land and appreciating the changes in season, the westerly winds and the beauty in the native flora here, which I never really took in before. After living in Sydney’s Northern beaches for seven years where it’s semi-tropical and humid, WA is eternally sunny and dry desert country. For some reason, with the aridity and red dirt, it feels more Australiana here for me. Gumtrees reign over palm trees. For the first time, we have our own house with a proper big backyard, so being surrounded by plants is really making me notice the nuances of shade and tone in nature, which influence my work. I found myself imitating colors of eucalyptus leaves for the colors in the website I have finished working on for Kawa Heart Studio. For the Kawaiian period, I was drawn to pastels and faded “tropical” beach tones, but now I find myself drawn to an earthy, naturalistic palette.
Can you share tips about running your own creative business while juggling motherhood?
Where possible, share the responsibilities of the home and caring for your children with your partner. Desmond and I have always shared care, so there are no preconceptions to the child of what role a mother or father do. When you work for yourself, you will often be working throughout the weekend, too, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as I find every day is a day where there are moments to work and relax. Find time wherever possible to fit in work. While your babe is sleeping, when they’re passed out in the car, later at night or early in the morning. Keep a separate workspace set up so that you can easily transition over to work mode where no one is going to touch your stapler.
Turn off Instagram and don’t take calls while you’re trying to get through any work that requires your full attention. For example, I am writing this at the back corner of the studio now where there is no internet access, so I can fully focus on answering these Q&A as openly and authentically as possible! Being flexible with every hour and day in the week is something you will become accustomed to—particularly with the demands of social media. But don’t be afraid to take deliberate breaks away from it too so you can be fully present with your little ones.
From a recent Pretty Okay podcast, I learned the term “business bestie.” To extend beyond the business bestie, I would highly recommend having a bunch of these mates. Find folks who you can run idea’s past and who will not—pardon my lingo—blow steam up your ass. Folks who will be frank and honest with you and give supportive but critical feedback. Learning how to accept this feedback too is a whole other gamut and lifelong lesson.
Kawa and now Rafa grew up surrounded by swatches of fabric and homewares and sleeping in a pouch or playing around my legs while I’ve been working on my own business or on a shoot. What little things I have been able to include her in I let her be a part of the process—as simple as placing stickers on mailers or posing with product. She tells me she has “work to do,” which translates to sitting in an office chair next to me scribbling away in my sketchbooks.
Perhaps the most helpful tool I have in my belt while juggling work and motherhood is meditation. I integrated regular meditation into my life when I first was pregnant with Kawa over 6 years ago. Since then, it has been the best remedy just not to chill the bananas out when you feel like you’re carrying too many plates—but allowing space for grief, understanding challenging people, growing concerns or anything else that you may be facing on a daily or regular basis. I wake up early to get at least half an hour to 45 minutes of solo time to brew chai and sit solo most mornings. Sometimes Rafa will wake up during the practice and run over to join me. She has learned to sit and snuggle quietly with me while I finish off mama’s meditation time. I like to listen to what Desmond calls “super sad” music heavy in minor chords to set the mood and I generally sit in the same spot facing out into the garden, sometimes with a crystal that takes my fancy that morning. Find a slice of time during your day that you can set aside regularly to just sit in stillness and create a ritual around it that suits and speaks to you.
Desmond Sweeney – @8footwalls
Shop Her Home:
Linen lounge (similar)
JB cane lounger (similar)
Cane day bed (similar)
Patchwork quilt (similar)
Cane side tables (similar)
Rising Sun cane mirror (similar)
“We get asked this question often!” Floor paint is by Feast Watson’s floor paint in white + Feast Watson’s limewash + Floetrol
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