He set up an art lesson and I headed off with a coffee for two. I took a picture I’d ripped from a 2005 British Vogue of Gemma Ward with this epic surfboard in the background — all these psychedelic colours and mystical rainbows and dolphins — and said I wanted to learn how to paint magic like that. Desmond said, “This goes against all the rules of painting, but I’ll show you how”. We chatted all day about painting and travel over cups of tea.
A few months later, we met up again in Sydney, and have been together ever since. This was seven years ago. Since then, we have created two baby girls and two businesses. Our Kawa Leaf would be three by now, but she is among the stars. And Rafa, our sweet earth child is nearly two.
Dee: After 13 years away, I’m back in Western Australia (WA) where I grew up. Perth is the most isolated city in the world, so I had to explore the world. I began as a visual merchandiser for brands including American Apparel, Topshop and One Teaspoon, then became a freelance props stylist for ads, which meant creating a room or dressing a set — which is kind of like interior design but much more temporary. I had a crash course in interiors when I was a contestant on an unpopular reality TV show called Top Design, where I learned about the importance of a splashback and the 50 shades of grey. It’s a dirty secret of mine, but it’s how I made the transition from fashion to home design.
Desmond: I grew up on the Northern beaches of Sydney, dropped out of art school at 19 to surf, and moved to WA in the late 90s to work on boats and surf. I came across these old dive shops with underwater murals, which were a source of inspiration. I began a signwriting apprenticeship, then ran my own art studio specialising in handpainted signs, murals and custom painting. In between, I travelled, had a bunch of random, shitkicker jobs and did a whole lot of surfing.
I met Dee while I was back in WA working on sculptures for the zoo. As soon as I opened the door and saw this girl with a beautiful smile standing there with a coffee, the little voice in my head — the one that says GO, GO, GO when I’m surfing — said softly, “She’s the one”.
When Kawa was born, I launched 8footwalls, a business that offers large fresco murals, detailed patina, and traditional landscape murals inspired by vintage wallpaper, mid- century Australian landscapes, 60s surf culture, and Natural History Museum diorama. I’m obsessed with light and atmosphere, colour and shade, and James Gurney, who illustrated the Dinotopia series, has been the centre of my art education for years. My business grew quickly, and I was working on large-scale projects with up to 15 artists and constantly commuting, but the downside of my success was losing precious time away from my family.
The point of starting my own business was to have a better work/life balance. I had already decided that I would only accept projects that didn’t take me away from my girls and that we would relocate to WA, when we lost our little girl, Kawa Leaf. [Ed: Kawa fell into a pool in Bali and was found unconscious. She was flown home to Australia but tragically lost her battle in July.] Losing Kawa has been the most devastating, heartbreaking experience I have ever known. My family is my first priority. Today, we spend our days at the beach with Rafa, or in our garden, or exploring Freo [Fremantle]. We know Kawa Leaf is with us in spirit, in every moment.
Dee: We launched our lifestyle brand Kawaiian Lion in 2014, the year Kawa was born. I take folk-influenced elements like stonewashed and acid-washed denims, patchwork, embroidery, 70s crochet and super-washed linens, and integrate them into homewares. I’m also really into American workwear — bandannas, soft cottons, — boucherouite rag rugs and old flags. I just read Richard Bach’s Illusions and Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss. I love books that remind us about the bigger picture and the pursuit of purpose. I’m fascinated by George Harrison from the Beatles, and his drive to integrate his spiritual learnings into his creations. Also, I’m very fond of circles and circular things — objects, furniture, breath. I had a lot to learn about manufacturing and production processes to translate my designs, though, which has been really challenging and rewarding.
Working with Desmond can be tough, as my patience is thinner and my tongue is sharper. My family were brutally honest with each other, there were no dulcet tones to soften things, and my lack of tact drives Desmond bananas. He has one of those strange families who actually listens and takes turns to talk! But when we combine our efforts, it’s like superheroes coming together. It’s bloody brilliant. I have nowhere near Desmond’s skills with painting, but without some kind of vision or art direction, he may not find his own way there to create them. I also like to conjure up the words and phrases we use for Kawaiian Lion, and Des knows instinctively which font will work and how to balance negative and positive space. We have learned to set guidelines (no talking about bloody spreadsheets or quotes in bed), to be kind to one another and not to roll your eyeballs. We take turns treating each other to lunch and choosing playlists, and we have a safety word that breaks up the tension. (It’s “coconuts”). The creative side has been pretty easy for me. I tap into my subconscious for inspiration. Fragments of ideas, pictures or words come to me from a past-life or another time, and a story unravels and reveals itself to me. I totally believe that you are drawn to certain styles, people or cultures that you may have been part of in another time or dimension.
Since Kawa’s passing, I feel more and more certain that we are here on earth for just a tiny moment to fulfil our life’s purpose — to create and to love. That’s it really. Most mornings we spend together at Leighton Beach, our new local, or at a coffee shop. We then alternate work and care of Rafa. I spend most of my time packing orders, sorting out production and design, and the general daily running of Kawaiian Lion. I mainly work with freelancers. My agent, Sunshine & The Eccentrics, is based in Byron Bay. Our social media person is in Sydney. We Facetime, email, and use Pinterest and Instagram to communicate. We also spend a lot of time in our garden, and we meditate daily. We call it “Kawa time”. This gives us a break for the sadness that can build, well and grow within you over the course of a day. It’s a special time reserved to just release, to cry your eyes out and to honour our baby girl.
Desmond: Our next collection for Kawaiian Lion is titled “The Porpoise of Life”, we have launched Kawa Heart Studio, a creative art space and, through 8footwalls, there will be a collection of hand-painted bamboo screens available before Christmas.
Kawa always loved old landscape paintings but wanted to see more “waves and flowers”. I’ll honour her wish by painting more tropical utopian scenes which reference my favourite breaks across the world, mixed with tropical and native varieties of plants, in muted botanical palettes.