Inside Stephen Baker's Arty Melbourne Apartment
Welcome to The Makers. Each week, we’re celebrating innovators, artisans and crafters of all types, taking you on a private tour of their creative spaces. For this instalment, artist Stephen Baker welcomes us into his home.
Some people can say a lot with just a few words, or in Stephen Baker’s case, just a few pieces of furniture. The Melbourne-based artist has lived in a studio apartment above a florist for the past six years, carefully curating the space whilst adhering to two strict design principals: simplicity and style.
This same refined approach is synonymous with his interpretations of the human form, where bold, geometric shapes swim amongst colour palettes that are at once bright, thoughtful and restrained. Similar to his work, not an inch of space is wasted in the pared-back, single-room Carlton apartment he shares with his partner, Dee.
Everything here serves a purpose—from the vinyl record shelf room dividers, to the inbuilt bedside bookshelves. In the living area, two pea green mid-century chairs—one for him and one for her—sit opposite his prized record player and a hung artwork of his own making, in a space that is at once minimal and meaningful.
Hi Stephen! This series is called The Makers. What is it that you make?
I make artwork—I guess that would be the broad answer to that question—mainly using paints. But I have been known to work in other mediums, too.
How does the act of “making” relate to your personality and who you are?
I've always appreciated the act of creating something that didn't exist before. To express yourself creatively and have it manifest into something tangible for others to experience is exciting. For me, the act of 'making' is the steps you take when ideas or thoughts are brought through into reality. It's become a bit of a habit to constantly be 'making' something throughout my life.
When did you start creating art and painting? And what inspired you to go down this route with your career?
I started seriously thinking about creating artwork around ten years ago, that was when I decided to have a show of artwork I had put together. Up until then, most of my creative passion was being used up at my day job. I was definitely inspired by other local artists putting on shows, it made me more confident to give this 'art' thing a go.
Talk us through your creative process. Where do you start?
If I'm looking at putting together a larger body of works, I'll always start with a base idea or concept for the show. This is generally derived from recent interests or readings, then I'll begin trying to explain myself through the artwork itself. I'll spend weeks sketching up and planning each piece that'll become the collection of works for the show. Once I'm happy with how it all looks, I'll then start painting up each individual artwork at my studio.
What’s been the single most crucial tool or strategy you’ve used to grow your creative businesses?
The most crucial too, or tools, would have to be my pencil and pad. Everything starts from here, and it's also a record of my progress and journey creatively. In terms of strategy, I think I've always made sure that I don't compromise the integrity of my artwork by allowing outsiders to dictate what's right or wrong. I guess what I'm trying to say is it's important to have full control over your journey and make the right choices for your vision. Even if it may take some time, it's probably best to get there on your own terms and not someone else's, otherwise you could end up down a path you find hard to come back from.
What’s been the most challenging lesson learnt since you started your businesses?
It would have to be failure. It took me a while before I could become a full-time artist—even now things could change very quickly if I don't have the support. The first time I went out on my own I survived for a year and then had to go back to a part-time position because I owed the tax department a bunch of money. I soon realised that it was tough running your own business and I needed to be smarter if I wanted to do this thing called 'art'. Getting my arse served to me was a good lesson, I'm sure there’ll be more to come but at least you get a little more prepared each time. Nothing worth going for should be easy, I guess that's where you develop passion and determination. Also, there's nothing wrong in saying you’re an artist and treating it like a business.
What’s been the best thing that’s happened to you since you started your businesses?
Having the opportunity to spend more time developing creatively and exploring ideas further than I could have previously. The fact that I now spend a hundred percent of my work life devoted to my art practice is the best thing that's happened to me. I just have to make sure it stays that way.
Do you have a single piece of advice you’d give to your younger self or someone looking to start their own business in a creative industry—particularly the challenging one of art?
Don't give up if you at first don't succeed in being a full-time artist or creative. If it's your passion that you want to pursue, most of the time that passion will need to earn money, which can seem daunting. I chipped away at becoming an artist, but that was my journey and everyone is different. I guess my advice would be to give yourself a platform to allow yourself to explore your passion and find a job to support your practice. Then in your downtime keep plugging away at your creative work till it becomes your full-time occupation. Also, what I found is that when you don't have the pressure of trying to earn a living from your art, that's when you feel free enough to be truly creative. The next challenge when you do start earning a wage from your artwork is how to keep doing this without losing your audience and staying relevant.
Now, the home stuff. How long have you lived in your home?
I've been living with my partner Dee above her florist shop for the past six years.
How did you initially know this was the space for you?
It was a matter of convenience having Dee's shop below and also being close to my studio in Collingwood.
Did you do any renovations or make any big changes after moving in?
We did have to create a liveable space within the small blank studio apartment set-up offered. A kitchen was added and some repairs to the ceiling had to be made. We also gave everything a new coat of paint and fixed up the existing shower, added a vanity unit and threw in a hot water service.
What was the thought process behind the way you’ve styled the interior?
Keep it simple, purely because we only had roughly 6m x 5m square area to play with and we weren't after a cluttered feel. There's no room for a sofa so we wanted separate chairs for ourselves or if guests dropped in. The end of the bed can also be used as extra seating if necessary, with the television directly opposite. I have a large collection of records and books that I need to have available at all times, so we use these as our styling elements instead of trinkets that don't serve a purpose. Everything has a dedicated spot now so it's easy to move and clean the space without too much hassle. The space needed to be functional because we're in and out so frequently.
What are your favourite pieces in the home?
I think the Jonathan Adler vase my sister gave us has always been a favourite. It's nothing fancy, it has just been a piece that works with every place we've move into so far. Other than that, I'd have to say my stereo unit is my favourite piece in the space, can I say that? I'm obsessed with good sound and playing records on this thing is amazing! I just spend hours flicking through my books with my headphones on, working on new ideas for artworks and shows.
Do you have any special décor pieces you’re looking to add?
We would love to somehow squeeze in a small Mid-Century style sideboard of sorts, to house my rare art book collection. But we haven't found the right one yet, plus we're not really in the position to be getting too fancy with our home decor yet.
Tell us about your bedroom.
It has a kitchen, a bathroom and living room in it, so it's very handy! We basically screen off half the space with my record shelves, dividing the room in two. If we ever move to Tokyo or New York City we'll be well prepared—we definitely know how to live in a tiny space. We are contemplating the idea of a tiny house one day, just because we're used to minimal living space.
What are your top tips for a well-styled bedroom, and home generally?
I would keep it simple and functional, first and foremost. Don't get me wrong, I love bohemian style places with stuff everywhere, but I couldn't live there. Use functional elements to decorate your space, that way they don't just sit there gathering dust, they actually serve a purpose. Think about how you use the space, don't have areas that aren't practical, don't waste space! Just because some houses have coat racks, hat racks, shoe racks, cookbooks, wall clocks—doesn't mean you need them! Think about how often you would use a certain item and if it's not often, get rid of it. One thing I always consider too is how much empty space you need if more people are added to the equation or you want to spread out and create a mess. You have to allow for this otherwise your space becomes stagnant, unable to be rearranged and manipulated for spontaneous engagement.
Do you have any projects coming up you want to talk about?
I think the next thing for me will be working towards a show that's tentatively booked for Tokyo in a few months. It'll be a small introduction to the gallery scene over there, which is very different from what's happening here. Everything is smaller and space is hard to obtain so a lot of galleries seem to be attached to cafes or bars. Apart from this though, I'm just finishing up on a private commissioned mural for a residence in Mont Albert here in Melbourne.
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