Bree Claffey opened Mr Kitly in a Sydney Road walk-up in 2010. Her perceptive curation of indoor greenery has inspired an enduring attraction to houseplants for even the most garden challenged customer.
At the end of 2015 Bree published “Indoor Green” with Thames & Hudson. The book is a resource on plant species and maintenance, as well as being a wonderful invitation into the world of indoor plant enthusiasts.
Internationally, apartment living is not only embraced, but expected, yet in Australia there is a perception that apartments are a compromise on space and on having a garden. Do you see inner city living a challenge to life with greenery?
Yes Australia’s history of traditionally aspiring to the quarter acre block comes into play with attitudes to apartment living – it’s interesting how the yearning for the great outdoors and this national identification with wide open space still plays a strong part even today within the realities of a highly urbanised population. But attitudes have and are changing and I think Australia’s migrant populations have played a pretty strong part in that, from Italian migrants transforming small city front yards into productive gardens, to Vietnamese shopfronts always with some kind of potted plant on display.
Apartment or small space living is just a different way of living with greenery – it might actually trigger a more creative and intimate sharing of space with plants, and arguably gives even more joy. You literally wake up with all your plants around you and can take short little breaks out of your day to tend to them. Indoor plants are a garden as well. It’s the same way an outside garden – no matter how big it is – is just another form of enclosed nature. Both are just a way to connect, tame or bring down to human level the much larger uncontrollable natural environment. It’s just a matter of scale. Either you go all Waldon and actually live completely in nature, in the woods, or you bring little bits of nature down to a human scale. If you have a one-acre garden that’s all well and good – but an indoor garden is exactly the same thing just smaller again.
How do you see an apartment can be improved from indoor plants and why should we be embracing them?
There are so many benefits to indoor plants. The restorative and meditative qualities of daily tending to your potted plants; finding creative or aesthetic pleasure in arranging house plants; the social benefits of bringing people together to talk plants and share indoor gardens; the environmental benefits of cleansing of indoor air that plants do via their filtering processes.
Amenity is super important in apartment life – and light and fresh air is integral to that and that is exactly what plants love too. Shared or public green space is just as important as private green space on that note though – so in any future of ‘apartment cities’ great thought would need to be given to the way the entire community should benefit and access green spaces when what was formerly public space might be co-opted by private developments. That is particularly relevant in Brunswick, which is not a particularly ‘green’ suburb in its facades and streetscapes
“Love, Loss & Vines” Aspendale, Melbourne
How do you see indoor plants supporting a sense of positive wellbeing?
Green is anecdotally seen as a restorative and relaxing colour. Surrounding oneself with living things watching them thrive, sometimes fail, come back again – it is a good contact with larger issues to do with cycles of life that busy lives tend to overlook or get swamped. There is an essay with Nigel Bertram in Indoor Green that provides excellent and important insights into this very topic!
In a wide view the soft lines, greens, lushness give a sense of life and peace. The infinite variations that can be in each plant also trigger curiosity, and artistic responses as can be seen in the long history of botanic artists, painters who paint greenery.
There are many that have been genuinely shocked at how much an indoor plant can positively change their lives, turning a decoration into an obsession. How have you found indoor greenery has positively affected your life?
The journey of Mr Kitly is intrinsically connected with indoor greenery. I started Mr Kitly with the idea to bring together two areas of personal interest – pottery and plants – as I found it difficult at the time (six or so years ago now) to find spaces in Melbourne that cared or perhaps took the trouble to find really good examples of both. At the time I thought it was a crazy plan – it was totally personal project and untested, in that those two areas that were not really on the tip of people’s minds and rarely given focus or combined.
Six years later and plants and pottery are experiencing an enormous revival. So it has positively impacted me in terms of the perceived success of Mr Kitly as an idea. As part of that it has been really lovely to have had regular customers over the entire time we have been here who have shared that growing love of indoor greenery with me. Doing the book took that sense of shared joy to the next level.
“A Plant Enthusiast” Brooklyn NY
How do you think the interest in indoor plants will endure beyond a passing fad?
Fads are inevitable and there will totally be burn out and backlash – I am sure out there in blog land there is an indoor plant version of ‘fuck your noguchi coffee table’. Actually I am sure indoor plants already feature readily on that, which is so great and only to be expected. But behind the highs and lows and the high octane commercialisation of plants– no advertising image is complete without a pot plant these days– there have always been humble little pot plants on kitchen sills, the boots of cars loaded with favourite pot plants moving house, forgotten plants in surgery waiting rooms, and grandmas with awesome fern collections in their back sunroom.
Plants will survive, it might actually be nice if the spotlight glare finds something new for a while to let them have a bit of a quiet breather, waiting for the new generation of admirers.
Do you have a favourite indoor plant species?
I do have a soft spot for philodendrons, they’re strong and sometimes sneaky climbers (I believe philo dendron is tree hugging in greek). I like it when plants start to climb or reach out in unexpected ways.
Tell us how you and Mr Kitly are finding life post book “Indoor Green”?
Indoor Green is my small and only contribution – one of the ideas behind it was to hopefully give some fuel to wonderful creative minds to use any little kernels of ideas they may come across in the book (from the science of BC Wolverton to the aesthetic ideas and high density life ideas in Nigel’s essay) to fire them up to investigate further and make their own original contribution in whatever field they are expert in – design, art, writing or horticulture. So the book was like a bit of a survey. But by the way I do place a really massive importance on original and creative contributions – I despair at the endless same same iterations and copying of ideas that is rampant, particularly in product design and retail industries.
Indoor Green is a wonderful achievement, what are your future plans for Mr Kitly?
I really, really love where we are in Brunswick. The Sydney Road area is a proud and beautifully diverse group of traders with great history – one of the examples of local shopping where you seriously can get everything you need from excellent food and groceries specific to local cultures, to shoes and clothes repairs to fresh fruit and veg (la manna sells persimmons from their Nonna’s backyard tree for goodness sake). There has been change which is great, especially in the creative sphere, with lots more galleries and studios. So while all that surrounds us I can’t see us leaving anytime soon.
Photos: Lauren Bamford