The beautiful clutter of bohemian homes

Rebecca Purcell - The Maverick Soul by Miv Watts and Hugh Steward
Rebecca Purcell - The Maverick Soul by Miv Watts and Hugh Steward

"You know what?" says Myfanwy Watts. "I'm so bored with this whole thing about people having to be happy all the time.

"Happiness just isn't a permanent state to which we can aspire, life isn't like that. But if I suggest this in America, I get into trouble for saying something that is not life enhancing. Ridiculous!" she adds with a gale of laughter.

Watts, a renowned interior designer and stylist, is at home in the south of the France. The doorbell has just rung and the excitement in her voice is palpable: "It was the postman ??? it's a box full of copies of the book!" she says.

Watts, known as Miv, has spent the past three years working on her first book, The Maverick Soul, which opens the door to the homes of 25 creative types, from the legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb to muse and musician Marianne Faithfull to the actor and film producer Griffin Dunne and Australian poet Robert Adamson and his photographer wife Juno Gemes???.

The product of a globe-trotting collaboration with photographer Hugh Stewart, it is a 250-page, full-colour cornucopia of house porn - but not the cookie cutter, on trend houses of slick interiors magazines.

Rather, it is an aesthetically inspirational look at the way some people tell the stories of their lives - in happiness and adversity - through the eclectic and often eccentric objects they collect and surround themselves with.

If minimalism is your thing, this book is not for you. Each photograph, whether tiny apartment or stately manor, is to be gazed at, details explored and myriad new things discovered each time.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, wife of Robert, displays her irreverent and extensive collection of Madonnas and vaginas on a series of shelves decorated with multi-coloured tassels and beads in their house in south west France.

On the East Anglia coast, novelist Raffaella Barker has created an elegant, quintessentially English house - and retained the Victorian wooden "throne" toilet complete with lid.

In North London, the British artist John Dunbar - pioneer of the rock art scene who opened a conceptual gallery in the mid-1960s in Mayfair - reveals a house packed to the gunnels with objets trouve and oddities, with every surface covered with small toys, stones and rocks, sketches, boxes and photos, almost in the style of a hoarder.

On Sydney's northern beaches, Mambo artist and designer Bruce Goold's??? pretty weatherboard cottage is a delightful melange of odd medical ephemera, a death mask of Napoleon wearing Ray Bans, a boomerang and bow in the shape of Australia.

Watts says many of the people who generously allowed her into their houses are friends, old mates from her days styling for films in Australia and her interior design work in the UK.

"This book is about truth and about people being totally authentic," says Watts, the mother of Academy Award-nominated actor Naomi Watts and New York-based photographer Ben Watts.

"These days I tend to surround myself with authentic people, people who are true to themselves, people who make decisions trusting their intuition. The homes they build around themselves are a reflection of those choices ??? the good and the bad."

Their homes, she says, are an individual expression of the many layers of their lives, their work and experience, travel and memories.

"These homes represent an archive to both the recognition of the occupant's hopes, joys and sadness and the courage required to live on one's own terms, to seek the genuine, demand the authentic, to keep integrity in all life's choices," she writes.

Watts now spends the Antipodean summer in her house in Byron Bay with her English partner, the man she affectionately calls "The Fishmonger", although the book features her house in France.

Ultimately, she feels Maverick Soul might have its origins in her youth, when she was just 18 and living alone in London for the first time.

"I used to walk about in the evenings, at dusk, before people drew their curtains and the lights were on. I loved looking in, seeing how people lived in their houses. Maybe I was a bit of a Peeping Tom," she says, laughing again.

"I don't know. I didn't have the easiest of relationships with my dad and maybe I wasn't happy and perhaps I just loved looking at how people sat and were around their tables."

The daughter of an Australian mother and Welsh dad, Watts lived in Australia until she was seven, when the family returned to live in the UK. In the book's foreword, she writes about an idyllic period of her childhood spent with a much-loved, eccentric grandad in Wales.

"I had a grandfather who filled my holidays with huge adventure: who took me on walks in wild places, made secret camps for us all, collected everything from found pieces of shrapnel to broken Spode china cups; who woke us up at 4am with snacks stealthily steered us out into the dawn and the Welsh moors."

His influence, she says, was all pervasive and he taught her to be true to herself and to find sensual pleasure in the quirky world he inhabited.

Watts says she has given a lot of thought to her work as an interior decorator and how much of what she creates could be seen as "showing off". "But often it's not about showing off what is important but people wanting a life they haven't got ??? people are not always being truthful about how they live," she says.

The book, she believes, is an antidote to this.

Watts is also refreshingly candid about her own share of happiness - and unhappiness - in life.

Still in her teens when she married Peter Watts, road manager and sound engineer for Pink Floyd, she was only 19 when her first child Ben was born. A year later, came Naomi. Watts, who says she had always wanted to be an actor, found herself not in the middle of 1960s, not in cool London but in the countryside in Kent, looking after her babies and waiting for Peter to come home from tour.

When the couple split, the children were still tiny and Watts decided to support herself as an antique dealer, working the markets up and down England, a life that eventually led her to interior design beginning as a window dresser at the British fashion house, Burberry and into TV and commercial work.

Peter Watts tragically died of a drug overdose. In 1981, newly remarried, Watts moved the family to Sydney where she worked as a costume designer and stylist. Naomi got her first small part on a Margaret Fink film on which her mother was working.

Watts says she loved working with her friend and colleague, Stewart, on the book. He lives with his family in Sydney but works between the US and Europe. His plethora of photographic credentials include two Chanel Number 5 campaigns, portraits of five Australian prime ministers and a cavalcade of the rich and famous from Kenneth Branagh??? and George Clooney to Leonardo DiCaprio and Jude Law.

Stewart's busy schedule, says Watts, meant that logistically there were hiccups and delays, but their 25 subjects were patient and "we got there in the end".

"My favourite of the photos? Oh, it is Robert and Juno on their jetty looking out on the water," she says.

"Everything is so disposable these days and yet there they are, together still after so long. I love that. It sums it all up right there."

The Maverick Soul by Miv Watts and Hugh Stewart is published by Hardie Grant Books at $60.

This story The beautiful clutter of bohemian homes first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.