Home Life Series

Inside the culturally enriched home of Mike and Marguerite Heppell, parents-in-law of Kip&Co co-founder Kate

This week on the Home Life Series, we're stepping out of the ordinary and touring the unique and culturally enriched home of Mike and Marguerite Heppell, parents-in-law of Kip&Co co-founder Kate.

Feeling the stagnancy of their life in London, the couple decided to take up a once in a lifetime opportunity to live and work in Borneo with a group of indigenous Borneo people called the 'Iban,' studying the way they brought up their children. Fast-forward many years, the inspired pair continued their work in Australia and filled their home floor to ceiling with rich symbolism and intricate craftsmanship of Dyak artifacts. 

The cherry on top to this unique home is the almost 100% edible garden, a testament to the couple's commitment to sustainable living and a connection with the earth. Keep reading to learn more about Mike and Marg's incredible story and their life living and learning with the Iban community.

Hi Mike and Marg! Thank you for welcoming us inside your amazing home. First up, please tell us a bit about yourselves and your connection to Kip&Co?

Marguerite was born in California and I was born close to London. Marguerite and I got married and lived in Angel, Islington and London. I had worked in London as a chartered accountant and then as an IBM systems engineer. Marg was teaching in an infamous London secondary school. 

One day we were offered a chance to go to Borneo, but only if we lived with a group of indigenous Borneo people called the 'Iban'. It seemed more interesting than what either of us were doing. We took the opportunity, spent two years living in a longhouse in the headwaters of one of Borneo's fast flowing rivers. We studied the way the Iban brought up their children, and the way they encouraged violence (taking of heads), yet lived peaceably amongst each other in longhouse communities.

After the two years, we came back to Australia, had two children and started our life here. I ran a non-governmental organisation, the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Island Housing Panel working with remote indigenous communities and Marguerite returned to teaching. Around then we became interested in the material culture of Borneo people and recording its importance. It started with textiles, the beauty of which was undeniable.

Shop the look

You were both born overseas, when and how did you find yourselves in Hawthorn?

We were in Canberra, however I was struggling to find work. I knew some people who worked in the NGO and lived in Hawthorn; so we came and stayed with one and didn't have to go far to find something we could afford. 

Had we had months I am absolutely certain we would have found ourselves living in Fitzroy, North Melbourne or Carlton.

Your collection of Dyak and Iban art is incredible and is celebrated in every room in your home. Can you tell us a bit about this group and what art means to them?

I think this response relates to all Dayaks. Art, to them, traditionally gives men and women a chance to show off their skills and catch the attention of the other sex. Women seek men who have shown bravery in battle and those with artistic skills because they show something about the quality of the mind and the person's sensitivity. The men seek a woman who is beautiful and artistic, because the latter also shows the quality of their brains because to survive, the Iban family has to manage the farming cycle based on cutting down primary forest and then planting hill rice. Successful agriculture in Borneo requires very good management capabilities. The women's art is the weaving of textiles and singing praise songs in rhyming couplets to the men. 

As you know, we’re bed enthusiasts, so the four poster bed is a stand out feature! What a way to wake up. Where did you find such an amazing piece?

There is an English film director called Joseph Losey who for a period lived in Dorking in Surrey. When he left for Hollywood, the contents were sold at auction. They had no reserve. There were two fourposters, one a wonderful King Charles II one and the other this one. I asked my 60 year old mother to bid for both. The day before the auction there was a huge storm and all but one narrow lane to the house was cut off by a flood. My mother knew the lane, got to the auction and there were very few there. No one was particularly interested in the beds so my mother bid £100 for this one and got it. 

Shop the look

You raised a young family while living in the Dyak and Iban tribes, and this informed your approach to life and parenting. What are you biggest takeaways from the tribes?

As I mentioned, we studied how the Iban brought up their children. In the case of most families, the caretakers (usually the mother and a very close relative), remained very close to the infant for the first five years or so. Their treatment was always consistent, whenever a child was unhappy he or she was picked up so you rarely heard crying. There was never any physical punishment and the children were never allowed to fight, so they never experienced a defeat. As they grew up, children had to work out how to do things so they became masters of whatever they did. 

With the consistent caretaking, the children grow up with secure attachments, great confidence and the ability to take the initiative whenever it was needed, particularly in a crisis. It seemed a good model for childrearing. For our kids Martin and Malcolm, they were much taller than their Iban peers, so they gravitated to kids three or four years older than them. Physically, keeping up with them was a challenge for them. 10 year olds can shin 20 metres up a coconut tree, 6 year old Australians find it difficult. That was a big take away - how they dealt with challenges. 

The biggest take away was that all Dayaks were masters of their own environment and habitat. When Western education was introduced, nobody bothered to find out about this knowledge and experience, and build on it in the educational curricula. As a result, that indigenous knowledge has largely been lost. 

Your almost 100% edible garden is an impressive reflection on your efforts to live sustainably. What are you growing now and how did you learn to keep such a huge variety of fruit and vegetables?

At the moment the plums, tomatoes, lemons and some berries are in season. Vegetables you can find in our garden are rhubarb, bak choy, asparagus, spinach, lettuces and rocket, zucchini/marrow, cucumber, climbing beans, parsley, carrots, potatoes and herbs. We are getting a few macadamia nuts as well. 

We got our experience growing our own fruit and vegetables while I was unemployed. The dole only provided enough to pay the mortgage, so we had to find other means to live. We therefore converted our front and back yards and the nature strip into a vegetable garden. The threat of starvation encourages one to get things right and we put what we had learnt from the Iban (they sow catch crops (various vegetables) alongside their rice).