It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I last had a chat with Neale Whitaker; The Block’s OG judge and all-round design icon. Back in 2015 when we spoke he’d not long taken the reins at Vogue Living after departing Belle Magazine. Love it or List it Australia was but a twinkle in a producer’s eye, and the onslaught of Covid19 was completely unimaginable.
One of the things that’s remained the same about The Block judge, former mag editor and TV personality is his authenticity. A lot has changed in the last five years, but Neale’s openness, honesty and integrity has endured. It doesn’t hurt that his philosophy of avoiding trends hasn’t wavered, and in this interview we explore that and so much more.
In this chat we discuss Neale’s tree change with partner David, how he got through filming two shows during a pandemic, what he’s loving in design right now, and of course – behind the scenes on The Block (including what the most common misconception is about the show). Enjoy the insight and I’ll see you in the comments section at the end of the post.
It’s so great to have you on the blog again Neale. We have so much to catch up on. But first things first: how are you, David and the doggies coping in these crazy Covid times?
“We’re coping OK Chris, thank you. Like everyone we’ve had ups and down in the last few months, but we are very fortunate to be based in such a beautiful and peaceful part of the world. We said goodbye to one of our beloved pups – Ollie – earlier in the year, which was hard. We miss his beautiful soul very much”.
How is your South Coast home coming along? I’ve been loving seeing it come together on Instagram. What sparked the move?
“Our tree-change was actually more premeditated than most people think! We’d been visiting the NSW south coast regularly – and Berry in particular – for about ten years, and always said we would move there when the time was right. In 2018 the time was suddenly right and there was a property on the market that we loved. Time for action”.
One of the things that strikes me about your home is that it’s such a curated amalgamation of styles. I always say that a successful home is not one theme but a coming together of several schemes. What’s your approach been to the design?
“Chris, I’d say it’s far more a curated amalgamation of life. David and I have been together a long time and our styles have always blended pretty well. He veers towards classic and I’m more contemporary, but somehow we meet in the middle.
We love the same colours and materials. We’re both passionate about art, books, ceramics – and lamps – and shared memories from our travels together, and those elements combine to create a home. We don’t always agree, but compromise can be sweet too!”.
Last time we spoke you discussed your love of individuality over trends. Sadly though, I see so many homes playing it safe with design. It’s always in the risk-taking that the magic really happens though! What are some tips you can give for readers to be more adventurous with their design choices?
“That’s a tough question Chris, and I think it’s easy to talk about being adventurous when you work in design as we do. For many people, it’s a question of confidence. I meet so many people – and I’m sure you do too – who really don’t know what their taste or style is – and the proliferation of social media has made the choice much harder.
Playing it safe is often less stressful and less risky! I also think we’re far too concerned in Australia about the value of our real estate, and fearful of ‘polarisation’. We’re so worried about losing a future buyer through our style choices that we don’t live in our homes as we’d really like to. My best advice is always to avoid current trends and follow your heart”.
The last time we spoke was back in 2015 and you declared your distaste for exposed bulbs along with owl and twig wallpaper. What can I add to the updated list of Neale no-nos?
“I don’t want to appear like the style police because nobody should tell anyone what to like or dislike. But it depresses me when certain looks become so ubiquitous. To me it devalues them. I probably chose those things back in 2015 because they were just everywhere!
For example, I love palm tree motifs, rattan and Moroccan rugs. But there is so much of all three on the market now that they’re almost design cliches. I guess the trick is to find new ways of incorporating them. My only no-no is dried flowers. Can’t stand them, never could. Oh, and hygge”.
We’ve just come off of what I’m calling lamp-gate on The Block. And I know your home has tonnes of them. Talk me through how you approach lighting, or is it a case of more is more when it comes to secondary sources? (I hate down lights myself and never turn them on!)
“To me lighting is the single most important factor in creating ambience and mood in a room. I would rather sit on a stool in a well-lit room than a sofa in a badly-lit one. I guess it also comes from growing up and living in the UK where you can’t rely on natural light as you can in Australia. Manipulating light to create warmth and comfort was essential for about eight months of every year.
We do have a lot of lamps in our home – possibly too many – so I don’t necessarily agree more is more, but I do believe it’s important to have the right light for the right task. Functionality is also important when it comes to lighting”.
On the topic of The Block, how do you think it’s changed over the years considering you’ve been there from the start? I think (most of) the teams are more design savvy or at least coming into it with a more defined aesthetic.
“The Block evolves each season in terms of the size and scope of the build (and the value of the property), and the creativity and competence of the contestants. It’s still a show about renovation, but real estate and interior design now play a very important part. I guess with each season the Blockheads have learnt from the mistakes and successes of their predecessors”.
I’m so keen to hear about filming during Covid, for both The Block and Love it or List it. Was it a mission getting around the country for filming and what were the greatest challenges for you?
“The Block closed down for five weeks in March and April and we returned to site in early May. We were fortunate to have the show completed by early June before Melbourne went back into lockdown. Love It Or List It Australia Season 4 is still in production. We have been badly hit by state border closures but we keep going! Hopefully we’ll be back on air early in 2021. I haven’t been on a plane since June which feels strange to someone who used to fly up to five times a week!”.
The brief this year for The Block has thrown some of the contestants. It’s no easy feat giving a nod to an era while appealing to a high-end 2020 buyer. What team do you think has succeeded the most here? (I’m betting a Luke & Jasmin or Sarah & George win at auction).
“I can’t really comment on this Chris as the show is still very much on air, but I think all the Blockheads did a good job in representing the era of their houses with some well-chosen details. From a personal perspective, I never want to see a slavish reproduction of an era – to me that would feel inauthentic. Far better to create a well-designed contemporary family home with just a few signature period details”.
Has a series that involves you and Andrew Winter road tripping together been pitched to Foxtel because you two are a hilarious duo and I need to see more. How have you enjoyed working on Love it or List it, and is another season filming?
“I love that idea Chris! Andrew and I genuinely get on well together and what you see on screen is how we are off-camera. Love It Or List It Australia is a joy to work on and fingers crossed we come back for a fifth season in 2021/22. We’re still shooting season four at the moment. We’re lucky to have a great crew and production team who have done an amazing and often thankless job this year with an ever-changing schedule”.
I asked readers in my Private Facebook group what I should ask you for this interview and so many wanted to know the things you’re loving right now in design and trends that will endure. What’s your take on a new (or resurfaced) design moment that you think will stick around?
“I’ve already revealed my attitude to trends so please don’t ask me for an on-trend colour or a particular shape! I guess I’m enjoying the current passion for the artisan and hand-crafted. I also love that we’re valuing art again. And being British, I’m excited to see the traditional country house style being reworked in the hands of people like Luke Edward Hall and Duncan Campbell of Campbell Rey”.
I’d love to know what you think the biggest misconception is about The Block. What’s something you get asked about the show time and time again that you’re over answering (and the hilarity of me asking you to answer a question around questions you’re tired of answering is not lost on me!).
“The biggest misconception around The Block is that the contestants don’t oversee the renovations themselves (they certainly do) and that they don’t actually deliver the rooms in a week as shown on TV.
Well, as someone who has spent ten years sitting in a chilly make-up trailer on damp Melbourne Sundays waiting for Scotty to shout ‘tools down’, let me put it on record once and for all that what you see on TV is ABSOLUTELY what happens. Over and out!”.
I love seeing all of your flashback photos of baby Neale on Instagram. What would you say to an early twenties you, and can you believe what you’ve achieved looking back on your career so far?
“I would tell an early twenties me to relax and enjoy the journey far more. I’m very lucky to still be enjoying a wonderful career, even in this most cruel and compromising of years. There’s not a day when I don’t count my blessings”.