Rather than upsizing their small home, this family have made it work extra hard, squeezing a workspace, a film studio and plenty of play within its walls
If you’re puzzling over why this house in the Auckland suburb of Birkdale – and the cute little kids running around in it – looks strangely familiar, you’re probably not the only one. Belonging to Julie and Matthew Stuart and their two young children, Harvey and Piper, the home is also the setting for the popular DIY tutorials Julie films and shares on her Clever Poppy website and social media platforms. And if you look even closer, you’ll spot many of the finished projects now being put to use.
The couple bought the house 10 years ago while flatting in Northcote Point. Given that a full section in Birkdale was still relatively affordable and several of their friends had already moved into the area, the decision made a lot of sense. Although their three-bedroom, one-bathroom first home wasn’t exactly their dream property, they knew they had the creative vision to put their stamp on it.
“After a decade of being tenanted, the house was in dire need of love,” Julie remembers. One of the first things to go was the sprayed-on textured ceiling, which the couple then had plastered and painted. The layout also needed attention, in particular a heavy-looking archway separating the kitchen from the lounge. Once this was removed, a comfortable open-plan living space was revealed. The dated lino in the kitchen was despatched in favour of a pale wood-look vinyl, giving the space a light, modern aesthetic the pair loved so much they continued it right through the living space. They also moved the laundry out of the standalone garage and into a partitioned area near the entranceway.
Whole new life
With a background in corporate law and marketing, Julie began to rethink her career once she took a break to have children. “I had one month’s maternity leave before I had Harvey and during this time I did the DIY home projects I’d been wanting to do but had never had time for, such as upholstering a footstool and upcycling a tired dresser into a change table,” she says.
“It made me realise how much I loved working on such projects and I wished I’d tackled them earlier.” When Harvey was 6 months old she realised she didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. “I thought there must be other people who enjoyed DIY as much as I did but lacked the time to do it.”
So she set up Clever Poppy in 2015, showing viewers how to make anything home-related, from a cardboard ‘ice cream shop’ for children to an upholstered bedhead. After about two years, Julie realised it had the potential to be as financially rewarding as a full-time job. “It had turned into something, which was incredibly exciting.”
With an Instagram account of over 20,000 followers, Julie is always thinking about the next idea. All her tutorials are filmed in a makeshift studio space she and Matthew set up in the living area. With a custom wall panel (fixed behind the couch) that can be painted or wallpapered as often as she likes, she can easily create a new look to suit her DIY project.
But creating projects and filming in a small home with a single living space requires orderliness. “I have a trolley where I keep my materials and I am diligent about cleaning up properly before the children get home from school and daycare or else they tinker with what I’m working on,” says Julie.
The open-plan living, dining and kitchen area is truly multi-purpose. “It’s also a playroom for the kids and where I work, so it had to be a nice space that was easy to keep clean,” says Julie. “We’re conscious about only keeping what we need and we make sure that the furniture we do have is the right size for the space.”
The kitchen was deliberately designed to blend in with the lounge. “I wanted to be able to have my girlfriends over for drinks and socialise while I was preparing dinner,” she explains.
Julie’s favourite space is the children’s bedroom which features the animal-filled Jimmy Cricket ‘Woodlands’ wallpaper from Concrete Blush. Small cane baskets provide little storage spaces and eiderdowns in nostalgic prints are tidily folded on shelves. “Because the kids have to share such a small room I felt it was important to make it magical,” she says.
By contrast, the main bedroom has a clean white palette softened with pink and amber bedding and a pale apricot headboard. It’s a serene space compared with the fun kids’ room.
Naturally, there are plenty of Julie’s creations in her home, including various Clever Poppy projects: the master bedhead, the shelves in the living room and the huge toy box on wheels (once a box designed for jump training at the gym). The one she’s proudest of, though, is the rainbow wall hanging in the kids’ room.
“Wall hangings are one of those things that can be quite expensive to buy but don’t cost a lot to make yourself, and give you an amazing result. People enjoy making them because it is so relaxing to use your hands.”
The subjects of Julie’s DIY tutorials tend to be things she’s needed herself. “They are usually something I haven’t been able to buy due to budget or because I can’t find it in the shops. If I need it, then I assume other people do too. I want to help people make something they’re proud to display in their home, something they can create successfully without any fails the first time.”
With its welcoming interior and well-organised multi-use spaces, Julie and Matthew have been able to make their small home work hard for them. The next step is to tackle the landscaping – which should provide plenty of ‘next ideas’ for Julie, who’s excited by where Clever Poppy might go. “I’m hoping to take it to the next level and inspire more people with their homes.”
Words by: Catherine Steel. Photography by: The Virtue. Video by: Melissa Tapper