Boris Tosic

Bathroom

The gas man is flummoxed. He’s come to read the meter and a note on his clipboard says it’s in the garage, on the left-hand side. But this garage is like no other. A car stacker makes it dual occupancy. A “bedroom for the car”, it has two walls and the ceiling wrapped in walnut timber, and 3.6m-high push-front panels disguising integrated storage. Where the meter lives is anyone’s guess. With a shrug, the meter man moves on, tossing a calling card on the floor and casting a last, puzzled glance at the spacey spherical light fittings just inside the door. A schoolboy and his mum cut through the Paddington laneway. “Why’s there an artwork in the garage?” wonders the child.

Jesse Lizotte’s photographic print Monte Carlo at the rear of the garage. Picture: Tom Ferguson
Jesse Lizotte’s photographic print Monte Carlo at the rear of the garage. Picture: Tom Ferguson

“Couldn’t find meter,” mutters Boris Tosic when he emerges from the adjacent front door minutes later and spots the gas man’s card. He taps panel two to reveal the neatly housed utility. “That’s by Diesel’s son, Jesse Lizotte, he says, eyes flicking to the muscular black and white under-the-bonnet photograph that occupies a recess at the rear of the garage. Titled Made In USA, it’s part of a Lowrider culture series the musician’s son shot in Los Angeles in 2014. Like every other element in this unique Sydney home, the print’s position beside the Mercedes-Benz charging station is hard won and comes with a story.

“I need a personal connection when I buy something,” says Tosic. “Nina from China Heights

said ‘this lady keeps asking about you’. It turned out to be Jesse’s godmother and she walks past here all the time.” He turned up at Lizotte’s next exhibition and bought the print.

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The installation at the garage entrance, four Verner Panton lights from Hamburg’s iconic Spiegel publishing house, were secured at a European auction by Tosic’s good friend, fellow design hunter and collaborator Don Cameron. They’re one of the final flourishes in this warehouse rebuild, a project that has occupied Tosic, a charismatic master joiner, maker and lifelong curator-collector, for the best part of three years. The brick warehouse was constructed in 1892, at the intersection of a narrow street and laneway. It was once a hat factory, necessitating a geotech report before building could begin. (Milliners once used mercury to shape hats, hence the term ‘mad as a hatter’.) Cleared on the mercury front, the building then needed significant structural work to meet earthquake guidelines. “It’s got more steel in it than the Harbour Bridge,” remarks Tosic.

Judith, by Matt Adnate
Judith, by Matt Adnate

A rangy 194cm (six foot three inches) and now overshot by his three older boys (Ziggy is six foot seven, Ivan and Luke six foot four), Tosic, 57, is a quick thinker and a faster talker, his conversation littered with language collected on building sites and before that, in the Yugoslav merchant navy. He is a magnanimous man whose passions and emotions thrum close to the surface. Strength and intelligence emanate from his eyes, and he has a foot-tapping energy that made him a formidable force in the punishing Sydney building industry during the ’90s, where he and his team quickly gained a reputation for speedy work – earning respect and a steady stream of jobs.

He built his joinery and construction business, Elan, through long, physically demanding days and sheer force of will, and the home is the ultimate passion project. It draws together flights of imagination, romantic references, disparate design threads, and most importantly, his family, friends and collaborators. Moving through it means navigating a life story that begins in the Croatian seaside town of Split and rides the waves and troughs to arrive at this home, a family haven anchored by a fierce and loyal love. Pride and determination reside here too, reflected in visual details Tosic has absorbed since childhood, refined over years of international travel and workshopped on projects with Australia’s leading architecture and design minds.

Walk-in wardrobe
Walk-in wardrobe

Tosic’s five boys and inner circle gather frequently for meals conjured by Naomi, his wife of 13 years. It’s Naomi who brings balance in this environment, the rounded edges to her husband’s “masculine” walnut-lined build. Director of the boutique co-working business The Office Space, she’s a generous and accomplished cook and this home is made for entertaining.

Tosic’s capabilities, fastidiousness, aesthetic curiosity and considerable charisma have opened doors to boardrooms and multi-million dollar residences sprinkled around Sydney Harbour and he’s befriended countless creatives along the way. One recent project, by renowned New Zealand architects Fearon Hay, involved $2.5 million worth of joinery by Elan. After visiting Tosic’s home the client promptly upgraded all the doors on his project.

And yet Tosic says he lost his way momentarily when building his own home. “Because I’m a builder, I tend to overdo and over-build because that’s what I do for a living,” he says. “I was feeling a bit of discontent because I was building too much in my head and I stopped seeing it. I literally didn’t do anything for about nine months. It didn’t feel like my house. I felt like I was building something to prove… I don’t know what, but I wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of it.”

Amor by Kate Bellm (under stairs); graphic artworks by Julije Knifer (on wall beside stairs)
Amor by Kate Bellm (under stairs); graphic artworks by Julije Knifer (on wall beside stairs)

Passing through the airport in Denmark, he bought a copy of the Danish design magazine Rum, featuring the homes of international design luminaries. “Inside was Maximiliano Fuksas’ house, Patrizia Moroso’s house, Vincenzo De Cotiis’ house … I looked at it and came to realise that [even in their homes] everything was sort of unfinished, the story continues on,” says Tosic. “They can always add a piece and remove pieces. And that gave me a sense of calm and resolve. I stopped building and thought, ok, the space is the luxury. I need to strip it back a bit, unbuild what I’d built in my head. And then I started taking stuff out so you can actually walk through the house and enjoy the volume of it … the high ceilings and large floor plate.”

Like Paramount House, Tosic’s multi award-winning boutique office space in Surry Hills, the family home is a place for him to curate art, design and furniture, collected and made. Tosic’s favourite timber, walnut, is the core material, present in hand-finished details including a custom herringbone floor, tactile balustrades and 80mm thick custom-made 3.6m doors. The inspiration? A lingering aural memory, the satisfying clunk of expensive car doors closing – just one of many keen observations of a wide-eyed Croatian boy.

Ben Quilty’s Rorschach in the home theatre
Ben Quilty’s Rorschach in the home theatre

Don Cameron, who befriended Tosic after having an “almost physical” reaction to the level of love and design intelligence he saw in Paramount House, helped to procure many of the vintage furniture pieces and lighting that features in the home and the pair have travelled together regularly, sourcing art and inspiration.

“I think this is the first time he’s really been able to enjoy his collection of art around him, at this house,” Cameron says. “He didn’t have the wall space before.

“It’s only my reading of it but I think it was a real moment of communion for Boris when he went back to the storage unit and got everything over to the house and went through it. For him it was like opening all of these windows back to all these moments in his life … He saw his way of collecting as a personal journey as a man and what he has been exposed to. And that has obviously evolved. Like any collector he’s always trying to improve.”

The lower-floor gallery wall features major Australian artists, from Coburn to Drysdale and Boyd, and the spectacular of pink planets by Del Kathryn Barton, whom Tosic befriended while renovating her home a few years ago. In the basement, Ben Quilty’s eight-panel Rorschach was a private commission and dominates the far wall of the home theatre. A newly installed sauna, trimmed in bespoke joinery, is a recent addition to the adjacent gym. “Boris’ substitute for a Croatian summer,” says Naomi. The annual trip back during the Australian winter was not to be in 2020.

Untitled (2002) by Dale Frank with Bassam Fellows tables
Untitled (2002) by Dale Frank with Bassam Fellows tables

The furniture designers Bassam Fellows are friends and collaborators and their lounge setting is central to the moody ground floor study, Mad Men-esque pieces positioned in front of a gleaming green painting by Dale Frank. On level one, large artworks by Robert Dickerson and Bill Henson hang in the parents’ suite, while four small paintings by Dutch artist Henk Duijn are grouped above the curvaceous Agape bath.

First-time visitors are generally ushered into the lift and treated to one hell of a peep show: 15 panels by Del Kathryn Barton, secured behind glass in the lift well, whiz by as you journey to the top floor. Ascending via the cantilevered solid walnut steps is an invitation to contemplate 1960s works by Croatian artist Julije Knifer. On the approach to the level-two landing is a new feature – a trio of black and white photographs of brutalist structures in Europe, part of Don Cameron’s recent “Communion” exhibition at Gallery Sally Dan Cuthbert. Tosic was by Cameron’s side when he captured the final images in the series and the pair designed the hefty bronze frames, made by Elan, with three different architectural profiles.

The kitchen showing the glass bottom of the rooftop pool
The kitchen showing the glass bottom of the rooftop pool

The impressive kitchen is Naomi’s domain. At its heart is a bespoke blunt-edged triangular bench for family meals and homework (Mali and Quinn are 13 and eight), a prep bench for Naomi’s elaborate culinary exploits and a natural pre-dinner gathering place for guests. Sunlight streams in through the glass-bottomed rooftop pool, refracting ever-changing reflections around the space. The private upstairs terrace, walls shrouded with rosemary and grasses, has treetop and chimney views and to the south you can just spy Botany Bay. The barbecue and the pool everyone said couldn’t be built are in constant use.

Making things himself and improving them in the process is a thrill for Tosic and a lifelong pursuit. A new attraction in the living area is a glass cabinet of curiosities atop a brass pedestal, the result of some recent workshop tinkering. “It was inspired by Carlo Scarpa’s glass vitrines – made in 1955 and now worth €155,000 – but I’ve interpreted the design based on my knowledge of how to work with metal and timber,” says Tosic. The case contains miniature sculptures by Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl.

The ‘Gravitas’ shelving unit divides the living and dining zones. Picture: Tom Ferguson
The ‘Gravitas’ shelving unit divides the living and dining zones. Picture: Tom Ferguson

Also new, and responsible for creating an entirely new dynamic, is “Gravitas”, a shelving unit that Tosic designed and is now producing in different finishes. This prototype is in a lustrous copper and he’s working on steel versions. “It was important to divide this area because it is kitchen, dining, living. I needed a way for guests or family members to separate themselves from others but not to exclude themselves,” says Tosic.

“In Europe, in a club or restaurant, a booth is called a ‘séparé’ and I love that idea of being part of the whole but also somewhat separated. People can move away and have a private conversation or different experience… I feel spaces need boundaries and transitions, just like people do.”

The open shelves allow visibility so don’t diminish the sense of space. “In a way it is a modern version of a screen or room divider. I was inspired by Franco Albini’s 835 Infinito bookcase (which was hard to source and too narrow and too low for our purposes) and worked with a blacksmith – Simon Bitune from Studio 175. I like the pinkness of copper. It’s soft, peachy and warm and reflects light beautifully at night.”

Tosic says his “OCD tendencies”, a rigorous pursuit of excellence and his ongoing quest for betterment, stem from his childhood – specifically, maternal pride – in a neighbourhood that made up for a lack of wealth by collectively raising its children. With considerable emotion, he recalls his mother sitting in front of her bedroom mirror each night, naked, brushing her hair and looking at herself in the mirror. “For 15 minutes every day!” Tosic exclaims. “It may seem narcissistic but to have that much self-love and self-respect, to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every day, I think it’s paramount for the human spirit,” he asserts. “Because ultimately, if you don’t love yourself you can’t love anybody.

“It was astonishing to me, as I grew up, to realise that was what she was doing. So my aesthetic drive, that self-pride, came from there. She taught me everything that is beauty and everything that’s beautiful within you. That set me on a journey … looking at the world with loving eyes I guess.”

The gym with boxer figure by Louis Pratt, painting by Henk Duijn and Jesus by Philjames
The gym with boxer figure by Louis Pratt, painting by Henk Duijn and Jesus by Philjames

Every time he left the house, his mother would give him the once-over. “She’d call me to stop and she would just look me up and down, give me a wink or a kiss. Or slick my hair, touch it up a bit. And say ‘off you go’. Send me out with the blessing of love… ‘you’re ready, and I’m here’.

Tosic speaks eloquently and poetically, referencing designers, makers, art and film to describe situations, pin down feelings and generally, to make sense of the world. He and Del Kathryn Barton are “besties” and he’s in the process of updating her current family home.

“We talk almost on a daily basis,” says Tosic. “We check up on each other. We talk, happy or sad, angry or mad.”

In 2015 Tosic made a giant conch shell from a centuries-old Huon pine log, the centrepiece for Barton’s NGV exhibition “The Highway is a Disco”. It was a tribute to her ailing mother who had given her a tiny conch as a child, to listen to the sea. The timber shell took 11 months to make, a complicated process involving 3D modelling and laser precision, culminating in hand sanding. “Every millimetre was touched by a human hand,” says Tosic.

“As with anything, when you embark on something unknown it’s a case study. You get in a situation where you doubt yourself and your decisions and question yourself. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? But eventually you just start chewing faster. That’s all there is to it!” he laughs.

“As we worked on it, the smell inside the factory… you could feel the presence and the age of this dinosaur; it was there. And for everybody … it became a personal sort of perfume. When you walked in there it was kind of ‘good morning to you from the past’. A personal scent, a memory, a gift for everybody.”

Barton is now in pre-production for a feature film, Slay, and Tosic has been at her shoulder during the process, advocating for her and fashioning a fibreglass moon for one of the scenes. Having taught himself English by watching 400 films a year, he is full of admiration for his friend and her ability to move between mediums.

Cabinet of curiosities, with photographic works from Don Cameron’s Communion series
Cabinet of curiosities, with photographic works from Don Cameron’s Communion series

“To write a film, to f’ing direct it… I often tell Del that she’s possibly the most courageous human being I’ve met. Because for me to create something I need to go into my deep subconscious and it’s a scary place to live. And she chooses to live there 99 per cent of the time. Most people would have a nervous breakdown or suffer from depression. But artists, that’s where they live. That’s where the beauty comes from.”

For Barton, it was a natural progression to ask Tosic to create some “bespoke asset builds” for the film project. “Everything he designs and produces is made with extreme care, skill and finish,” she says. “He delivers astonishing considered objects and spaces to this world… spaces that breathe with both refined aesthetic resolution and, perhaps more importantly, with soul. Quite simply, I trust his eye, heart and mind when it comes to all things creative.”

In one of their recent text exchanges Bartpm shared a quote from the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois: ‘I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands…’

“Knowing him as well as I do now,” she says, “I can attest to the magnificent intensity with which Boris has not wasted any time being Boris. The diversity and magnitude of his life journeys to date would satiate many lifetimes. He is one of those special humans who has, with immense will, intelligence and courage, managed to turn adversity and pain into creative expression and entrepreneurism. Outside of immediate family, I have grown to consider Boris to be my best friend.”

Architect Simon Hanson, director of Sydney firm Bureau SRH, met Tosic 15 years ago and has worked with him on houses, apartments and office fitouts. Elan has just finished Hanson’s terrace house kitchen – complete with a custom island in brass. “Boris invented prototypes so that we could make sure he could achieve the curves and corners,” says Hanson. “He has pulled it off beautifully. Not only has he developed this amazing finish, his on-site team managed to install it perfectly.” The pair are currently developing prototypes for high-end, low- footprint luxury accommodation that can be adapted to remote locations “from Tasmania to North Sulawesi”.

The rooftop pool area
The rooftop pool area

“I always loved something that needed solving,” says Tosic. “With movies, it’s ‘what’s the message?’ And poetry and books… Making is the same.

“To build anything beautiful and nice it takes time, which requires pain, endurance, perseverance. And then beauty comes out. So part of it is to endure all of these emotions and senses and doubts that get tested. And then from the pressure comes a pearl. It’s a niggling grain of sand and it just kind of rubs and rubs and it turns out to be a beautiful, shiny pearl.”

A few days after the house shoot, the Tosic boys gather at the Elan joinery workshop in western Sydney for a family portrait; five boys and their father, European style. Luke, 25, has been working with his dad for three years. He graduated with a construction management and economics degree last year and has stepped into the role of production and workshop manager. Ivan (26) works in the banking industry and is studying applied finance. Ziggy (21) is working on the factory floor. A keen DJ and photographer, he is also assisting the art director on Barton’s film. For now, Mali and Quinn are content to be sanding timber shields, mugging for Don Cameron, who is behind the camera, and looking to their father for direction.

Tosic smiles and tweaks Quinn’s cheeks. “My life was always defined by my hands,” he muses. “I touch people all the time. If I make something, the biggest acknowledgment or affirmation for me is that you want to put your hand on it and caress it. To me that’s a sign that I’ve done my job; that you get to experience it in the way that I built it for you. That’s been my life journey and that hasn’t changed from day one.”

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