Behind the doors of Ma House with Ben Mooney
Images by Rubin Utama
Living above his shop, Ma House founder Ben Mooney blurs the lines between work and life to great effect. The Victorian relic is a two-level treasure trove of wares Ben has procured both on wild adventures and Marketplace scrolls. Just like Ma House Supply Store, Ben is a staple of the Johnston-Smith St intersect in Melbourne's Collingwood, often opening his upstairs quarters to fellow creatives for events & photoshoots. A true local, he shows great affection for his neighbours, who journey from all walks of life. It's here on his beloved corner we share an afternoon with Ben and his companion, Goody and caught a glimpse into the brilliant mind of this inimitable collector.
“I live above my shop in Johnston street Collingwood. It’s a late Victorian shop that’s had a million lives before I got here and they have all left their own little mark. The building retains most original features. There are different pressed metal ceilings in every room and the exposed plaster gives the place a real warmth and history. ”
“I’ve lived here for a year now. Before that I was living in my dream home but to be able to keep the shop running financially, I had to make the decision to move in. It was hard leaving the old place that was so beautiful and moving into what felt like a squat in comparison. I’ve done my dishes in the bath for a year while I slowly renovated upstairs and it’s been the biggest challenge of my life but certainly the most rewarding. I love the old lathe and plaster walls and being a corner shop the light is amazing at different times of the day. I love my little courtyard. It’s tiny but it gives me a little bit of nature when I don’t want to leave the house. I love watching it change in the seasons and it teaches me for my dreamed about future 'big boy garden' some day.”
“This is my second commercial lease and for me it just gives that kind of freedom and confidence to make more major changes. The building was so run down when I got it that anything I’ve done has kind of been a major improvement anyway. The biggest challenge was removing a wall upstairs. I didn’t have the budget to do it all at one time and living in dust and decay for a long time gets pretty depressing. But it’s turned two sad small sized bedrooms into a really beautiful living room that can accommodate my furniture collection. Another challenge was the kitchen. It used to just be a bedroom. Everything for the kitchen came off Marketplace from the cupboards, to the sink, to the range hood. I’m not a trained designer and the way a kitchen is laid out is a little more mathematical than you think so getting that balance of space and ergonomics has been a lesson but also so great to have a kitchen that functions just the way I like it.”
I love the old lathe and plaster walls and being a corner shop the light is amazing at different times of the day.
“I think bedrooms are a bit of a waste of space. Don’t get me wrong it’s probably where I spend most of my free time. A prematurely cooked back means that after being in the shop all day I do most of my admin on the bed with Goody under the blanket. I think people should choose the smallest room in the house as a bedroom. Bedrooms are for winding down and finding what peace you can from your day and hopefully get some sleep. I always think it’s a bit weird to have these lounge room sized rooms for essentially your bed and some clothes. ”
“I’ve got a large hand painted screen on the wall that has the most beautiful scenes in faded gold and brown paint. It always gives me a really soft, relaxed feeling that brings me down to earth a little bit. I’ve got a little dressing table that houses a collection of old money boxes I’ve started collecting. They kind of speak to the screen with their gold lines and tarnished tin.”
For the bedroom I pick items that catch the last light of the day before they go to sleep in the dark as well. It sounds deep but really it’s a basic everyday beauty that helps me feel at home.
“I seem to like to sleep in enclosed spaces so my two little wardrobes anchor the two sides of the bed. I like a little nook to sleep in something that feels safe and away from the hustle and bustle of the busy street below. My favourite piece in the room is a Venetian mirror above the dressing table. I’ve hung it so you can’t see your reflection. I want people to admire the mirror and not themselves... haha. The drawers in the room are also special in that an old housemate and I would often make trades of pieces we’d found between us. I miss her and that time of being younger and carefree and I like that when I’m older I’ll still get that feeling. ”
Ben wears IN BED 100% Linen Shirt in Khaki.
“Objects hold so many memories and because my memory isn’t that good they are a perfect kind of life album for me. I can remember the day I purchased them and where I was and who was with me. I love linen to sleep in. I love its weight and the way it crumples and creases and then smoothes itself out. I love the way it catches the light and has a slight sheen like silk as it gets old. I like the feeling on my skin. I've got a pretty crazy collection of linen and blankets. More than I need but they have a use and I love things that are used everyday for years and years and get more beautiful with age.”
I love linen to sleep in. I love its weight and the way it crumples and creases and then smoothes itself out. I love the way it catches the light and has a slight sheen like silk as it gets old. I like the feeling on my skin.
“I love the mix of people in the area and I really do feel my own sense of community here in Collingwood. I love walking Goody up to Smith street and waving and chatting with all my neighbours and the other shop keepers on the street. There’s a lot of rough sleepers where I live and I’ve gotten to know most of them. A lot of people are a bit misunderstood in this area and it’s really taught me that everyone has a story and most of them are really interesting. ”
“I grew up in the country and I don’t really feel like a country boy but one thing is I’m very loyal with my haunts. I love a Banh Mi from Joey's. She’s the sweetest, most hardworking person I know. The ladies at Tribal Rose florist are so sweet and knowledgeable and are my go-to for in season flowers. I go to Hi Fi for coffee because I hate waiting and because I always seem to have a crush on one of their baristas at any given time. When I’m feeling naughty I’ll get some fried chicken from Charcoal Chicken on Smith street, an extremely hidden gem that I think I’ve been eating for over 10 years now. I also love my new next door neighbours at Commis Bar. The food is amazing and the cocktails are made so lovingly.”
I love the mix of people in the area and I really do feel my own sense of community here in Collingwood.
“I get this question [Where do you find all your treasures?] a lot and the answer isn’t really that simple. There’s no secret warehouse in Coburg where all my collection has come from. It really comes from time and trusting your eye. I have a really emotional sort of gut feeling when I’m sourcing items. There has to be a spark or reaction for me to want to buy something. I really don’t buy into trends and think that most of the best stuff has already been made. ”
“Look for quality and longevity but most of all make sure you really love it and that it makes you happy. Don’t buy things because other people have them, find and trust your own style however wild or mellow that may be. Home is your sanctuary and a reflection of your life, your past and your aspirations not someone else’s.”
“Ma House Supply Store is an extension of what started out as a shoot location for local brands and businesses at my old house on Smith street. I was working full time when I started the business and the main reason it started was that I had a really special space with my life’s collection that sat still everyday while I was at work. I love the way people react and relax and relate to the spaces I create.”
“Although I’m really immune to compliments, it is really special when you can tell that someone's experience in your house or store is memorable and maybe inspiring or fills some urge they had that day. I think everyone should love where they live no matter their budget or background and if I can help along the way I’m more than happy. For the store I knew I had a knack for finding objects that spark joy, curating this for people who find that more difficult than me is a pleasure.”
“I’m extremely sentimental with objects and furniture. I think that’s why I opened the shop. I felt like all these forgotten things needed to be found in markets and marketplace and given the loving homes they deserved. Kind of like a lost dog's home for objects. I commissioned a large painting by Em Creasey that sits in the shop. It’s of my old house and all the objects in it that were my favourites at the time. It’s a really good memento and a great reminder of how I started in the industry I'm in now.”
“Before Ma House I worked for a local skip company in admin and on the phones essentially hiring out large rubbish bins for 7 years. I had to talk to so many different types of people and although it certainly wasn’t my calling it allowed me to be able to engage with strangers and problem solve. The pay was great and they were family friends and I guess it allowed me money to buy furniture. It’s always been my favourite thing to do. Having no experience in design or retail has meant I’ve had to carve my own path and develop my own style. I always had the nicest room in the share house and my housemates’ friends would come over and marvel at my collections. I never really accepted positive feedback. I always thought people were just being nice because they could see I had made an effort, but as I got older I realised that perhaps I did have a bit of a calling with interiors and so I started Ma House in 2021 and Ma House Supply Store the next year to give people a place to collect like me.”
“I certainly wouldn’t call myself an artist but arranging rooms is kind of like painting. There’s a balance that needs to be achieved and everything changes constantly with a physical space naturally. The light changes in the seasons. The texture and tones of a piece If someone buys a key piece it can change the whole vibe of the room. If I buy new stock I feel like it needs to make friends with everything else in store and not sit boldly.”
“I love living above the shop, I’m not really someone who can compartmentalise their life, I’m more sort of all in. I’ve been renovating upstairs for about a year now and it’s finally at completion. The next step is to relaunch Ma House upstairs again for shoots and events and I’m so excited to start doing that work again. Being able to create a special space for people to be in makes me feel like an excited kid and I kind of thrive under the pressure of making everything perfect.”