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Lewis, Ayleen Elizabeth (1920–2011)

by Athol Yeomans and Malcolm Brown

When Ayleen Lewis, interior designer and writer, made her first visit to Italy in the early 1970s, she was entering a world where design had been part of the culture since antiquity. She hardly expected to be lauded there for her own work and reputation, but she was, and it was a measure of her talent that her designs stood up to such scrutiny.

She embraced Italy, making frequent visits there, eventually leasing a house in the province of Brescia.

Ayleen Lewis, daughter of a Victorian train driver, and niece of a World War I gassing victim, had done many things: airline hostess, journalist, corporate relations executive, columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and world traveller.

The photographer Jeff Carter was to say that she understood everyone and always gave sound advice.

Ayleen Elizabeth Lewis was born in Traralgon, Victoria, on June 22, 1920, the second of three daughters of Alex Lewis and Hilda (nee Macfarlane).

The family expanded when Ayleen was six because her uncle, Marshall, died in 1924 from the effects of gassing. Alex took in Marshall's widow, Dorothy, and her two daughters. The family moved to Melbourne so the five girls might have better educational opportunities, and Alex continued to support them by driving trains until the end of World War II.

By that time, Lewis had graduated from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology with a diploma in interior architecture. She had already started to develop her own ideas about modern, comfortable and practical interiors. But before putting them into practice, she embarked on a career as a flight attendant with Australian National Airways. She flew internationally, mainly based in Honolulu, Colombia, Cairo and London.

After five years she went to Singapore for a holiday and found herself on the edge of the Malayan Emergency, which began in 1948. She started writing about it for the Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne.

Lewis's world travels also helped to refine her ideas on design, proving invaluable when she joined the editorial staff of K. G. Murray Ltd's House and Garden magazine in 1951.

Her research and reporting were welcomed by architects, craftsmen and suppliers and she went on to edit a magazine of her own, Homemaker. In 1957, Lewis left K.G. Murray and joined the staff of Ron Bolton, the advertising manager for James Hardie Industries, responsible for relations with architects and the media, and in 1959, she began as a columnist for the Herald. She married journalist Athol Yeomans in 1961. The couple embarked on a working holiday in Europe. Lewis visited designers, craftsmen and factories in Spain and France which provided endless copy for her weekly Herald column.

In 1964, her book, Ayleen Lewis's Australian Home Decorating Ideas, was published.

They later spent time in London where Lewis worked as a magazine consultant.

She made a successful visit to Helsinki where her reputation as a designer preceded her, before meeting up with Yeomans, who had been working as a journalist on The Sunday Times, in Stockholm before touring the Scandinavian countries.

The couple returned to Melbourne where Lewis concentrated on her interior design and was much in demand redesigning department store interiors. She eventually gave up writing for the Herald in 1969.

The couple moved to Sydney in 1972. Lewis discovered a failed butcher's shop in Blues Point Road, McMahons Point, where she based her very successful business. She became involved in mass market interior design with Neeta Homes as well as working on numerous commercial and private projects. Lewis continued to make frequent trips to Italy, spending most Australian winters at the home leased in Calino, a village in Brescia.

She retired from her Australian business at age 75 but continued as a consultant and adviser – her clients simply refused to give her up.

Ayleen Lewis is survived by Athol and two cousins.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Athol Yeomans and Malcolm Brown, 'Lewis, Ayleen Elizabeth (1920–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lewis-ayleen-elizabeth-16684/text28580, accessed 29 November 2021.

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