DOMINIC Romeo has made a career of rescuing run-down country homes and forgotten Aussie furniture.
Dominic was just 17 when he bought his first antique, a $300 cedar table that took him a fair few shifts at his part-time job to pay off.
While most of his friends were still cultivating an air of teenage indifference, Dominic was enthusiastically trawling through old stores and shops for items that displayed what he calls "the beautiful and the battered".
"Once I got my licence it was fantastic because I didn’t have to convince my Mum to drive me," he recalls.
"I could go to all the antique stores in Melbourne that I wanted. And there were plenty around in those days."
Dominic, who runs the Stalking Cat country furniture store in Woodend, grew up in a brick veneer in Melbourne’s suburbs, where the old Georgian and early Victorian buildings he loves so much were few and far between.
He did, however, board at Geelong Grammar, and the campus’ stately red brick architecture had a large influence on him.
"I also made a lot of friends from the country and I loved the old family homesteads on the farms," he says.
All of these elements combined to create a love for heritage homes and the "forgotten’" Australian furniture that once filled them.
After a spell working in tourism and hospitality in his early twenties, Dominic took a day-trip to Maldon, near Castlemaine, with his interior decorator wife, Marie, that turned out to be life-altering.
The couple came across an old Victorian home for sale, circa 1860s, which they bought, renovated and transformed in to a bed and breakfast.
"It had a beautiful cement render, it was a nice style and in a lovely township," he notes.
It gave Dominic his first taste of renovating a heritage building, and the couple went on to win numerous tourism and food awards for their bed and breakfast.
They later sold the business to set up a heritage-restoration company, Bellholme, and over the next 15 years, Dominic restored numerous country residences across Victoria, which were sold to private buyers.
"We are kind of like developers, but nice ones," Dominic says.
"Instead of ripping down old homes to build flats, we are restoring them."
Dominic has breathed fresh life in to some of Victoria’s finest old country homes, including Rupertswood, the 50-room Italianate mansion at Sunbury (and birthplace of the Ashes), and Burnewang, which was built in 1903 on the banks of the Campaspe river near Elmore.
Come April, Dominic, who is a board member of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), will be putting the finishing touches to Karori, a hill station property on the southern slopes of Mount Macedon. Members of the public are invited to take a peek at Karori’s house and gardens on April 20-21 and 27-28 as part of the National Trust Heritage Festival.
But, unlike the many properties Dominic has restored and renovated, this one is not for sale, and instead will be the couple’s new home.
"There is just something so unique about Karori, the fact that the gardens are still intact, that it is an excellent surviving example of an old hill station," he says.
When he is not managing heritage-restoration projects, Dominic is sourcing country furniture for his Stalking Cat store, which he opened four months ago. The store stocks a goldmine of Australia’s forgotten furniture.
There is depression-era furniture from the 1890s and 1930s, which includes floorboards fashioned in to furniture and kerosene tin dust pans; early settlement pieces from the 1850s, which feature tree branches incorporated in to furniture; and country furniture from the 1860s onwards that saw the introduction of colours for the sake of decoration.
Dominic says the response to stocking country Australian furniture has been "amazing".
"(Stores) import a lot from France and Europe and it is very beautiful, don’t get me wrong," Dominic says.
"But we also have beautiful furniture from Australia and I am interested in preserving that."