Thursday, 25 June 2015 02:58

High Tea With Tara

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For almost a decade, Tara Dennis has been the vibrant and engaging design and decorating presenter on Better Homes and Gardens. Additionally, she has published a book, released several homeware collections and runs workshops for DIY enthusiasts. Here, she speaks with Lara Bailey about her artistic passion and explains how to create the perfect high tea experience at home.

Tara Dennis’ creative pursuits extend beyond the inspired ideas she presents on Channel 7’s Better Homes and Gardens (BHG) every Friday night (recent examples include making adjustable pegboard shelving, creating a mosaic tile-topped coffee table and crafting felt-ball trivets) – she is also a high tea enthusiast; a hobby that has inspired several of her recent entrepreneurial endeavours.

“I love how high tea has become popular again. It creates a real sense of occasion,” says Dennis.

“I find it’s as exciting to plan as it is to hold a high tea, and you can really make people feel special by inviting a select group and taking time with them in a relaxed setting. I love choosing a menu and preparing the food, but taking a little [creative] licence and dressing the setting is what I enjoy most.”


It’s the enjoyment of the ritual of high tea (or ‘afternoon tea’), coupled with a keenness for design and creativity that has inspired Dennis of late. Her recently released range, Paisley, embraces the whimsy and wonder of high tea, with a traditional design reimagined for a contemporary audience.

“Paisley is a classic design [and] one I have always loved, but it can be seen as a little conservative,” she explains.

“I think it’s nice to occasionally borrow a little from the past – a classic is a classic, after all.

“I wanted to bend the rules a little and present it in my own fun way, with sherbet colours and unexpected patterns. I think a design as popular as paisley will always have a place and I really enjoyed breaking it down and painting it in my style. I think the result has a sweet appeal for young and old.”


Craft and creation come naturally to Dennis, who has been a regular fixture on Australian TV for many years. She explains her love of making and improving home projects, and how her ideas go from a sketch on a page to a broad-ranging product collection.

“I’ve been on BHG now for nine years ... it’s a fabulous team and I feel very much part of the family ... it’s a very dynamic thing to be a part of. I was over at Channel 9 for eight years prior, again on many ... home shows. You could say I’m pretty happy to be on a ladder painting walls!”

Dennis’ innovative yet attainable DIY home solutions have made her a viewer favourite. Unsurprisingly, the passion depicted on the screen is innate for Dennis, and her enthusiasm genuine.

“I have always loved to create. I was pretty shy as a child and craft was my happy place,” she says.

“My parents always encouraged me to create and were completely OK with me decorating my room from a young age.

“Together they were always renovating (in fact, they still are!) so I feel much of what I know came from growing up in that environment. My daughter says she now finds the smell of paint comforting! Maybe it’s genetic, or perhaps I’ve passed the renovating bug along.”


As BHG devotees will know, Dennis has the ability to create stunning projects – from artwork to storage solutions and everything in between – in a seemingly effortless way. The organic process of having a simple idea and then taking steps to bring it to life is utilised, too, when she develops her homeware products.

“The pre-design stage is quite a subliminal thing for me. Early on I usually know the ‘feel’ of what I want, rather than the ‘what’. I spend quite a lot of time gathering ideas – some [are] in my head, some are more tactile elements, which I’ll group and photograph.

“I spend time sketching with textas and coloured pencils until I establish a direction and once I’m happy, I’ll start painting. I use watercolour and gouache and can often achieve a design outline in one day. I’ll then rework it until I feel it suits.

“In some cases my first design is the best, so I am conscious to always paint on decent-quality paper, just in case I want to go back to the first design. I then go on to develop the range with the team at Albi, considering the look and feel and how the designs can be applied to different pieces ... it’s a fun process.

“Throughout my collections, I always incorporate my signature blue, it’s my favourite colour.

I am also mad about anything to do with the water so [for the latest collection] I initially painted little abstract fish. They reminded me of a paisley pattern, so curiously, it evolved from there. The pops of pastels really bring it alive and make it feel fresh and summery.”


Dennis says an intensified interest in at-home entertaining over the past few years has seen a resurgence in the indulgence of high tea, and that this relaxed, communal trend is set to continue.

“I love the intimacy of entertaining at home and don’t mind going to a little trouble to create a sense of occasion,” she says.

“[In the past few years] there has been a real focus on entertaining at home, so much so that it has actually changed the way we design our homes in Australia. We are planning our homes to include outdoor entertaining areas [that are] easily accessible from the main living areas.

“I was pretty shy as a child and craft was my happy place.”

“Our kitchens are becoming more open-plan and are being built to accommodate butler’s pantries to hide the mess away from guests, [and we’re seeing] island benches for informal gatherings and dining tables within the main living spaces, rather than having a formal dining room. I love this look; it just makes more sense than having an underused formal ‘room to dine’.”


As a high tea enthusiast with a strong creative streak, Dennis has plenty of tips for the perfect high tea, and putting a personal spin on the occasion so it reflects who you are.

“Atmosphere, good food and good company [make a good high tea]. Set the scene and go to a little trouble to make it super special,” she advises.

“Personalise the occasion with some special cups and plates and reserve them especially for a little pampering for you and your friends. Tea served from a lovely thin cup and cakes from a delicate plate somehow taste better than when served on everyday ware.”

To get it right, you need to nail the basics: the food, the décor, and the atmosphere. The beauty of high tea is that while it’s a rather traditional activity, there is plenty of scope for you to put your unique stamp on proceedings.

“A cake stand sets the scene,” says Dennis, “it adds height and elegance to a table and when stacked high with mouth-watering treats, who wouldn’t get excited?

“Use good cups and saucers or dainty mugs, and make sure the water is boiling for a good [quality] cup of tea.

“Handwritten place cards and even a [handwritten] menu can be lovely and welcoming. The cards can be simple but with elegant handwriting, they’ll look extravagant. I use a cheap calligraphy nib and black ink from the craft shop to do mine.

“[Additionally], fresh flowers are a must. You needn’t spend a fortune; keep the arrangements small and sweet. To extend your dollar further, bulk out some vases with some fresh greenery from your garden or buy some extra from the florist. Dig in your cupboards to find alternatives to a traditional vase. Flowers in a teapot can look fabulous; while little jam jars make a beautiful display, clustered along the table.”


With plenty of projects on the go and a love of the home that shows no signs of waning, there are exciting things on the horizon for Dennis.

“Go to a little trouble to make it super special.”

“I feel like I’m only just starting! I’m becoming so much more comfortable in my skin these days and [understanding] my true style. I find it’s one of those ‘good’ things that comes with age!

“As well as being a super-busy mum to my two beautiful kids, my hubby and I continue to renovate houses, [and] I’ll also continue working in TV as long as I can.

“I’m teaching more than ever and am hoping to participate as a student in classes as I have a real thirst for learning. I’m spending more time in my studio painting, which I adore, and am developing fresh, new designs for my homewares brand.

“I’m really happy and it’s all coming together nicely, so watch this space!”



Read 212708 times Last modified on Thursday, 25 June 2015 03:11