A Warrandyte couple uncover unique gifts within people and places.

The veranda doors swung open and the sound of scrambling paws filled the room. Two furry golden balls of fury romped inside to see who was taking their masters’ time.

The two Labradoodles, Erik and Chewie, were formally introduced. Chewie has been part of the family since puppyhood and Erik was a rescue, a little like the home that Jay Smith and his wife Valérie Thinnes occupy on a leafy hill in Warrandyte. “We are rescuers really,” said Jay as we sat in the living room of their cedar home, “we rejuvenate buildings.”

It’s not only buildings and dogs they rescue, it seems. The couple has a habit of finding gifts in all of us, whether it is the beauty within or a latent musical talent. Jay and Valérie run their respective businesses from home. Valérie is an award-winning hairdresser and Jay is an educator in music. At one time both partners had client lists that read like British rock royalty.

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During the 1990s Valérie ran London’s most prestigious hairdressing salon, Metropolis. Her clients included wives of rock royalty and the rockers themselves, such as Roger Waters. For now Valérie prefers to focus on individual clients in the comfort of The French Room, her home-based salon. “I only do one client at a time now,” said Valérie. “Coming from a large salon in London where you have several people doing your hair, it wasn’t very personal.”

Valérie was born in the mining community of Sainte-Marie-aux-Chênes in the northwest of France but at 17 was lured to the UK by a boyfriend who was a hairdresser. “Hairdressing was always my thing. I used to play with those dolls, the ones with just the head and hair. I had six of them all around the house and I would do their hair and their make-up.”

Her boyfriend’s boss saw potential in Valérie and offered her an apprenticeship. Within two months she was helping with photo shoots for Marie Claire magazine, working alongside world-class hairdressers and make-up artists. Today, clients from far afield make their way to Warrandyte for the pleasure of her expertise and French charm. “I have one regular client who drives from Clunes. Every 10 weeks, she has her hair cut, has a cup of tea and her lunch in the foyer then drives home again.”

Husband Jay is Beaumaris born and bred and has a passion for playing and sharing his love of guitars. After graduating from Box Hill TAFE with qualifications in jazz, popular and contemporary music, the TAFE asked him back to lecture. He was just 20.

After a while Jay decided to take an artistic and musical pilgrimage to London, New York and Los Angeles. When he returned he decided it was time to experience more of the world outside Beaumaris. “I bought a one-way ticket to London, slung my guitar over my shoulder, packed a backpack and I was gone.” He worked as a music adviser in business and education in Europe with clients ranging from Dave Gilmore of Pink Floyd to Madonna and her then husband Guy Ritchie.

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“I remember sitting in the foyer of Madonna’s house in Mayfair and looking at her walls. There was an original Gauguin and just below it a small Rodin sculpture. That’s when I had a Wizard of Oz moment – ‘you’re not in Kansas anymore Toto!’ Ten years went by in the blink of an eye. I had a blast. It was just one big summer for me.”

It was during this decade-long summer that Jay met Valérie at a concert. “Jay used to call me on the phone and I hadn’t really met any Australians before and I couldn’t understand him,” said Valérie. “I said, ‘look, I really like you but I just don’t know what you’re saying so can you text me instead!’ And that was that.”

It was about this time that London’s idyllic summer began turning rather cold. “I was due for a meeting at a friend’s studio in central London just around the corner from Edgware Rd Underground Station on July 7, 2005, at 9am when the first bomb went off. Valérie was sick and I had to take her to work so I was running about an hour late, by the time I got to Surbiton Station to head into town news was coming in of the bombings and all the services came to an immediate stop. It was a horrific day,” said Jay.

London’s dreadful period of bombing made the couple think about moving elsewhere. “It was also London itself,” added Valérie. “We were always late to things or missing out on concerts because the traffic was so bad or the trains would run into trouble. We had thought of moving to the country but in the end we moved to the other side of the world.”

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Jay and Valérie fell in love with the Yarra Ranges straight away. “We looked everywhere in the area,” said Valérie. “But Warrandyte was the closest version of home in my opinion. The drive from here to Healesville is so much like my home in France. The first time I brought my mum here she said exactly the same thing. She said ‘oh it’s just like driving to your grandmother’s house!’ For me it was obvious. The river, the bush, the kangaroos. I loved it.”

The couple also fell in love with a little old house on the side of a hill. The run-down cedar house has quite a history in Warrandyte with the original owners, a couple called the Saligaris, running a form of after-school club for the local kids. “The Saligaris were childless but they did have the first television in the village,” said Jay. “Locals have told us stories of how they would play next to the fireplace as a child or help Mrs Saligari in the kitchen. They were so grateful we weren’t going to demolish a part of their childhood.”

Jay and Valérie did a total refurbishment on the home but were always mindful of keeping the character. “Even though the house was left almost derelict you could tell it was very loved at one time,” said Valérie. “It seemed every time we pulled away a layer in the house there was evidence of great craftsmanship.” It is something that comes naturally to Jay and Valérie. They go searching for the gift that lies within, whether it be under a worn carpet in an old house or the shaggy coat of a neglected dog.

The French Room with Valérie Thinnes: 0449 286 270
Warrandyte Guitar Studio with Jay Smith: 0420 530 156