Perfectionist's eye for Italian style





ISABELLA Tomada was first and foremost an artist. As owner and operator of the gallery-like interiors shop Alta Vita in Hawthorn, she built up a wide network of valued clients.

Obsessive attention to detail and perfection, and her frankness, were her trademarks. She would often travel far even interstate to see her furniture was installed correctly. Over more than three decades, Alta Vita (The High Life) in Glenferrie Road attracted those seeking the best of Italian design in home wares and furniture, along with Tomada's talent to craft the best use of space in ways they wanted to live.

Opening her business in 1977, Tomada, who has died of cancer at home in Kew, aged 73, was ahead of her time.

She matriculated at the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy, where she was the only year 12 art student under Sister Bernadine. She felt keenly about what she saw as an injustice that Sister Bernadine's paintings at the Mercy convent collection were all unsigned, to comply with convent rules.

Rejecting the professions of teaching or nursing the limited choice for most female tertiary students of her era Tomada began work at the Bank of New South Wales in Collins Street. There she eventually became dividend clerk in the nominees section, a position reserved for male clerks. She was paid a much lower salary, even when she was doing work usually restricted to male employees something females in the finance sector were expected to put up with at the time. But when she was asked to train a young male colleague to take over her job, she sensed acute unfairness.

Tomada approached her union and her case was taken up by the union's solicitor, John Button, who later became an ALP senator and senior party figure. At the eleventh hour the bank settled, and in 1968 Tomada became one of the first Australian female bank officers to receive a salary akin to a male at her level. Equal pay in the Australian finance industry was still some years off. As a woman of her time, Tomada broke many barriers.

Born in Melbourne to immigrant Italian fruit shop owners, Rita and Giuseppe, she knew the importance of hard work and entrepreneurial savvy. But her father's death in 1960 made more acute the family's financial restrictions as she helped her mother take over the family business in Abbotsford. They had earlier moved from Collingwood. The female-led Tomada family kept their business, but only with the backing of the Bank of NSW, where she had a solid reputation.

In banking, Tomada gained vast experience in finance across stocks and shares, travel, exports and imports, which she would use later in her business development. As her life's course unfolded, Tomada often acknowledged all the experience she had gained across many different areas from home and migrant years through finance and beyond.

But her real love was art and design. In 1967, she began an interior design course part-time at RMIT and completed her studies in six years, showing meticulous attention to every assignment. She rewrote her lecture and tutorial notes as a way of gaining mastery of her subject making her adept at supervisory work with trades people from the outset. She also left the bank to work in design at Kempthorne Lighting and Myer.

After she graduated, Tomada secured a job with the NK Design Group in Stockholm to gain international experience. Before arriving in Sweden she toured Britain, France and Italy under the guidance of designer Jo Bradley. In Stockholm, ironically, she accepted a lower salary to gain wider experience.

Later, she took a position with an architect for a year in Palermo, where her love of all things Italian came to the fore. She learnt how to cope alone the Italian way in design. She made frequent visits to Milan and Brianza and established many contacts in the furniture industry. When Tomada opened Alta Vita, many wondered what she had created was it a gallery or a shop? Could one actually buy these beautiful Italian items Venetian glass, pewter, china, crystal, Schiffini designs and more? One architect who came by commented, "It's all very good, but I'll give you eight weeks." Alta Vita now occupies a building designed and built by Tomada.

In the last few years of her life she was treated for cancer. Only family members knew the ill health she faced. She worked on until a few months before her death.

Her character was marked by strong loyalty to her family. With clients and tradespeople it was a similar pattern collective responsibility and trust although her determination for perfection could often temporarily strain a friendship.

Tomada, who never married, is survived by her sisters Mirella and Anna-Maria, nephew Giuseppe and nieces Catriona and Margherita.

Anne Henderson has been a close friend of the Tomada family since the 1960s.

Related Articles