House of the week: Wellington mid-century gem
A good project. That's what interior designer Nicole van Ruler thought when she first saw the house she now owns. As someone keenly interested in architectural history, she also saw a legacy worth honouring. The two-storey house, built in 1964 on Marine Parade, was a rare thing for Eastbourne, a Wellington suburb that's more obviously marked by the 1970s.
"I have a real affinity with mid-century houses and this one had good bones," says Nicole, who runs her interior design business from home (nicolevanruler.com). "You could see that it hadn't been mucked around with, and that it had a lot of the original features, the brick fireplace and the built-in furniture. It was 'true'."
When the house came on the market five years ago, the expat "Dutchie", her Kiwi partner Andrew Tokeley and their two children Daan and Luka were living in a house in the Eastbourne hills. They enjoyed it, but they needed more family space.
Despite what Nicole says about those great bones, they've made some significant changes. When they arrived, there was a small kitchen tucked away at the back. They've since built a much larger kitchen where the dining room used to be, and knocked out a wall to link it to a new dining area. They created a floating deck on the street side, a tranquil courtyard garden with outdoor dining at the rear, and the garage was relocated to open up a view to a harbourside reserve across the road.
Nicole reckons the new kitchen, which is now very much the house's hub, has been particularly successful. "To make a bigger gesture of it was one of our better moves, I think."
While the house was being made over, she was also on the trail of its architect. Edward Percival wasn't one of the great names of mid-century architecture in Wellington – in fact his moniker doesn't even appear on the plans. But through a previous owner Nicole learned that Percival had been commissioned by the owners of the neighbouring property to design the house for their son and his family.
The sleuthing was familiar territory for Nicole, who studied architectural history as part of her Bachelor of Interior Design after moving to Wellington in 1998. She and Andrew had met, of all places, on a kibbutz in Israel when she was 19 and he was 26. They lived together in Holland before Nicole agreed to give New Zealand a go – with the caveat that they had to live within striking distance of an international airport.
It wasn't easy. Wellington at the time struck the girl from Utrecht as isolated and dull. "Oh, it was dead. It has changed so much in the past 15 years; it's so much more vibrant."
Going back to school helped ease the transition. Nicole researched a group of Dutch architects who began working in New Zealand in the 1960s. She wrote a piece for Julia Gatley's New Zealand architectural book Long Live the Modern, and later began doing legwork for Wellington-based conservation architect Ian Bowman.
Given that background, naturally she wanted to find out everything she could about the architect who designed her own house. Eventually, she tracked Teddy Percival to the Wairarapa. "He was very elderly, but he remembered the location and the original owners, who had quite a few kids – that's why there are five bedrooms upstairs. He was going to come out on the train, but he was unwell and we lost touch."
Percival may not have been renowned, but he designed a house with the best hallmarks of mid-century style. Nicole highlights the clarity of the spaces, and the way that light just floods the place. "I do property styling and I often find that homes aren't light at all. This is a lovely house to live in."
In remodelling the interiors, she's played to those strengths, painting all of the walls Resene 'Alabaster' ("For any interior, you start with white walls, in my opinion, for a neutral backdrop"), stripping back doors to their original timbers, pulling up carpets, and staining the exterior weatherboards black. In the same vein, the furniture she's chosen includes a handful of period pieces, such as a pair of 1967 leather-armed Børge Mogensen chairs.
Yet she's also felt free to indulge her love of colour and pattern. The windows between the kitchen and the courtyard, for instance, are dressed with sunflower yellow drapes, and there are bright bursts of artwork and furnishings deployed throughout the house.
There is a balancing act to good interior design. "It's important to respond to the house and its surroundings, but also to the people who are living in it," says Nicole, who reckons that even if she owned a Victorian home she'd still introduce plenty of colour and pattern, simply because those two things make her happy. "The most important thing is that you fill your house with the things you love."
Best decorating tip: Start with white walls and furnish with things you love. Less is more, apart from family photos. (Nicole)
Best budget tip: Find good tradespeople through word of mouth. Our local builder Willie Davis (and his crew) saved us money through his knowledge of materials. He also has an eye for detail, which is key in achieving a great result. (Nicole)
Renovation high point: As soon as we bought the house we imagined it stained black. After four years of renovating everything else, we finally did it and couldn't be happier with how it looks. (Andrew)
Favourite local shop: The village has a good butcher and fruit shop, several cafes and a great library. A must-try is the custard slice from Eastbourne Deli on the weekend and live music and pizza on Sunday night at Days Bay Pavilion. (Nicole)
I love this part of New Zealand because: Within a few minutes of home I can be surrounded by native bush, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of city life. I love not having to choose one over the other. (Andrew)
Nicole van Ruler and Andrew Tokeley
- NZ House & Garden