Decorating with white: A designer's clever Wellington renovation video

Monique Ford/

“It was all oiled wood, all lovingly restored – but to me it was very brown and dark.’’ So out came the paintbrush and the skirtings and architraves disappeared under Resene ‘Bianca’.

It is not often a bad back can have a positive side, but in Bridget Foley's case, perhaps it did. Her glamorous yet family-friendly Karori villa is testament to her skill as an interior designer – a role she took up after her nursing career was cut short by a back injury. 

In hindsight, the two occupations aren't completely poles apart, she says. "I know a few nurses who have ended up in interior design: it may be because both jobs are people-focused. You have to be able to read people well, especially if you are in their personal space." 

Bridget had always been fascinated by design, poring over interiors magazines as a child and redecorating her own bedroom in full-blown Laura Ashley florals. But as a school leaver in New Zealand, she didn't see it as a career option: to her, interior design seemed like something glamorous that only happened overseas.

Jane Ussher Jane Ussher JANE USSHER/ NZ HOUSE & GARDEN Jane Ussher JANE USSHER/ NZ HOUSE & GARDEN Jane Ussher Jane Ussher Jane Ussher Jane Ussher Jane Ussher

Looking from the kitchen, with its Kartell Ghost bar stools, through to the original sitting room; Bridget’s collection of Crown Lynn, Wedgwood and Shorter & Son white ceramics stand out on shelving painted a double-strength shade of Resene’s dark grey ‘Tuna’.

Bridget in her kitchen, the lamp is from Freedom.

Bridget ensured the new open-plan area blended with the old part of the house by matching the window joinery and deliberately ageing the floorboards.

The sitting room mixes classic and contemporary, with a Stephane Rondel metal side table next to a traditional armchair in purple velvet, an antique French armoire and acrylic Kartell stools by the fireplace.

Bridget and her daughter Clara in the sitting room. The rabbit portrait is by local artist Joanna Braithwaite.

Bridget in her home office with Clara.

An antique chair re-covered in a Pierre Frey teacups fabric.

The playroom in the front of the house features an antique chandelier and lamps bought at Shanghai Tang in Hong Kong.

The restful master bedroom has a grey silk velvet headboard designed by Bridget.

The return verandah at the front of the house was one of the features that first attracted Bridget.

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But, with her nursing career at a standstill, she returned to her first love, enrolling in a four-year Diploma of Interior Architecture at CIT in Upper Hutt. Her plans were again cut short when her then husband was transferred to London in her final year. But this was where her career really took off: she was accepted into the Inchbald School of Design in 1994, a prestigious course whose high-profile alumni include Nina Campbell and Kelly Hoppen. 

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Bridget Foley's new light-filled, open-plan kitchen/living area opens her Wellington villa up to the garden.

Bridget Foley's new light-filled, open-plan kitchen/living area opens her Wellington villa up to the garden.

"I had a fantastic year," she says. "The course was all about getting the bones right first: they believe you must learn the classics first to get the scale and balance right before you can do anything modern." 

On graduation Bridget was snapped up by a company designing five-star hotels around the world and ended up as head of their residential department, working on high-end houses where budgets and flying designers overseas to source antiques and art were not an issue. She later went on to work for another company focusing on contemporary residential design.

But, when she returned to New Zealand in 2002, with a young family, life needed to take on a different pace. (Lily is now 16, Rosie 11 and Clara three and a half.) Within a few years, Bridget was house-hunting in Karori, where her daughters were happily settled, and fortune smiled on her. A home she had often admired came on the market. "I used to live nearby and always thought this house [which is elevated from the street with a wide return verandah] looked gorgeous. It was originally divided into two flats and I noticed it was being renovated back into one house."  

She knew it had highly desirable features: high ceilings, a wide entrance hallway and ornate carved archways. But she also knew there were things she would change immediately.  

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"It was all oiled wood, all lovingly restored – but to me it was very brown and dark." So out came the paintbrush and the skirtings and architraves disappeared under Resene 'Bianca'. 

"I feel a bit guilty about it… I ripped up the (beige) carpet too and painted the floor white."  

Chunky brass light fittings were replaced with Kartell shades and her own mix of classic and contemporary furniture, art and objects (including a substantial collection of white ceramics: Crown Lynn, Wedgwood and more), helped transform the house.

Lack of budget and time meant the "tiny and gloomy" kitchen and laundry at the rear of the house was left alone for several years. But, with a new baby on the way, there was an urgent need for more functional spaces.  

Bridget designed the sparkling rear kitchen/dining/living extension herself, reorienting the kitchen and extending out into the garden. She also added a fourth bedroom and enlarged the family bathroom. It was completed in 2014. "We lived in the house while renovating. It was fun, like camping, and the builders were gorgeous; they made it really easy." 

She had the window joinery copied exactly, so the new spaces flow seamlessly from the old part of the house, and even insisted the builders leave the nail holes showing in the new floorboards and create gaps in the boards so they matched those in the rest of the 1907 house. "They thought that was hilarious."

In this light-filled extension, with its soaring ceiling and perfect proportions, there is evidence of the way Bridget juggles work and family. A small child's easel and desk sit at the end of the pristine marble bench and Bridget's home office, full of tempting fabric swatches and more, is tucked neatly off the sitting room, allowing for family-friendly hours. 

"I love this room," she says, looking around the open-plan living space, with its French doors opening to the garden and a huge light well above the bench. "We all seem to gravitate here." Her designer's eye relishes the nifty hidden power points and the wall of panelled, handle-free cupboards. "I was determined to have the doors hand-painted – so much better than spray-painted." 

For the rest of us, though, the room simply has the elusive feel-good factor.

For more of Bridget's work, see


Best money spent: Making the kitchen/living space larger and adding large windows, French doors and a skylight. There used to be five of us and a large Labrador squashed into a tiny kitchen. Once we added a few of the children's friends, it was chaos!

A tip for other homeowners: Get the bones right – space planning is key – followed by a good lighting plan with dimmers on every light.

Best moments in the kitchen: When my friends and family are over with their children and the doors are all open into the garden and the children run in and out.

A quote I often use: "Life is short" (sadly brought home to me when my gorgeous father died suddenly aged 52). Also Jackie Kennedy said, "If you bungle raising your children, whatever else you do well doesn't matter very much." I have this pinned to my office wall, with photos of my children. It reminds me why I work!

Happiest day in this house: Bringing Clara home as a newborn and waiting for her sisters to arrive home to see her. 

Favourite local restaurant: I tend to spend a lot of time at Floriditas in Cuba Street as it is near the Wellington Design Library and Designmade, where I am constantly sourcing fabrics. 

 - NZ House & Garden

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