House of the week: St Heliers art filled home gallery

JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER JANE USSHER

Debra choose the Patricia Urquiola-designed Kettal Maia outdoor chairs from Studio Italia for their timeless style and durability.

One of Debra’s favourite pieces, Rahui Kiri Rd by Star Gossage, hangs at left in the gallery, along with Robert’s favourite, which he calls “his boys”, by Matakana artist Mike Petre.

The dining room table was handmade by Will Van Den Berg from Mckean Carnell & Associates.

Debra stands in front of another favourite piece, Female Huia by Fiona Pardington.

Idiya by Cathy Carter hangs next to the scullery and looks spectacular at night, says Debra; the scullery is where all the food preparation is done and the island is used for entertaining.

Closer by Megan Jenkinson.

A photograph by Roberta Thornley sits on the kitchen bench.

The tiles in the scullery were chosen because Debra liked their earthiness.

Debra says one of the home’s most commented on features is the window splashback: “It’s something people are attracted to.”

Swallows Circle of Life by Pacific artist Lonnie Hutchinson sits above the couch in the lounge area.

The upstairs guest bathroom is simple and spacious, says Debra.

Atmosphere by Ray Haydon hangs above the fireplace; the Gardiens bought it at his first exhibition; the chairs are from ECC.

The walls of the media room are covered with concrete-look wallpaper; visitors always want to touch it, says Debra.

Robert loves the King Cloud sofa from King Living; each of the seats can recline.

Above the bed in the master bedroom is Eclipse, a photograph by Australian artist Martine Emdur.

It took seven men to lift each of the two slabs of concrete for the powder room bench; Debra says that, although it was the simplest room in the house, it took the most work.

The gallery is a space Debra loves – it’s warm and full of light and connects the lounge and master bedroom, but can be closed off by large sliding doors.

The slats on the outside of the upper storey give the house complete privacy, but allow for a clear view out from the inside.

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Debra and Robert Gardien have a room people don't want to leave. It's not the kitchen or the living room. It's not even their media room, with its reclining armchairs. It's the bathroom.

The powder room's wall of glass, which is without blinds, screens or any other concessions to privacy, is the first surprise. But the second is what makes people want to linger: it's the lush bush and frequent fly-bys from wood pigeons, tui or fantails that  can be viewed through the glass. It's not what you'd expect from a house surrounded by neighbours in the middle of Auckland's St Heliers. But then no one has devoted as much time and attention as Debra to making the powder room one of the best rooms in her home.

The logic behind this is simple. "It's the most used room in the house," says Debra. So, intent on leaving a lasting impression on those who use the room, she set out to impress. "In its purity, it's just a toilet, but its essence is something totally different; it appears to be floating among the trees."

It took seven men to lift each of the two slabs of concrete for the powder room bench; Debra says that, although it was ...
JANE USSHER

It took seven men to lift each of the two slabs of concrete for the powder room bench; Debra says that, although it was the simplest room in the house, it took the most work.

Sitting there, or anywhere in the house, it's hard to believe you're on a 600sqm plot of land, with only 370sqm of usable building space. "We're totally private, we don't hear anything or anyone. We love it," says Debra.

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The land sat on the market for a few years before catching the eye of the Gardiens. Other house-hunters were unable to see the potential in the steep slope covered in grass and bush but, to the Gardiens (Robert is in the construction industry and Debra is an interior designer), this project almost seemed too easy. Their last house had a major complication – a 200-year-old protected kohekohe tree sitting comfortably in the middle of the property – so this one seemed a breeze.

The size of the property wasn't an issue: small houses are their forte. "We've always had a passion for them." It's all about being smart about using the space you have and creating well-thought-out areas that have multiple uses, says Debra.  

Their dining area is an example of this. To Debra's dismay, there was no space outside for an outdoor dining area. The solution was to create an outdoor dining feeling inside, and the floor to ceiling glass sliding doors were the key. "The doors slide back and you feel as if you're sitting outside. It creates a continuation of inside and out, because the ceiling is on the same plane and that makes the whole space feel larger," says Robert. 

Debra stands in front of another favourite piece, Female Huia by Fiona Pardington.
JANE USSHER

Debra stands in front of another favourite piece, Female Huia by Fiona Pardington.

The Gardiens believe good design is all about function. Their home is effectively open-plan, but they've installed sliding doors inside to close off some areas, one of which is the master bedroom, so those spaces can change to suit each situation. 

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Their St Heliers house is half the size of their previous home, but has twice as many walls, which is convenient because the Gardiens are art lovers. "Art is one of the only avenues left to truly express yourself," says Debra. "It's not going to change global warming, but it keeps people happy and I see that happiness." Her advice? "Start small, experiment and be brave; find a gallery that will encourage you." 

There's barely a wall in the house that's not adorned with art and, although Debra says she's not a serious collector, it's clear she has a serious passion. She never actively looks, she says, but when a work catches her eye, it's hers.  

Idiya by Cathy Carter hangs next to the scullery and looks spectacular at night, says Debra; the scullery is where all ...
JANE USSHER

Idiya by Cathy Carter hangs next to the scullery and looks spectacular at night, says Debra; the scullery is where all the food preparation is done and the island is used for entertaining.

When friends pop in, they often ask: "What's new, Debs?" Some of their pieces had to be sold or given away when they moved, as they just didn't work in the new house. One of note was Grumpy Old Git, a family favourite. "It's a progression of drawings of this old man – everyone knows someone who looks like him. But the proportions weren't right for this house and a dear friend was desperate for him, so he hasn't entirely left us."

Debra says they're not the type of people who decorate a house in a way that shouts for attention – they are more the "strong and silent type. We're a lot more grassroots than we appear," she says. "I grew up in Otara and Rob in Mangere." 

After surviving Hodgkin's lymphoma 20 years ago, Debra found herself thinking about "stuff" and its importance, or lack of importance, in life. 

A photograph by Roberta Thornley sits on the kitchen bench.
JANE USSHER

A photograph by Roberta Thornley sits on the kitchen bench.

"I'm constantly asking my clients to downplay things. You can enjoy bubbling water and an entirely lit-up garden at a resort – a home shouldn't make your guests feel intimidated." 

That said, she does not underestimate the value of a lovely home and its role in making the lives of those who live there happier. In Robert and Debra's case, that means a warm and welcoming house that works best when it's filled with family and friends for celebrations and get-togethers. 

Q&A:

The dining room table was handmade by Will Van Den Berg from Mckean Carnell & Associates.
JANE USSHER

The dining room table was handmade by Will Van Den Berg from Mckean Carnell & Associates.

One thing I've learned: Perfection simply does not exist. Not everything is going to go to plan and you will be tested many times, but do try to enjoy the process. (Debra)

Best seat in the house:  Hands down, the movie room. (Robert)

Favourite way to entertain: At our beach house in Whangamata. (Debra)

The slats on the outside of the upper storey give the house complete privacy, but allow for a clear view out from the inside.
JANE USSHER

The slats on the outside of the upper storey give the house complete privacy, but allow for a clear view out from the inside.

When I entertain: I like to be organised so I enjoy myself at my own parties. We recently had 40 for a casual get-together. My steak sandwiches are a winner – finely sliced eye fillet steak, caramelised onions, tomato chutney and aioli, add some rocket and sandwich between lightly toasted ciabatta bread. (Debra)

We built this home: As a "lock and leave", requiring very little from us, so we can find some time to do extended lengths of time seeing the world. (Robert)

Best local spot for coffee: The Store on Kohi in Averill Avenue. (Debra)

Debra and Robert Gardien 

 - NZ House & Garden

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