Home and Garden
Jenny and Steve Schmidt's Marlborough Sounds home has no secrets to keep, but is full of hidden surprises.
The "tree house" on a steep, bush-clad section of Fence Bay, was designed for its welcoming spaces, wrapped in the exposed structure of a pole-framed house.
"The whole thing about interior design is the house should look like the people. It should feel good and make you smile when you walk in," says Steve, who designed and built the lovely home. "It shouldn't be too precious. You have to want to live in it."
He recalls an uncle's house that was the polar opposite, hiding everything away. "It was absolutely immaculate and he was the perfect host, but we never got to know him. His house never showed any personality."
Visitors see this home's personality on approach, looking up through soaring ponga trees to a redwood-clad "tilted box" leaning against the hill.
Swinging open the front door is a surprise, with Jenny's knitted "house guardian" slouched on a chair and artworks lining a foyer that opens to a wide, two-storey room, broken only by an elegant staircase that swoops in a wide spiral to the second floor, stepped back against the hill.
There a kitchen, gleaming in matai, surrounds a tighter spiral staircase to the third-floor office, where Steve works on his designs.
On the other side of the home another set of stairs accesses guest rooms, which are linked to the main living by a hallway on the second floor, and an outdoor courtyard on the third. Each has its own unique identity, with angles and steps that defy conventional design and create lovable, livable spaces.
The couple met at school in Lower Hutt, after Steve's family moved there from Christchurch. In the 60s they took off for London, he working as a "grease monkey", she selling spare parts in the same business (despite cartography training) and tearing around in a E-Type Jaguar.
They took the car to Australia when they moved in 1969, and sold it for a tidy profit to buy a house in Sydney, where Steve studied interior design then created exhibition spaces, kitchens and some furniture, while Jenny made maps and did night courses in baking.
After several years they decided to skip the "rat race" and return to New Zealand, buying their Fence Bay section in 1973, partly for its apparent proximity to Jenny's parents in Lower Hutt. "When you're away you look at New Zealand as a whole, and from Australia the Marlborough Sounds looks quite close," says Steve.
"The idea was to become weavers and potters," laughs Jenny, who undoubtedly has the talent, but none of the time to weave. Likewise there is not a single pot to Steve's name. "I pottered around the house," he laughs.
Fence Bay was named for the fence that climbed a steep border between the Vogel and Gullerie Estates in the middle of last century. The couple picked up the last section on the Vogel Estate for $6000, because it was believed to be too steep for building.
Unconvinced, Steve settled on a pole house, startling the council with the somewhat revolutionary concept, then designed his "tilted box on a hill", with a roofline near parallel to the slope, so heavy winds can wash over it. The poles are exposed inside the home, lending a tree house feel that is enhanced by the wood used throughout, the liberal use of leafy green pot plants, and the natives outside the windows.
Solar panels on the roof also defied convention in the 1970s.
Steve put his own together with what he could find, and they still wear the steel clips used while the glue dried.
Simon Schmidt was just three months old when the Schmidts started to build 35 years ago, living in a boat on the wharf until they could move in.
He has rich memories of hunting for crabs, leaping from staircase on to cushions below, and exploring the bush with his brother and friends. The day I visit he is there with daughter Petra, who has just turned two and strides up and down the steep and slippery track as if it were a flat lawn, then up to the huge covered vegetable and fruit gardens behind the home, to demand the chickens lay an egg.
She's clearly learned the same self-sufficiency her father gained through living here, with plenty of awareness of potential slips and trips.
Despite being off the main drag, this home is a frequent stop-off for friends and family, who know they'll be warmly welcomed by both home and host and, with any luck, by a tray of Jenny's fresh bread.
For those that get their timing right, it could be in time for Steve to light up the pizza oven he built this summer, or to pull down the three-metre screen in front of two lush couches, and set up the 3-D projector. Below, he has created a sleek set of drawers, full to the rim with 3-D glasses and DVDs, ready to entertain.
"It's what we do. You think 'let's go to the movies', but what a hassle."
Jenny watches Coronation Street on the massive screen, surely the envy of other fans.
One frequent guest says a journey over water and up the hill is always rewarded with the warmth and hospitality of both hosts and house.
"Conversations roam unhurried down a myriad of paths, rather like wandering around the house."
In a small building in small Picton, a small business is punching way above its weight.
Jenny and Steve Schmidt have been selling Naiad rigid-hull inflatable boats out of Picton for the past 26 years and, although some people have no idea they are there, Naiad has become a great success story.
It all began with Steve's can-do attitude, when he built his first inflatable boat for diving off the coast of Sydney to find tropical fish for their tanks.
When they moved to Fence Bay and needed a boat to get them back to Picton frequently and fast, he remodelled it for the job, and began making more.
In 1986 they set up their Picton design office and now Naiads are used for the New Zealand Army's SAS, the United States Navy and Marines, Australian Police Tactical Units, Antarctic Research, and as pilot boats all over the world.
They are now the official suppliers of support boats for Oracle Racing, the champion America's Cup team.
- The Marlborough Express