At the foot of the hills

An interior designer's home at the foot of Cashmere Hill is a tribute to her rich life of art, song and dance.

A life story Photos Joseph Johnson

When a life is one of stylistic artistry, it is no surprise this translates into the home.

Until nine months ago, Vivienne James lived with a large menagerie of rescued animals on a lifestyle farm in Geraldine. A change of circumstances meant leaving all that behind, but the move has opened doors on another creative phase of her life.

Slender and elegant, and every bit the former ballerina and musical theatre performer, Vivienne is a semi-retired interior designer whose home tells many tales: of international adventures, of talented friends on a shared artistic course, and of how to improvise when shakes and quakes necessitate change.

Vivienne's former life, the places it took her and her experiences along the way, have all left their footprints.

"I joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet at 15," she says. "Poul Gnatt, who was the head of the ballet, looked at me and said, 'You are a dancer, but you cannot dance! I will turn you into a dancer'."

Vivienne's career with the company was brought to an abrupt end after 18 months. "We went on tour with it and my appendix burst on stage one day in a great big drama. I was raced off to hospital with Poul saying, 'There's nothing the matter with her'."

After a stint with another ballet group, Vivienne joined the company of Australian theatre impresario J C Williamson and toured Australia, New Zealand and South Africa with various productions. "It taught me to sing, dance and act. It was a wonderful company to be in - the highlight of my life."

Between shows, Vivienne travelled with a group of dancers on a rust-bucket cruise back to England to seek work with the Sadler's Wells Theatre, with a stopover in Singapore for ship repairs.

"They put us up at Raffles Hotel and we had a wonderful time, doing Change Alley and Bugis St - all the things you used to do in those days."

Sadler's Wells didn't work out, but instead Vivienne won a contract to dance at the famous Casino de Paris, the home ground for such stars as Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn and Maurice Chevalier.

Back home in New Zealand, her various careers included owning Auckland restaurant La Cucina, dressing television presenters such as Angela d'Audney, Richard Long and Judy Bailey, and running an interiors showroom. Her experience there, developing products with architects and designers, led to her present work.

Vivienne's guiding principle is that a home should reflect a person's character, and hers certainly does. Paintings by friends share space with favourite pieces collected when travelling with her former husband, an airline pilot. Bushy plants in ceramic jardinieres enliven the house's pale-grey interior, natural elements add graphic interest, and Asian furniture and antiques complement arresting props from former design jobs.

Vivienne's move from the country prompted the search for a house and this two-storeyed townhouse at the foot of the Port Hills was the answer; she could transplant her life directly, without even having to change the drapes.

Inevitably, as the weeks have gone by, she has changed certain areas. What was the garage is now her office (the car is parked outside under an awning).

"I just put in some French doors and turned it into a studio." Carpet tiles cover the floor, there's room for a desk and chair, and floor-to-ceiling Chinese shelves store files and design tools.

Vivienne brings a theatrical touch to her design projects, but the results are subtle and comfortable, rather than contrived, and most pieces are personal.

Artist friend Philip Markham made the gilded angel beside a large Tibetan Buddhist thangka in the entrance, and also drew the tiger in the capacious downstairs bathroom. ("I love art in bathrooms.") The framed drawing in the stairwell reminds Vivienne of where she once lived in Paris and multiple faces in another picture were from a section of paper tablecloth illustrated by a La Cucina patron.

The lounge combines warm neutrals with striking highlights. Beneath one uplight (a downlight reversed by Vivienne for softer effect) a black and silver sari arranged into a dress shape hangs from a carved Chinese frame. On a facing wall, a sculptural breastplate in a deep silver frame draws the eye.

Touches of humour crossed with innovation transform this plaster-ceilinged 1970s house. "I did try to get rid of the stalactites on the ceiling, but my hammer wouldn't chip them off."

A slab of marble sitting on carved-stone garden plinths has replaced the coffee table, which was smashed in an earthquake. The occasional table beside a bentwood chair covered in a velvet damask was formerly a laundry basket. And in a walled section of back garden, where the rubbish bins are secreted, a monumental stone cross stands in solemn, dramatic silence.

What was probably called a kitchenette when this house was designed works perfectly as kitchen-dining area, with windows all round for well-lit food preparation. Dutch copper pans hang on the wall and the glass-topped dining table and white steel-framed chairs give the illusion of space and light.

Upstairs, the two bedrooms have distinctive moods. Serenity reigns in the main bedroom, with its soft taupe walls, provincial wooden furniture and platform bed upholstered in purple faux-suede. There are framed photos of Vivienne as a young ballerina and two finely stitched needlepoint silhouettes. ("My great-grandmother was a needlewoman to Queen Victoria.")

Dashes of colour brighten the adjacent guest room, with Moroccan slippers as wall art, a drawing of Vivienne's My Fair Lady costume, and a sextet of tiny framed paintings bought in Mexico.

Vivienne's home and the houses she decorates for clients resonate with the international influences she carries within.

"I don't like going into a house that looks as though an interior designer's done it. I think it's got to look like the person and their personality, and it's got to tell their life story," she says. "There are things here from my trips all over the world. It's all a mad, eclectic hotch-potch of things. Everything here means something to me."