Meet the New Zealand designers carving out their niche in Paris
It's almost two years since a series of terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015, left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. For Roderick Fry, the four attacks were close to home: between 10km and just 500m away from the apartment he shares with his French wife Laurence Varga and their son, Arlo. But the expat Kiwi remains firm in his belief that moving to Paris in 2001 was the right decision.
The 11th arrondissement is a densely populated mix of nationalities, religions and cultures, located on the Right Bank of the River Seine not far from the Bastille. This bohemian area of Paris is a big part of the reason why Fry feels at home here.
"I chat and joke with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics and atheists every day," he wrote in a column for Stuff.co.nz one week after the 2015 attacks, describing how their community coped with the most devastating terrorist attack in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings. "I doubt very much that the killers grew up in such a community [as ours]. Here, we cannot hate the races and religions linked to this massacre because we all have real, intelligent and kind friends who are from the same backgrounds."
TWO YEARS ON
Fry's commitment to the Right Bank is unshaken: "It's true that where we live in the inner east of Paris has experienced more terror attacks than almost any other area of France. But I think we healed the fastest."
The family continues to live happily in the area, with Moaroom, the business Fry runs with his wife, located in the neighbouring 12th arrondissement. Arlo attends the local public school where, "two-thirds of his class speak a second language, but almost no one speaks the same one," Fry says. "I can't think of anything better than having a child grow up in full knowledge that there are a lot of people who are different from them in the world, and... to know when to stand up for their own beliefs."
On a recent trip back to New Zealand, when they learned that he lives in Paris, Fry says nearly everyone asked: "Isn't it worrying, living there with all those attacks?" Although that question isn't without merit, Fry puts it into perspective by pointing out that more people die in New Zealand from traffic accidents and suicide than Parisians from terrorism."
The 11th arrondissement where we live is a mix of established professionals, small independent business owners or new immigrants. It's something that has not happened by accident either – there are a wide variety of publicly owned and managed apartments to ensure that not just someone's salary dictates where they live in the city, making for a solid community and a vibrant mix."
Due to its population of urban creative professionals, this area of the Right Bank is also home to many of the city's most fashionable boutique galleries and shops – the perfect location for Varga and Fry's business which champions incredible New Zealand designers such as David Trubridge and Simon James.
Moaroom was a long time in the making for the couple who previously worked in the corporate world, mainly in China – both are fluent in Mandarin. Fry always had an interest in design but ended up doing a BCom with, "the very vague goal of becoming a respectable and satisfied businessman". He tried to become that person, accepting a contract with Roche Pharmaceuticals in Taiwan, where he met his wife.
Both were based in Shanghai and though they were bringing in "very good money", the couple yearned to do something that made them happy as well as earned them a living: "So we decided to look at launching a New Zealand aesthetic on the European design market."
KIWI DESIGN HITS PARIS
They moved to Paris and in 2004, established Meubles & Objets de Aotearoa, which would quickly evolve into Moaroom, an agency for a handful of New Zealand furniture and homeware designers and architects who they admired and thought were a perfect fit for Europe. "It was quite fortuitous," explains Fry, "as at about exactly the same time David Trubridge was finishing the first prototype of his 'Coral' light – which would turn out to be by far the best-selling New Zealand design piece ever created – we started presenting New Zealand design pieces in European design shows and events at the end of 2004."
A little over a year later they published the Long White Book, showcasing the New Zealand designers and architects that Moaroom was championing in France. "Everyone in the book contributed to its printing costs and immediately we had France's best design journalists taking an interest and a number of high-profile Parisian shops wanting to exhibit the work in their windows.
The Printemps department store combined Trubridge's lights with Stella McCartney and Lanvin dresses and the design shop in the Pompidou Centre devoted one quarter of its display space just to Trubridge," Fry says. Trubridge pieces bought by the Pompidou Centre ranged from 8000-28,000 euro (NZ$12,500-$45,000) for the set. Charles de Gaulle airport also commissioned Moaroom to place lights in its luxury shops.
THE PI SYSTEM
Fry joined his stable of designers with the launch of his first personal design piece in 2009 – an 88cm wide table – in his now expanding Pi range. The system – which can be flat packed and requires no screws, bolts or tools to assemble – is sleek, highly functional and relatively accessibly priced with a six-seater table in French oak at about NZ$3500. The trestle legs that pivot into place once the top is inserted cost about NZ$750 and can be bought separately. The Pi system includes a number of tables, bench and desk tops in mainly French oak produced by French craftsmen.
Fry acknowledges that creating the system – which includes a particularly ingenious desk that requires only one set of legs and a wall to be completely stable – was a long process and at times collaborative, with Trubridge being particularly generous by allowing Fry to show the table on his stand in Milan. Fry and Varga have also created "Autel Particulier" – Private Altar – a series of suspended pendant lights with receptacles for flowers or candles.
Until Moaroom's flagship store opened its door on Rue Emilio Castelar, in the 12th arrondissement, the showroom shared space with the workshop and offices in a stylish ex-mechanic's garage. While this arrangement was ideal as a showcase for architects and potential clients, Fry and Varga relied on a network of design stores to sell to the general public.
Now they have a permanent location in an area of Paris that was, serendipitously, once renowned for being a craft and furniture-making quarter, and regular orders are coming in from 50 showrooms across France, Switzerland, Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium, while enquiries for Fry's Pi Legs are flooding in from New York, London, Japan and Australia.
Moaroom's collections have been met with appreciation in Europe, but David Trubridge's extraordinary lights especially made Paris sit up and take notice. In February 2012, the Pompidou Centre – the largest modern art museum in Europe – purchased three large pieces from the Kiwi designer's "Icarus" installation to exhibit in its permanent design collection – a rare honour for a contemporary designer and the first design pieces with an ethos of environmental sustainability to do so. "Icarus" consists of two large luminous wing lights, made from polycarbonate, floating around a spherical "sun" which is one of Trubridge's signature wooden orb pendant lights with an orange painted interior.
Because of Rod Fry, there are very few people in Paris who have not seen a Trubridge light.
"Rod's work is invaluable to us," says Trubridge. "We absolutely need these people to promote our work and tell our story to local people. It's a great advantage that he's Kiwi – we've been working together for 10 years. The best thing he has done for us is to get our work into the permanent collection of the art museum of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which is one of the most important art galleries in the world."
In addition to the Pi System, Autel Particulier, and Trubridge's wooden lights and silver jewellery, Moaroom also represents Simon James and Scott Bridgens' Resident Studio and the group of young designers and architects who work under that umbrella – including Nat Cheshire, Gideon Bing and Jamie McLellan. Phil Cuttance's resin vases and the Boskke Skyplanter series round out the collections.
To explain the growing popularity of New Zealand designers in Europe and further afield, Fry says: "I like to think that we respect good materials and simple clever design ideas over frivolity because, like the Scandinavians, it was not so long ago that we all went off and bought wooden furniture ourselves from places that smelled of woods and oils."
- Your Weekend