Art Deco in Taranaki
|Putting on the Biarritz
There probably aren’t many people who can boast that the plans of their house have been exhibited in the local museum. Jane Johnson didn’t know she could either, until a friend rang her up one day in great excitement. “Your house is in Puke Ariki [New Plymouth’s museum library complex],” she said. “There’s an exhibition of architects’ plans and your house is there.”
Sure enough, when Jane and her husband Brett went along to investigate, there they were – the original plans of their 1934 Hawera house, drawn up by the man who was probably Taranaki’s most important local architectural hero, Jack Duffill. Copies of those meticulous, faded drawings now hang on the Johnson family room wall, not far from the 1930s green and chrome-banded lounge suite and the green chintz Biarritz plate that started off Jane’s collection of art deco china. Close by is the new black-granite-benched kitchen that so faithfully echoes Jack’s original designs, right down to the deco plaster detailing on the ceiling.
The funny thing is, Jane and Brett weren’t even looking for a house when they stumbled across their new home in 1995. The young Hawera couple, with their two boys (Michael, then aged six, and Tim, then 18 months), were actually looking for a piece of land, since Brett is a builder.
They’d just missed out on two sections and, as Jane remembers, were becoming a bit discouraged about the whole affair. So they looked at this solid white stucco and terracotta-tiled-roof house on its mature 0.2ha (half-acre) section instead.
What bowled them over, says Jane, was the space. Brett took Jane aside and quietly told her, “You couldn’t build it for that price.” Sixteen years later, he’s still a convert. “They’ll have to carry me out in a pine box.”
From the outside, it’s a fairly conservative house – traditional with a hint of ocean liner. On the inside, the 1930s glamour puss kicks up her heels, with deco detailing everywhere, built-in cabinetry of oak and rimu, bevelled mirrors and Hollywood-type lighting in the master bedroom. There’s even a roof terrace. Sadly, says Jane, it gets too hot to stay there for long.
Upstairs, the ceilings are rounded like bulkheads (that ocean liner feeling again) and there’s a laundry chute that goes straight down to the utility room. “When the kids were little, they’d post books and things down from up above. The original owner’s grandson actually got stuck in it, so that was one thing we said to our boys: ‘Don’t go down the laundry chute!’”
Not that the place was perfect, at least for the needs of six-year-old Michael. There was a rose bed in the middle of the front lawn and, as he complained to his mother, “Mum, I can’t kick a ball with those prickly things there”. The roses are now safely relocated – “probably the first things to go,” says Jane.
The front lawn has seen many a cricket game since then, “and soccer and rugby and birthday parties with 10 boys ripping round. Box hedge is the best thing for boys, balls and dogs. It’s so resilient, it just springs back.”
In fact, the garden is such a good size for adventure that, when Wellington friends came up for the holidays, their young sons used to refer to it as “coming up to the farm”. The china mosaic torso in the front garden, created by a local artist, has also had her moments, says Jane. “We came back from holiday one year and she had a lovely, frilly bra on!”
Jane’s passion is floral art and she has extended that creativity to landscaping and interior design, putting her mark on the garden and her new kitchen. But she’s not, she says, very good at getting it down on paper. Brett says I’m a hand waver. I tell them, I want that over there and that bit gone’ – hence the hand waving. But we seem to get there.”
She also loves searching out the deco bits that jazz up every room, such as the collection of Biarritz plates. It’s opened up “a whole new world” for Jane who confesses that, when they bought the house, she didn’t know a lot about the art deco era, which lasted from about 1925 to the early 40s.
Family is another recurrent theme, from the collections of photos on the walls to the antique statue of a cherub on the landing, bought because its face reminded Jane of her eldest son. They even refer to their dining room table as “the Iris table” – it was bought with a legacy from Jane’s grandmother Iris.
Like Brett, Jane still loves her light, bright, characterful house with its lovely garden views. “Of a morning, I pull the blinds and curtains and look out and it’s, yes, welcome to the day!”
My renovation high point was: Being able to use resourceful local tradesmen who understood my hand waving and requirements.
My best moments in the kitchen are: With friends and family sitting around the island bench while I’m cooking a meal in my “one-off” kitchen.
I love this part of New Zealand because: It’s home; it’s where our family started. (My great-grandfather was mayor of Hawera.)
Our happiest day in this house was: When we bought it and realised that, as only the third owners, we had a caretaker’s role, as well as being able to enjoy an awesome family home.
A well-kept secret about this area is: A 10-minute drive will have you down by the sea and in 45 minutes you’re up our glorious Mount Taranaki.
The one thing you must see when you visit is: Tawhiti Museum.
For more images click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Story: Jane Hurley
Photographs: Tessa Chrisp