When Abby Luke arrived in the world, she didn’t cry. Family legend has it that the newborn was far too busy looking around, making plans to redecorate the hospital room. By the age of 12, she was stashing dinner sets and cushions under her bed. It was becoming obvious that this schoolgirl had a compulsion to gather homewares and mentally arrange them inside her some-day dream home.
Later, at art school in Dunedin, Abby bought pieces for her future abode while fellow students burned their couches. She accumulated enough second-hand furniture and artwork to fill a small shipping container, which travelled home to Tauranga by train. This lifelong fascination with interiors shows no sign of abating now the artist and former florist is installed in her own Tauranga villa with husband Jason and baby Rocco.
Jason and Abby with baby Rocco
More than four years after moving in – naturally, with a house-lot of furnishings – Abby continues to collect and cull, rearrange and renovate. “It’s an obsession,” she says. “I just can’t help rearranging spaces in my head.”
For a woman so deeply engrossed in her home, Abby is, surprisingly, genuinely relaxed about her possessions. If a girlfriend’s child wants to wear gumboots on the new sofa, so be it. Should a favourite wine glass shatter, ho hum, at least it was being used. “It’s not about everything looking nice on a shelf. Everything is to be used. If it gets broken, it gets broken. This is a home that gets lived in.”
The house is also a creative outlet. Abby has sewed cushions, painted artwork, even carved a light fixture from medium-density fibreboard. Rocco’s wooden high chair, purchased at auction, has recently been covered with paint, leftover bedroom wallpaper and varnish.
The re-covered highchair is workable and robust as well as good-looking: “It’s already had many Spray ‘n’ Wipes.”
When the sofa arrived, Abby flipped it upside down, unscrewed the legs and replaced them with industrial castors. It’s a look she took from the scrapbook of magazine cuttings, sketches and photographs she has been accumulating over many years.
Abby’s infatuation with interior design magazines even set the agenda for her OE. During a two-year stint with Jason in London she trawled through the most stylish publications and then hunted down the design stores, vintage shops and markets she had read about to seek inspiration and treasures.
Rocco’s arrival in December last year has provided a whole new reason to refurbish, which explains the seriously sparkly change table facing her son’s wrought-iron cot (see it on page 66). “It’s possibly a little bit camp,” she says, eyeing the table. “I was determined to cover something in glitter.”
Abby sold her business last July and had plenty of time to work on Rocco’s room before his December arrival: she made the ticking curtains and the blanket was a team effort with her sister, her mum and her mum’s friend, who all knitted squares; her mum joined them together and made the edging; Dick Frizzell’s Brown Squares is on loan from her sister.
Though Jason generally goes along with the constant titivation of their home, he has been known to draw the line. He did refuse to budge when she recently tried to push him out of bed to rehang paintings just before midnight.
His wife is not especially repentant. “If you’re creative, then it’s just part of your life. Some people are sporty, some people are arty. Jason plays sport and I play house.”
Jason is the practical side of the team. The former chef, barman and tiler drew up the renovation plans for their three-bedroomed villa himself.
He relished the process so much, he has since become an architectural technician. Jason also handled most of the demolition, painting, plastering and tiling.
But it was Abby who spotted the forlorn-looking 1916 villa for sale beside a suburban police station and recognised its potential. The timing was terrible. Having returned from England a year earlier, the couple had already spent their savings establishing a gallery and floristry enterprise in partnership with Abby’s mother, Bridget Little.
Abby wanted a black room after seeing them in a few magazines, so three of their bedroom walls are now black with wallpaper on the fourth; an antique shirt from Thailand hangs above the bed: “When I bought it they said it should be in a glass case in a museum; instead it’s on a bedroom wall in Tauranga.”
Six weeks after opening for business, Abby was delivering flowers when she spotted the house for sale and removal. It had been divided into two flats and needed work to make it habitable. Aside from being broke, they had no land to put it on.
But Abby’s parents encouraged the couple to take a punt, promising a loan for the purchase price. Frenzied TradeMe online auction bidding ensued and they became homeowners for $16,250.
The house sat up on drums, sawn in half and covered in tarpaulins, until they found a section a few minutes’ drive from the florist shop and downtown Tauranga.
“We love this area, it’s an awesome community. When we finished the interior of the house, we invited the whole street to come and have a nosy.”
The neighbour’s children helped unpack boxes of Parisian hat blocks, dressmakers’ dummies, the regularly used silver teapot, a giant pencil and old crockery from England. Every item has a tale attached.
Abby used a zebra skin to re-cover this chair from the Waipuna Hospice – it’s not finished yet, but it’s been at this stage for a year.
A zebra skin-covered hospice charity shop chair in the couple’s bedroom prompts a memory of Abby’s student days, when she and a group of girlfriends spent a weekend in Christchurch: “All my friends came away with a new pair of jeans and I came away with half a zebra skin.”
While waitressing in London, she stashed money away every week for a year to finance a shopping trip to the flea markets in Paris. That’s where she picked up the hat blocks, a mannequin, a mirror, an old quilt that she unpicked and made into cushions, and the chandelier that hangs in the hallway.
“The guy who wired it in New Zealand said it was the oldest light fitting he’d ever seen,” says Abby. “The wires were insulated with paper and attached to cardboard. It was made some time in the 1800s.
“All the items in our house have a story to tell. I can’t understand anyone who gets rid of everything and starts afresh when they’re moving house. I’ve got a relationship with everything in my home.”
My best moments in the garden are: Each time the plants have a fresh flush of growth and inch a little closer to forming hedges.
A quote that I often use is: Something my mother always says: “A small gesture is better than a large intention.”
I love this part of New Zealand because: To be honest, I didn’t really love Tauranga – we settled here as our families are here, but it’s grown on me. I have taught myself to focus on Tauranga’s positives rather than what it lacks: it has a fantastic climate, is very watery and has an amazing light.
In the next five/10 years: Our wish list includes a swimming pool, a second level, more dinner parties, more babies and, hopefully, establishing a new family business – a boutique venue for weddings, conferences etc.
Our happiest day in this house was: The day we brought Rocco home; Jason gave him the grand tour. He is the long-awaited icing on the cake.
What are some of your top decorating do’s and don’ts? Do: lamps; the more the moodier. Don’t: artificial flowers.
How has having a baby changed your design? I was delighted I could finally justify covering an item of furniture with glitter!
For more images from this story please click on the "Photo Gallery" link above.
Story: Sue Hoffart
Photographs: Jane Ussher