Some­thing old, some­thing new

An Auck­land de­sign duo have be­come ex­perts at fossicking for vin­tage ma­te­ri­als for their fur­ni­ture.

Element - - Artisan - By Re­becca Barry Hill

Where did you get your fur­ni­ture? If it’s a chair from lo­cal de­sign com­pany Union, the an­swer could be complicated. The ma­te­ri­als could’ve come from old camp stretch­ers, post of­fice bags or vin­tage ta­pes­tries picked up on road trips.

“We’re all about the story, the the­atri­cal as­pect of de­sign,” says Sue Hal­dane, one half of the Union de­sign team with Paula Coulthard.

“We re­ally wanted to make some­thing here in New Zealand us­ing sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als and re­cy­cling cool stuff we find.”

For in­stance, the green set­tee we’re sit­ting on, one of many Union pieces at the Boiler Room in Kings­land, is a re-cov­ered orig­i­nal frame found in Whanganui that Hal­dane sus­pects would’ve been burned had they not sal­vaged it. Rather than its orig­i­nal pa­per-thin leather, it’s now a hard-wear­ing hemp. Union’s sig­na­ture designs and be­spoke pieces take weeks to cre­ate, and are man­u­fac­tured from sus­tain­able south­ern beech, and up­hol­stered lo­cally, the finer de­tails em­broi­dered by hand.

Wher­ever pos­si­ble they re­cy­cle ma­te­ri­als found in army sur­plus stores, ware­houses or club rooms. The leather set­tee in the hall­way of the Boiler Room was in­spired by horse-rac­ing, af­ter Hal­dane came across race­horse signs from the Eller­slie Race­course.

“The stuff that’s 100 years old is still around be­cause it is so good. I also love the story of what its life has been. There’s a ro­man­tic idea of what it’s seen and the past...”

In other words, Union pieces are the an­tithe­sis of main­stream fur­ni­ture, much of which is im­ported or re­pro­duced en masse and brand new. Nor is it what you’d call con­ven­tion­ally lux­u­ri­ous. Union are un­apolo­getic about us­ing items some might con­sider junk. Much of their vast col­lec­tion of vin­tage bits and bobs is wor­thy of a sec­ond life, says the pair, as it comes from an era that places more value on ma­te­rial things, a time when dis­pos­abil­ity and speed were not part of the ver­nac­u­lar.

“A lot of mod­ern fur­ni­ture pieces get thrown out be­cause they’ve de­te­ri­o­rated,” says Coulthard. “The stuff that’s 100 years old is still around be­cause it is so good. I also love the story of what its life has been. There’s a ro­man­tic idea of what it’s seen and the past. I like things that are a lit­tle aged. I don’t like them bright, shiny and new.”

The pair first worked to­gether at the Boiler Room when it was in Grey Lynn. Owned by Hal­dane and her hus­band Gary Wil­lis, the shop sells large-scale fur­ni­ture and re­pur­posed and re­stored fur­nish­ings and de­mo­li­tion ma­te­ri­als found in New Zealand power sta­tions, rail­ways and fac­to­ries. Hal­dane and Coulthard en­joyed work­ing to­gether so much they de­cided to start up a new line that would call on both their skills. Hal­dane has a theatre and fur­ni­ture de­sign back­ground and Coulthard has her own epony­mous la­bel for cloth­ing and home­wares. Union Fur­ni­ture is stocked at the Boiler Room’s new premises on New North Road in Kings­land.

Cre­at­ing fur­ni­ture from scratch in New Zealand comes with its own chal­lenges. As well as the hours spent trawl­ing for ma­te­ri­als, de­sign­ing the lay­out and hand-em­broi­der­ing, find­ing hemps is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult, and the com­pany they used to vat-dye the hemp re­cently closed.

The time and care taken to cre­ate their fur­ni­ture is re­flected in the price. Chairs range from around $4300 to $5700; set­tees from $10,099 to $12,800, de­pend­ing on the ma­te­ri­als, which can be tai­lored to clients’ tastes.

“I just wish we could make more but they do have to be art pieces be­cause of the cost – that’s the re­al­ity, and we’ve tried so hard to keep the cost down,” says Hal­dane. “If some­one chooses a chair like this, they’re choos­ing an art piece.”

Pho­tos: Ted Baghurst.

Paula Coulthard and Sue Hal­dane with some of their cre­ations at the Boiler Room show­room

in Kings­land.

Pho­tos: sup­plied.

Be­low, Union fur­ni­ture chairs.

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