Something old, something new
An Auckland design duo have become experts at fossicking for vintage materials for their furniture.
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.”
Paula Coulthard and Sue Haldane with some of their creations at the Boiler Room showroom
Below, Union furniture chairs.