Eye candy for the homebody

Charlotte Fielding reviews Jane Ussher and John Walsh’s lush new photo book showcasing eclectic interiors from homes across Aotearoa.

As someone who is hoping to buy a modest first home (scrolling through Trade Me listings daily, bored of the endless greybeigewhite walls with orange wood trim and grey carpet, dreaming of filling my future home with colour and the things I love) I found that the pages of Rooms: Portraits of Remarkable New Zealand Interiors soothed my brain. The images in Rooms are the antithesis of the bland, boring, homogeneous real estate I have been consuming for many months. 

Listing after listing on Trade Me shows freshly painted interiors, with bland staging furniture. All the life removed from a room in preparation for someone else to move in. On a diet of staged-to-sell real estate, I hunger for a little wildness. Something off-centre and un-matching. Something lived-in, that reflects the sensibilities of the humans who reside there. Something strange and unexpected, like the solidly square chairs in Clyffside, Marina Bay, with the shapes of birds in flight cut out of them, or the vast collection of bowls in Pirongia House. The reaching hands in Carterton House, or the beautiful murals in Eastbourne House, Wellington. And that’s only in the first 50 pages. The whole book is full of delights and surprises. 

The vast collection of bowls in the Pirongia House (Photo: Jane Ussher)

Rooms is a balm to my homebody soul. The pictures in this book invite you in, offer you a seat and a cuppa, and gift you time alone to take a good look around. The large format and lack of captions or written commentary allows you the opportunity to form your own opinions and feelings about each room portrayed. It’s a simple, straightforward layout: each page has a full-page photo, with only a slim margin identifying the location. 

The straightforward design of the book reflects Jane Ussher’s images. There are no tricks or fancy effects; each photo has straight lines and right angles, mostly taken from eye-level, to make you feel like you’ve just stepped into a room, or you’ve gone closer to examine a piece of art or a collection of curios, or you’re looking down a hallway after popping round to visit a friend. “I like things that are squared up, and I like to tunnel in,” she says in the introduction, by architecture writer John Walsh. “It’s almost like I’ve got blinkers on.” 

Jane Ussher is one of New Zealand’s most experienced and highly esteemed photographers. Many will be familiar with her portrait work for The Listener, where she worked for nearly thirty years before becoming a freelancer focusing on interiors. 

As Walsh recounts in the introduction, Ussher’s move from portraits to interiors came about after a chance meeting with Helen Clark (who was then prime minister). A discussion about Clark’s trip to Antarctica inspired Ussher to travel there to spend several weeks photographing the historic huts of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. The change of subject from people to rooms suited Jane’s temperament and artistic discipline. “I would walk into a portrait session with huge anxiety,” Ussher says. “There are so many things I can’t control.” 

As Walsh writes, “That was one reason why shooting the interiors of historic Antarctic huts was such a liberating experience. With people – the moving parts – out of the picture, the stress of a shoot subsided and Ussher could really take her time. ‘I’ll spend hours behind the camera in a room,’ she says. ‘And when I say hours, I mean hours’.”

Ussher uses a Hasselblad digital camera on a tripod with long exposures, which allow her to use the available natural light. This contributes to the authentic feel of the images. Some rooms are dimly lit, some have bright corners or moody edges. Again, there is no over-saturated, brightly lit real estate flashiness, or swaggering architectural artifice in these images. They make you feel like you’ve just stepped into a room in someone’s beloved home, not into a showpiece. There is no grandstanding in these images, and that feels very New Zealand. These are environments where their owners have carefully curated spaces and objects, leaving this question in the air: what do our rooms say about us when we are not there? 

Are there any defining characteristics of New Zealand interior design? England has cluttered, pattern-filled country cottages, then there’s the sleek minimalism of Japanese apartments, or earthy Scandinavian homes. The use of stone in rustic, sun-baked Italian villas, the classic white and blue of Greek decor, and the bold colours of Mexico.

In Rooms, Ussher portrays the many different interior design styles and moods of New Zealand, from rustic to mid-century modern, glamorous and restrained, to colour-filled and exuberant. No single characteristic stands out as connecting the disparate homes shown in its pages, except the obvious care taken by the inhabitants to create an intentional space. “I’m definitely drawn to people who are not following trends,” Ussher says. “I think the rooms I respond to most have a sense of history.” 

Some of the photos in Rooms are from Ussher’s archives; most are from more recent shoots over the span of about two years. The lockdowns in Auckland made it hard to shoot out of town for a significant amount of time. However, a broad range of locations is represented in the book: North and South Islands, urban and rural. My favourite, if I’m allowed a favourite from among other people’s homes, is the comfortable green interior of Akaroa Cottage, Banks Peninsula. And my other favourite is Eastbourne House, with its stunning, rich murals. Others will no doubt have more than one favourite, too. 

Akaroa Cottage (Photo: Jane Ussher)

If our rooms are a physical embodiment of the stories we tell about ourselves, then Rooms tells many stories, but more than that, the pages are simply great images. They are moody and atmospheric, offering viewers the chance to glance at the full composition, or look closer at the details. The only pages I didn’t vibe with were the close-ups of pieces of art. I was greedy for the tableaus, the vintage furniture, the pictorial composition of each room’s composition. 

Rooms is a vivid celebration of New Zealand interiors. Aside from the introduction at the front by John Walsh and some brief details provided at the end, the only text throughout the book is the caption giving the location of each room. 

It’s not a book you read all at once, turning each page sequentially. It’s a portal you open up to be transported to somewhere else, a quiet foyer, a gallery of framed art in a hallway, a lounge lined with bookshelves. Living rooms and hallways are the most common rooms portrayed, with few bedrooms and even fewer bathrooms, which makes sense, given it is not about showing us through a full house, but is about giving us glimpses of the interests of the inhabitants and the lives lived within the walls. The kitchens are tangential to the dining rooms, where you can imagine families sitting around the table, talking and sharing meals. 

As it reveals to us what others display in their private domains, Rooms invites us to consider the things that our own rooms communicate. What do we choose to surround ourselves with? And what do we make visible in our spaces? “Put me in a room, or ‘space’, and I don’t see the architecture,” Ussher says. “I’ll be drawn to the corner with a pile of things. It would take me a long time to actually see the rest of the space unless it was so extraordinary that it in itself became the subject.” 

Rooms: Portraits of remarkable New Zealand interiors by Jane Ussher & John Walsh (Massey University Press, $85) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

https://thespinoff.co.nz/books/29-10-2022/eye-candy-for-the-homebody