In the hills above Tahunanui Beach, a series of curved walls wrap around Leigh Thompson like an embrace. Nelson potter and former coffee roastery owner finds the shape of her renovated 1970s abode both comfortable and comforting.
“Because of the curves, it’s quite enveloping,” says Leigh. “Home and I kind of found each other and it’s been good for both of us. It’s a small house with a big personality. He just has a very special feeling about it and it’s very unique.
In fact, the 130m² dwelling may not be unique – it probably has a twin sister across the world.
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According to Christchurch architect William Skews, a couple approached him to replicate a striking American home the woman had spotted in a magazine. The resulting floor plan is based on two linked circles, descending to a sunken living room and rising to a distinctive dome.
The original owners of the house have since died and the designs and magazine have been lost. William, however, has fond memories of the project, which began 45 years ago. He remembers laying the bricks for the fireplace himself when the assigned mason was struggling to build the essential arch, and he certainly remembers his particularly determined client.
“She came to him and said, ‘I want to build this house,'” Leigh says of her predecessor. “Then she parked a trailer in the driveway and spent every day there while they built. She was the driving force.
Leigh has shown great determination herself, lavishing care and energy on her unusual abode over the past two years.
She admits the project has been stressful at times, including when new flooring was installed in the kitchen and dining room. It was bad enough that the contractors struggled to negotiate the curved walls and her things were piled high around the house, with the fridge moved next to her bed. Then New Zealand went into lockdown overnight.
Amid the disarray, Leigh went upstairs to a small attic-style bedroom she calls “the nest” and spent much of the ensuing period of isolation working on the raffia lamps and ceramics which are her signature pieces and which she sells through local gallery Kiln. Since then, she has built a studio in the back part of the garage.
Visiting shopkeepers often marvel at the craftsmanship of elements such as the curved rimu plywood walls, the oversized pivoting front door, and the Tākaka marble lobby floor and stairs.
“And the bath is crazy,” she says of the quirky, custom-made tiled tub. “I don’t bathe in it – I’ve had a rain shower installed – because I think it would be quite uncomfortable with all those little mosaic tiles. But I love this. I love the tile.”
She says the tiled bathroom and kitchen remind her of homes in Greece and Morocco, or the mosaic table tops she made for Nelson cafe Pomeroy’s Coffee & Tea Company, which she owned for nearly 20 years old.
The former Aucklander moved south as a single mother, drawn to the coastline and mountains and looking for a safe place to raise her young son Hayden. She eventually bought and renovated an 1880s waterfront villa and bought the cafe with Hayden – he took over the business in 2017 when Leigh moved to Noosa Heads in Australia for a while. Her parents and sister later moved to the area as well, with Leigh returning in the face of the global pandemic and after the sudden death of her mother.
She was staying with a friend when the original two-bedroom flat-roofed hillside home came on the market. Leigh found that the original shag carpet still ran halfway up the walls and the palm tree wallpaper was in remarkably good condition. It was love at first sight.
His friend Ron Cox, a retired interior designer, was also won over. In fact, he had considered buying the property 15 years earlier.
It was Ron who pulled out four rolls of Japanese silk wallpaper he had scavenged from a recycling center and stashed in his hallway closet two decades earlier. He cut off the water-damaged sections and helped Leigh hang the paper in her bedroom. He also coated other wallpapers with a lentil suspension mixture to create a stucco effect on the base of the fireplace.
Together, they were delighted to discover stains from the original metallic wallpaper on the bedroom walls and ceiling. “So the whole room was just amazing purple and gold psychedelic swirls,” says Leigh.
Leigh found the original light fixtures in the house in the bedroom closet and put them back in their place. ” It was really fun. And the garden has been amazing, a gift. It was a little overgrown so I was able to clear it and discover fig trees, mandarin trees and a cherry tree. The birds got most of the cherries but I got the figs and now the tangerines feed me.
“I feel like I’m just the keeper here. The four previous owners have all respected the design and uniqueness of the house, so I think it’s my job to look after it and protect it. Because she’s definitely a her, with those wonderful curves.
Q&A with Leigh Thompson
I hesitated: On the cream bouclé fabric around the lounge area because it’s very “in” at the moment. But it’s so perfect and, as a friend pointed out, it’s been around for 40 years.
I first learned about interiors: From my father who had a business manufacturing and distributing home decor products.
I started making pottery: In Australia. I took a few lessons then when Aussie went into lockdown I just made it at home in my laundry and sold it to Noosa Heads. Here I built a studio in my garage. I’ve always liked practical things but now I have time to be creative.
My neighbor: George is the most wonderful and wonderful person. He knew all the owners and helped them all. George helped fix the wooden edging of the marble staircase and helped paint my workshop in the back of the garage. He is also a wood turner and made a magnificent turned rimu lamp base for me.
Nelson is: Such a beautiful place. At this time of year you can look across the sea and there is snow on the mountains.
Visitors must: Attend Nelson Clay Week October 1-9. There will be workshops and ceramists from all over New Zealand. I’ll probably have a few pots at the Kiln Gallery.
I walk: On Tahunanui beach every morning. It clears my head and is a five minute walk from where I first grab a coffee to go. I take a lot of photos – I’m a shadow hunter. There is always inspiration for my sculptural ceramic work – see leighclayfibre.com.