Saarinen, Eames, Panton, van der Rohe, Colombo ... A Christchurch couple's furniture collection, about to be auctioned, is a literal roll call of key 20th century designers.

Like so many people, Tim and Natasha English's lives were transformed by the Canterbury earthquakes. "We were fine after the first earthquake, but the second turned our world upside down. Our home was lost and our business ruined," Natasha recalls.

Tim broke his hand fending off falling bricks, and endured blood poisoning as a result of his injuries. "I'm a furniture maker who broke his hand, I couldn't ply my trade."

Unable to live in their ruined home, which has since been demolished, or run their design emporium, High St's Found, the couple decided to move to Sydney to start over. Which means they have to divest themselves of all their treasures.

"Since the earthquake we've bought no books, no magazines. In Sydney we went to Ikea and bought a bed, a desk and a chest of drawers. That's it. We're just lucky to be alive."


On Thursday, March 1, Art+Object will auction everything the couple have held so dear, providing a rare opportunity for lovers of contemporary and modernist furniture. Almost everything they own, have collected and restored, is going under the hammer.

Tim started collecting when he was 14. "I used to work in an engineering workshop, sweeping the floor after school. I bought a cantilevered light from Whitmore Arti Domo. It cost $112.60. I didn't tell my parents, I had to lie about what it cost, I was only earning about $3.50 a week. It cost so much but I had to have it."

Natasha was similarly entranced by form and style from an early age. As a child, growing up next door to her grandmother, painter Doris Lusk, their family motto was, 'if you couldn't make it, you couldn't have it'.

"It's a true collection," Tim says wistfully. "It's taken us 20 years of married life to put it together. What's left of it, it's all our stuff that we loved and lived with, worked with and found."

Tim explains how they got started. "First we used to look in Buy Sell and Exchange, this was before eBay and Trade Me. We'd go to the Sallies, the local auctions. As the years went by, and things became harder to find, we went further afield, first outside Christchurch, to Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin, then Sydney and Melbourne, then to Europe, the States, South America."

As their pieces are set up to be auctioned, the couple point out items of significance. "It's hard to pick out favourite pieces, they're all so lovely. But that Jean Gillon four-seater sofa, it's made from solid Brazilian rosewood, leather and suede. It's one of the best pieces we own. We bought it in South America. When we had it restored in New Zealand, our wood guy was amazed. He had to chisel it, and the timber is so hard and as heavy as steel. But when he was putting his chisel across it, he said it was like chiselling chocolate. He was mesmerised," says Tim.

"Brazilian Rosewood is so rare now, it's like ivory. You can't trade in it anymore, even in the new stuff, which makes it almost impossible to repair, because you can't get the parts to restore it. There's a place in Melbourne that sells salvaged rosewood, a flitch of solid rosewood goes for $5000."

Natasha points to the Rover chairs. "The two red Rover chairs are going to make someone very happy. Recycled from a Rover car in the 1980s, combined with scaffold components. They're by Ron Arad who is such a star in the design world. There are examples of his work in all the best design museums. Ron was famous for producing furniture that was different from what everyone else was doing, he still does today. Sculptural pieces, the big metal works he does are spectacular. And he made them himself.

"We love that they were made by him, not by a machine or a company."

The BA3 dining suite we sit at to talk is by Ernest Race, who made much of his furniture out of recycled aviation alloy. "He made very cool furniture out of the re-smeltered British war machine,"explains Tim. "Aircraft alloy is the best quality, and it's recycling, so many of these things are from recycled material."

Tim points to a John Britten chair. "This is one of our most treasured pieces, the William Plunkett style chair. We think it should be a Te Papa buy, because it was designed and handmade by John Britten. He was such a clever guy.

"Another chair we love is the Joe Colombo, The Elda, it's pure Italia 70s cool. Colombo didn't have a long career but he had a massive impact on that period, and some of his designs are still made today. He did things out of new materials, plastics, fibreglass, he didn't use timber. He designed furniture in ways that hadn't been thought of, they're the most interesting looking things. None of his furniture was static, everything had movement to it, he lowered the centre of gravity. Everything he did was exciting."

Then there are the Phillipe Starck Hula Hoop chairs, the hospital and industrial lamps, the space age Lufthansa ticketing desk, the Waring and Gillow breakfront manrobe, which is stamped as being made "by furniture makers to the King".

"A Kiwi inherited an estate from the UK, and when it arrived he had to sell some things to pay the duty. We had to have that wardrobe. It was almost as big as our cottage at the time, but we were crazy for it. We couldn't fit it anywhere, and we had to walk around it but we just loved it.

"This room is filled with things we never imagined we'd sell, that we bought from all over the world. I loved that Gunni Omann cabinet, I thought I'd be buried in that," Tim says wistfully.

"One of our big philosophies is that we're only custodians of the objects," Natasha reminds Tim.

"This only came to light seven dining tables later," she says with a laugh. "Who are we keeping these for again? I just hope they go to good homes, and people love them as much as we do."

* The English Collection is open for viewing now and goes to auction on March 1 at Art+Object, 3 Abbey St, Newton. Ph (09) 354 4646.