Lowdown:
What: The Room
Where & when: Objectspace, Rose Rd, Ponsonby; until Sunday, May 19

Think about your living room – or maybe your kitchen. What's in it - and why?

Chances are, says Kim Paton, director at public gallery Objectspace, there will be a mix of functional items – the couch you sit on, the TV you watch – along with artefacts like a souvenir or two you picked up on your travels, maybe something you inherited or artwork on the wall.

Long fascinated by the domestic spaces we live in – and what we put in them – Paton brought together award-winning interior designer Rufus Knight, Te Papa curator of decorative art and design Justine Olsen, design critic and researcher Emma Ng, an artist and curator Ane Tonga.

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She asked them to create a first-of-its-kind exhibition for Objectspace and gave them the freedom to use their own distinct visual languages to create rooms – one each, four in total – with their own stories to tell. This weekend, the doors open to those rooms and their stories are revealed.

Rufus Knight – working with fellow Knight Associates designer Mijntje Lepoutre:
Knight and Lepoutre have called their room Presque rein, which translates to "almost nothing" because, at first glance, it looks as if there's nothing there apart from an exquisitely wooden-tiled floor – about 3200 tiles - and textured plaster walls.

"We came up with the idea to create an environment rather than a room focused on objects because we knew they would be found in the other rooms and because we're not from a fine arts background," says Knight, adding that they do see in their commercial and residential work significant crossover between spatial design and the applied arts.

Indeed, the exquisitely wooden-tiled floor is something to marvel at and it's already been sold. It's also an example that even through the waste products of a mundane building material you can craft art. With sustainability in mind, it's made from the off-cuts of the cheapest 4 x 2 timber used to construct the four rooms in the exhibition. The texture of the walls – with a warm glow – comes from covering them with a mix of plaster and sawdust filings.

Knight says credit needs to go to two trade companies, Calavera Construction and Ambitec (NZ), for helping to craft the room: "I had to convince the tradies that the idea was not the craziest or silliest they'd heard of," he says, acknowledging walls and floor have come up better than he and Lepoutre imagined. "It's nice to be able to elevate them to the level of craftspeople because, in fact, that's what they are. On commercial and residential projects, they're not often given that due."

Justine Olsen worked with jeweler Karl Fritsch to create a room which highlights Aotearoa New Zealand's cultural values. Photo/Dean Purcell
Justine Olsen worked with jeweler Karl Fritsch to create a room which highlights Aotearoa New Zealand's cultural values. Photo/Dean Purcell

Justine Olsen – working with jeweller Karl Fritsch:

When Olsen first started work on

The Poet's Room Te Whare Toikupu

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, she and internationally acclaimed jeweller Karl Fritsch wanted to create a space which reflected ideas about contemporary living but also our cultural values.

Olsen says Fritsch was more interested in the needs of life rather than its status symbols, and was influenced by photos he'd seen of a workspace occupied by Theo Schoon, the New Zealand artist and photographer of Dutch descent, and an 1839 painting, The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg.

"It's a room formed by the objects of life, a humble and simple room," she says.

But look more closely and there are many things to see: numerous hue - traditional Māori storage vessels made from gourds, which can have a multitude of uses depending on how they're made and carved; a possum-fur cushion symbolic of pests invading the natural environment; an "iPad" made from Coromandel basalt stone symbolic of the outside world coming into personal space; photographs; diminutive and delicate works by Fritsch and an electric lamp.

Olsen says the lamp was an important symbol of the way the room would come together. Its body is a hue made by master carver Rangi Hetet while the shade was woven by his late wife, the noted weaver Erenora Puketapu-Hetet.

Emma Ng in The Edit, a room which highlights the similarities between museum and retail store displays. Photo/Dean Purcell.
Emma Ng in The Edit, a room which highlights the similarities between museum and retail store displays. Photo/Dean Purcell.

Emma Ng:

You'll find common links when you look back at the history of department stores and museums, says Emma Ng, whose room,

The Edit

, plays on ideas about the way objects are displayed in both.

Tastefully decorated with objects from three upmarket design stores – Everyday Needs, Precinct 35 and Frances Nation – Ng points out that in shops and museums, objects are "curated" for display using similar processes of selection, editing and storytelling to create specific looks and feels.

"They're both crafting displays for people to look at and, in retail, buy," she says, adding that in modern museums and galleries, we're encouraged to exit through the gift shop. Her interest in retail and museum displays was fuelled by learning about exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the 1940s and 50s of "useful household objects" especially one where each object was under $5.

That equals about $130 today so each of the objects she picked for The Edit come in around that price: a ceramic colander, wooden implements and a woven kete among a range of items all artfully displayed against a blue and white background similar to one used in a MoMA exhibition. The colours of the objects are earthy and natural-looking, highlighting current concerns about sustainability.

Ng's also introduced a touch of joy, courtesy of Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo.

"People are searching for meaning and authenticity in the objects they buy. They are asking, 'Do these items have a story?' Rooms can become time capsules that tell us about the tastes of the time."

Curator Ane Tonga with artist Ani O'Neill in Promise Me/Trust Me with the pare - hats - worn by Cook Islands women to church. Photo/Dean Purcell
Curator Ane Tonga with artist Ani O'Neill in Promise Me/Trust Me with the pare - hats - worn by Cook Islands women to church. Photo/Dean Purcell

Ane Tonga and artist Ani O'Neill:

In the fourth room, Tonga and O'Neill reprise the site-specific work first exhibited in the former Wellesley St telephone exchange building where, says O'Neill, many Māori and Pasifika women had once worked.

Her 1993 end-of-year Elam School of Fine Arts sculpture exhibition, Promise Me/Trust Me centred on pare – hats made from floristry ribbon traditionally worn by women attending church. O'Neill borrowed the hats for the original exhibition from her grandmother, Pareu Ebera Nia, who asked her granddaughter to "promise me" you'll look after them.

O'Neill recalls the clock room she used was decorated to give it a domestic look and feel – there was orange and brown, jungle-inspired wallpaper, carpet tiles – so she wanted to use artefacts that spoke about the women's lives but highlighted influences on her own.

"As a child I learned a lot of craft skills from my grandmother," says O'Neill, one of the acclaimed Pacific Sisters art collective members. "The skills I learned as a child are integral to my work as an artist and still continue today thanks to generations of women passing down and sharing their knowledge."

Tonga says for her, domestic spaces are places of cultural learning.

"Interiors offer a spectrum of possibilities when it comes to thinking about art and culture. A living room frames lifetimes and is where rituals are learned. Cultural learnings are often imbued in the objects and adornments of home."