Interior designer Anna Keen has had a varied career, from creating kennels to a distinctly New Zealand hotel.
Developing an aesthetic with an unmistakable New Zealand identity was the challenge laid out at Auckland Airport's only on-site hotel - the Novotel. The building, with its dramatic glass facade and steel stilts, was officially opened by Maori King Tuheitia Paki and Prime Minister John Key in May. Warren & Mahoney interior designer Anna Keen was one of the team who met the challenge to capture our essence in surfaces, pattern and form.
Keen grew up on a strawberry farm in Papakaio, near Oamaru, and even as a child she was obsessed with design. "I'd drive Mum mad changing my room around and when we went to visit my uncle's place in Kakanui Beach, I sat in his painting studio drawing pieces of furniture - all in perspective."
During summer holidays when she was seconded to pick berries, she'd be distracted, dreaming of a job that keyed into her passion. She chose design because it's "a creative industry that produces something tangible and functional".
With a Bachelor of Design majoring in interior architecture from Christchurch Polytechnic tucked under her arm, she headed off, naively, to find work in London.
But she struck it lucky. As a junior designer at Richard Rogers, a significant architectural practice, she worked on the Lloyds Register, a 70-million project to create high-quality office space while safeguarding a flagship listed building. "I re-did the reception foyer and the atrium. That was really early on in my career and I felt thrown in at the deep end."
It was a matchless experience and she came up swimming. In 2002, the project won a World Architecture Award for Best Commercial Building.
It's clear Keen is serious about her craft. "I don't just pick pretty colours and textures. I design joinery elements and the way a space works."
She next put these skills to imaginative use during a stint in Sydney where she started a sideline business, Barchitecture, designing cool kennels for dogs (complete with mono-pitched roofs and Florence Broadhurst wallpaper, no less). She returned to Auckland two years ago when she landed her dream role at Warren & Mahoney.
Keen now lives with her husband, Guy Parbury, and their collie/labrador called Sandy in a 1950s house in the Waitakeres with views over the valley.
Controversially, she says New Zealand struggles to create a real connection between the interior and exterior of a building. And she's not just talking sliding doors to a patio or deck. "So many commercial spaces feel disconnected. It's about detailing in architecture," she explains.
At the Novotel, the Warren & Mahoney squad has achieved this in myriad ways. Soaring V-shaped struts on the outside take their cue from a motif of the prow of the waka. This shape is repeated in the wedged ceiling sections and echoed in a faceted steel self-supporting staircase. "We pushed the motif concept a bit further at the Novotel because it's a New Zealand narrative. I like to tell a story with design - it brings value and integrity. Often, interior designers do something that looks good but that has no meaning behind it."
Another example is the 6.2-metre tall tukutuku panels that screen off a private dining room. Keen commissioned Hudson Wilton of FGS Metalwork to make the panels which are decorated with diamond patiki in an eco-resin. The patiki symbol is taken from the lozenge shape of the flounder and so, in Maori culture, signifies an abundance of fish. Each screen needed four people to carry it into position. "It was an amazing feat of engineering that they don't bow and that they pivot so smoothly."
For Keen, working alongside local talent is a fun part of her job. She chose Queenstown company Cruikshank Furniture to design bar stools, tables and easy chairs for the public zones. They also supplied the Southland beech for the battened wall panelling that runs the length of the reception foyer and restaurant. "By using New Zealand designers, it's easier to keep control of the timber consistency," she explains.
Auckland-based Fletcher Vaughan developed a curvaceous booth and booth chair for the main dining area. "He tirelessly made prototypes and samples," she says. And Designer Rugs in Parnell custom-made a hand-crafted floor rug in green, black and white. Its pattern is evocative of the movement of water. "We wanted to reflect the Manukau Harbour."
But the piece de resistance design-wise must be the living wall. It's a vertiginous garden of native plants designed by Natural Habitats that soars to the ceiling in the lobby. "Living walls are a hot trend at the moment but it was appropriate here, adding a sense of arrival. Most travellers to NZ want to experience the landscape as part of their visit."
The plants spent a year in glasshouses acclimatising before they were introduced to the air-conditioned environment. "It works hydroponically and the plants are all doing well - it needs a little haircut every now and then," says Keen.
The wall is just one element that adds the wow factor to this Kiwi-to-the-core hotel. But Keen's dad, Peter Keen, who visited on opening day, was less than complimentary about her achievements at first. "He said, 'I'm not sure about the timber Anna'." Later, once he had sat down for a while and taken it all in, he changed his mind. "I get it now."
For Keen, the success of living up to the challenge - juggling the requirements of the three clients, Tainui Group Holdings, Auckland Airport and Accor Hotels - only sank in after a welcome dinner and a couple of wines. "What an amazing journey," she says. "You have to keep passionate about your design intent and see it through to the end."
Bring Anna Keen's ideas home
* When developing a colour palette, look at using colour, finishes and materials that have some meaning for you and your family. Take your cues from keepsakes, whether it's a treasured travel painting or a piece of fabric picked up along the way made into a cushion cover. And be bold when using colour and pattern - we're all a bit over beige on beige.
* Position your living spaces in the lightest, brightest part of the house and, if your home office is a place where you spend a lot of time, don't tuck it away in a dark corner or the spare bedroom. Treat this space as special, too - and give it some light.
* Custom-designed rugs are common in commercial fit-outs to give warmth and a creative burst of colour. Think about creating unique pieces of your own. Visit one of the custom design showrooms to bring your ideas to life. You'll be surprised to find that bespoke rugs can often cost little or no more than buying directly off the shelf.
* Collaborate with local furniture designers/manufacturers to get a piece that is just the right size, finish or style. When you buy local, you know the heritage of a piece - and its quality.
* Sustainability is easily translated into your own home through efficient lighting, along with insulating and ventilating correctly. Do your research and choose the kinder environmental option.
* Give new life to an existing piece of furniture through new upholstery and finishes. It's a fantastic more cost-effective option.
* Apply the same rules to home décor that you do for fashion. Spend a bit more on a few choice pieces for your home a little less often and buy items you love, not just because something is "in vogue" right now.
* If you have the time and creative energy, you can even seek out companies to make custom-designed wallpaper. There are some amazing collections of wallpapers out there right now if you don't want to paint a feature wall, opt for a feature wallpaper instead.