This Athfield house in Christchurch would make the perfect stay

Most people who manage to secure an iconic mid-century house in New Zealand might already own one or two items that would fit seamlessly into the scheme — an Eames chair or Arco floor lamp, for instance — but would struggle to deck out the spaces in full modernist mode. Not so Mr Mod, Ross Morrison, who started his collection in the early 1990s and had just the right thing for every nook and cranny of this Ian Athfield-designed beauty — and then some.

TOP The home’s concrete-block cladding is painted with Resene  Black White and offset by joinery in Resene Karaka. In the west-facing courtyard, a 1960s patio chair looks the part. ABOVE Light floods into the lounge, where a Pernilla 3 lounge chair by Bruno Mathsson invites relaxation in front of the fireplace. Ross bought the 1970s ladder-system wall unit by WHB 10 years ago and it fits this space like a glove.

When Ross was growing up in Ōtautahi/Christchurch in  the ’60s and ’70s, the DIY brigade was in full swing. Without the shackles of governmental red tape, people got stuck in. “Many’s the weekend my father and I would be off to friends’ [places] to help pour the foundations for a house,” says Ross.  So the young boy developed a practical eye, but also enjoyed a childhood enriched by design. Not only did Ross live in a 1950s mid-century house, he was also at school with  late architect Maurice Mahoney’s son and daughters. He  recalls that “they’d turn up with stories about the town  hall, one of my all-time favourite builds.”

TOP A couple of 1960s armchairs by Italian design duo Afra and Tobia Scarpa for B&B Italia sit with a Mexico sofa by Arne Norell in the lounge. The New Zealand-made vase just visible on top of the 19th-century Japanese drawers was a junk-shop find. ABOVE Above the Cidonio dining table by Antonia Astori for Driade and DSX chairs by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller hangs an AJ pendant by Arne Jacobsen for Louis Poulsen that was originally designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen in 1957. The large decorative clam shell by Arthur Court was a fleamarket score in San Francisco.

With a father who was a furniture maker and antiques dealer, the young protégé had a natural pathway into the arena. He stepped into the family business and a career that took him on many covetable journeys: buying trips on which he fossicked through the cool gloom of Japanese farmhouses; a stint in England, where he opened an antique store in Sussex before hopping the channel to full immersion in the Parisian fleamarkets. “There I became interested in the French modernist movement, but when I first moved from selling French antiques into mid-century, people laughed at me. No one wanted to buy the stuff.”
All that, as they say, is history. And Ross, who established  Mr Mod in 2004, selling mid-century design sourced from Europe and the US, was nothing if not prolific. It meant that  20 years ago, when he bought this home at auction, he had more than enough finds stashed away to draw on.

ABOVE The kitchen had already been updated when Ross moved  in but the built-in cabinets and mosaic-tile benchtop are original. “It’s very much like [late New Zealand architect] Myles Warren’s galley kitchens,” says Ross. “I guess Ath took the idea from when he worked at Warren & Mahoney.” Ross has furnished the space with a pair of vintage American bar stools and a balloon dog sculpture by Jeff Koons on the open shelves.
Alerted to the impending sale of this 1968 Athfield dwelling by a real estate agent friend, Ross was instantly intrigued.  “I remember driving past the house as a child when Dad  was taking us to school. I liked it even then.”Originally built for the Jones family, the two-level St Martins home is loosely set up as two pavilions, with a short, linking hallway through the middle. It features an offbeat, asymmetric roofline and is clad in white-painted concrete blocks. Typical  of Athfield thinking, the front door is around the back, while inside, the pitched tongue-and-groove rimu ceilings, terracotta-tile floors and mezzanine loft are emblematic  of what became known as ‘the Christchurch style’.
Having sold his Victorian villa to make the move, Ross bid ferociously against another bidder and secured the sale. When he moved in, it was something of an awakening: “Ath always operated on the extremities of architecture,” he says.
That included exploring the concept of open-plan — fully. “Ath believed in freedom of design; he didn’t see the point  of putting everyone behind doors,” explains Ross, who can appreciate this concept but was still pleased that previous owners had added some sliders to the bedrooms for privacy.

TOP Open-tread stairs lead up to the mezzanine loft bedroom. The chair beneath them is one of a pair of Swedish armchairs designed by Gustav Axel Berg for Bröderna Anderssons. ABOVE In this downstairs nook is a Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto for Artek and an aluminium folding desk used during the Vietnam War by the US Nurse Corps. The painting by Californian artist Clifford Holmes dates back to the 1950s, while the spun pendants throughout the home were designed by Austrian-born architect Ernst Plischke for St Martins Presbyterian Church, 100m up the road.

He settled into the three-bedroom house, revelling in the way the light dappled through skylights and threw circles onto the walls through porthole windows. He raided his warehouse for unsung gems that would slot into the jaunty angles of the mezzanine, enjoyed the summer months when upstairs  it felt like living among the trees, and lit the wood-burning fire in winter to stave off icy tentacles that challenged the single glazing.
When the earthquake struck and many other concrete-block houses cracked, this one, where half blocks are tied  to a wooden frame, survived relatively unscathed. Ross took the opportunity to upgrade the bathrooms and replace broken floor tiles with some from the backyard patio. “I got to know Ath reasonably well after the earthquake and learned he was not a purist,” he says. “He was quite a believer in changing things to suit your needs.”

TOP A rosewood bed by Danish designers Ejner Larsen and Aksel Bender Madsen occupies this downstairs bedroom, where a lithograph by Italian artist Luigi Rossini tucks in beneath the sloping ceiling. ABOVE The upstairs mezzanine is used as a TV room and furnished with a Danish daybed with its original fabric, based on a design by Hans Wegner. The floor lamp is by Ruser & Kunter for Knoll.

The duo was like-minded about adapting to the dynamism of life as it moves from one phase to the next, but for Ross, who closed his shop in 2023 to semi-retire but still operates his warehouse and sells via Instagram at @mrmod_co_nz, “the wheel turned a tad too far. In the past 10 years, interest  in mid-century design has gone nuts and it has become quite prohibitive to buy overseas”. He now only uses the house when he’s in town and has set it up as short-term accommodation.
That’s a move mid-century fiends will relish (as will those who visit the home as part of the upcoming Open Christchurch festival; see below), since the dwelling is richly layered with exemplary pieces that boast fascinating backstories.

TOP Red sliding doors bring privacy to the bedrooms. Decorative elements here include another Swedish Rya rug and an etching by German/American artist Norbert Schlaus. ABOVE Aggregato lamps by Enzo Mari and Giancarlo Fassina for Artemide work with the red doors. The 1970s chest of drawers was made in New Zealand in the French Campagne style.

Downstairs, capacious leather armchairs by Afra and Tobia Scarpa team with vintage Swedish Rya rugs to warm up the lounge, there’s a Warren Platner coffee table and chair on the mezzanine, the bedrooms are furnished with Scandi classics, including a rare single daybed by Ejner Larsen and Aksel Bender Madsen, and the art all around cues in with the era.
In a study nook hangs an abstract still life Ross rescued from a rat-infested warehouse in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the back bedroom there’s a signed Daniel Arsham print. “I happened to be in New York and a friend of mine told me that on this particular day, an artist was giving away prints beneath a bridge near the Whitney [Museum of American Art],” says Ross.

ABOVE Ross built the back deck with a friend, inspired by the form of a 1960s swimming pool. “I love the vista from the back courtyard through the single bedroom to the west courtyard,” he says. The trees include lancewood, maple and a large tulip.

Sharing his design histories with others has opened a whole new appreciation of the architecture for Ross, and it means his legacy continues, albeit in a different vein. “I lived in the home for 12 years and in all that time, I didn’t have a dining table. That’s because, to me, it isn’t a sit-up-straight sort of house. It’s for relaxing or getting together in.”
When the late-afternoon sun washes into the lounge and the up-lights go on in the maple trees that form a living umbrella in the courtyard, that’s when the architecture really starts to sing. Ath may have passed on and Mr Mod is no longer in permanent residence, but their spirits remain.
Experience life in his house for yourself at Open Christchurch via or by searching for The Athfield House at 

Words Claire McCall
Photography Sam Hartnett

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