Real character

Christchurch store Frances Nation has a family name on the sign and good old-fashioned values at its heart. Here’s the extended version of our interview with its owner Tessa Peach, which features in our April/May 2018 issue.

Why not have a homeware store that’s like a classic corner grocer’s, so shoppers can choose quality goods made by local producers from natural ingredients for their homes as they might their stomachs? Interior and event designer Tessa Peach couldn’t help but wonder, and the upshot was the opening of her first shop, Frances Nation, in Christchurch’s restored Arts Centre.

So, Tessa, what do you stock? I scout out quality, useful, New Zealand-made wares – from tool boxes and potato mashers to ceramics and fire pokers. They come from all over the country 
and it’s quite an eclectic arrangement that’s continually in development.

Had you done anything like this before? My background is in interior and event design and hospitality – this is my first shop. The idea came from working for a woman called Leila McAlister, who runs Leila’s Shop, one of the best small grocer’s in London. Leila gathers together an incredible array of suppliers from around England and continental Europe, and her shop is known in London as a place to find the best fresh produce. Her display is rustic and relaxed, and changes everyday depending on what she gets from the market. I loved how hard Leila had worked to create something that has a genuine heart to it and a rigorous level of quality; working for her got me thinking about how I have a love for both food and interiors, and how great it could be to establish a homeware shop with a similar attitude.

How did you bring Frances Nation to life? It took about two years of research, planning and travel before I opened the doors. I started researching a lot online about things that were quintessentially New Zealand. Then, when I moved back from overseas, I went on a number of long-distance road trips around the North and South Island, visiting makers I’d written to. I’m still looking for products.

It’s neat that you named the store after your grandmother. It’s old-fashioned, I guess, to have a family name on the sign, but I like it. My grandmother was called Frances Nation and I inherited her name as my middle names. I thought Frances Nation as proprietor fitted the style of the store.

Who else works here? My fiancée, textile artist Emma Fitts, has been helping me in the shop, and I’ve recently employed the lovely Jane Lyons, who runs The Next Meal.

How are you enjoying your space upstairs at the Arts Centre? It’s a wonderful setting. The Gothic Revival-style windows let in good light and the thick stone walls mean the shop always feels temperate and calm. I appreciate that the Arts Centre as an institution is first and foremost a place for the arts. It’s an important part of the city with so much history, and everybody in the city has their own memories of and connections to it. I grew up coming here often for the cinema and theatre, and I also worked in the market during the weekends selling my dad Andrew Peach’s craft jewellery. The level of care that has gone into the restoration after the earthquakes is outstanding and I’m super excited to part of its future.

What kind of vibe have you tried to create for customers? The shop’s layout mimics that of a traditional general store. It has floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with goods, a long central table for a rotating display and two counters – one for wrapping and one for displaying soaps.
Because everything I stock is by New Zealand makers, the shop has a distinctly New Zealand style. There’s a level of excellence in New Zealand crafts and industry that’s really worth celebrating, and I think it does that. The tactility of the goods is a big part of the experience, and smell has become an important aspect too – people spend a lot of time picking things up and sniffing them! It turns out that when you choose to sell a lot of natural products, the smell of them all combined is gorgeous.

Who styled the space? I styled it myself. The look evolved as I found products based on the parameters I’d set for the products: by New Zealand makers, useful and of excellent quality. It was interesting as it felt like it had a life of its own.
I like the combination of different materials coming together in one space – wax, ceramics, metal, wood, flax, wool and even plastic grace the shelves. I have recycled plastic buckets made in Dunedin that come in random colours depending on what’s being recycled at the time.

Where did you source the furniture and fittings? I designed the interior myself, including the floor, shelving, counters and lighting. This involved lots of 3D modelling, hours of mulling over fixtures in the aisles of hardware shops, and asking every expert I bumped into endless questions. I’m very happy with the end result. I wanted the design to respect and highlight the existing architecture and to offer flexibility, so the shop could develop. For the construction, I employed an old friend, local builder Tim McGurk, who added his own touches as he worked.
There are also a few pieces I inherited from Dad’s craft jewellery business. I remodelled his old market stand for the central table and use his steel paper roll and concrete-based cellotape dispenser.

Do you move things around or does everything have a distinct spot? I certainly have shop staples, but things do move around. There’s always new work arriving and I like to change the display depending on the day.

Do you have a daily routine in the store? There’s no routine, really, apart from opening at 10 and closing at five. Running a shop is so busy and varied – there are always different deliveries, different shoppers, different weather. I quite like it when it’s raining, as people tend to take their time and the light inside is really wonderful. If I’m out of the shop, I’ll usually find some excuse to hit the road to collect something for the shelves – maybe some local honey.

You’re all about quality craftsmanship and authenticity – how do you find the best makers around? I care about every aspect of an object’s production, so meeting the maker and going to their workshop is really important. Most of the makers I work with are super-dedicated to their particular craft or industry – they do one thing well. I can’t personally relate to this at all as I’m a complete generalist! But I’m in complete awe of those who dedicate themselves to their trade with such incredible attention to detail.
I’d say quite a lot of my products come under the category of wacky and unique. All my makers have an interesting story to tell and their lifestyles are usually as special as their products. I often share their stories with my customers over the counter.

And are they from all over the country or mostly just your neck of the woods? The makers represented at Frances Nation are scattered all over the country. I realised pretty quickly that if I wanted to show the best of New Zealand-made, I’d need to branch out, travel a lot and stay focused on what I was trying to achieve. I’m always on the lookout for new products. I’m about to do a trip to the West Coast of the South Island because there’s an excellent teapot maker over there. The best thing about stocking only New Zealand makers is that they’re often just a phone call away for a quick delivery and the trade is usually direct, honest and friendly.

How would you describe your own interiors aesthetic? It’s inspired by my upbringing and my travels. I like quite eclectic and personal interiors, and especially love artists’ studios. My mum Deborah Nation worked for many years as a documentary maker for Radio New Zealand and took me around the South Island visiting all sorts of people for her stories. She taught me that everybody has a unique story and to appreciate different lifestyles and attitudes.

Do you have any advice for shoppers on choosing and using handcrafted objects? Nothing is too good to be used – enjoy it. If it’s a special hand-blown drinking glass, put some gin and tonic 
in it. If it’s a beautiful candle, admire it, then burn it!
Shop slowly and thoughtfully, and invest in quality. Buy with the long term in mind; a lot of goods could last a lifetime and be something for your kids to treasure. Ask lots of questions when buying too – don’t be shy, get fussy and get educated.

How much of your stock heads home with you – is your place the best-dressed in town? Well, Emma and I are in the middle of renovating, so our house is currently full of ladders and paint tins. But I can’t wait to fill it with all the lovely things I’ve found. I like to know my products well, which is a great excuse to own everything in the shop.

What’s so great about doing what you’re doing and where you’re doing it? I’m excited to have carved out a spot for myself in central Christchurch. This city is a wonderful place to call home – it’s surrounded by beautiful countryside and after the earthquakes it’s full of new ideas and has a strong community spirit. I like feeling connected with the community though my business and I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive support from the locals.

Words Philippa Prentice
Photography Bonny Beattie

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