Reading list: Rooms by Jane Ussher & John Walsh

A typical look might come to mind when you think of New Zealand interiors. For this book, the venerable Jane Ussher MNZM shot some that are in another category altogether.

MAIN IMAGE This Arts & Crafts house located outside Raglan was designed in the 1930s by Sholto Smith. ABOVE “Even though I live quite minimally, I really enjoy other people’s infatuation with things,” says Jane. The portraits she took in this special home in Christchurch show artwork and objects arranged with aplomb.

Jane spent 29 years as chief photographer for the Listener, rising to become the country’s foremost portrait photographer. After stepping down from the role in 2008, a chance meeting sent her to Antarctica to shoot explorers Scott and Shackleton’s huts, and she arrived home indelibly altered, committed to photographing interiors as she had people. Evident in this book is her expert ability to capture and communicate the singular nature of a space — akin to the uniqueness of an individual.

TOP This photo taken in a 1979 Governors Bay home by Jonty Rout includes a bowl by Mirek Smíšek, a pot by Margaret Ryley and hīnaki (eel traps) by Kari Morseth. ABOVE The view into the bedroom in this renovated 1913 villa in Wellington reveals a painting by Catherine Clayton-Smith.

This tome doesn’t take us anywhere as exotic as Antarctica, but many of these rooms from around Aotearoa have an international feel that makes this a read you can really escape into. Bookended by a wonderful essay by architecture writer John Walsh and an illuminating index by publisher/journalist Nicola Legat ONZM, it’s page after page of spaces you can get lost in, marvelling at the layered detail lovingly installed over time. In fact, more so than the houses themselves, Jane’s interested in the human urge to collect and curate the stuff that’s in them. “Put me in a room… and I don’t see the architecture,” she says. “I’ll be drawn to the corner with a pile of things.”

TOP This turn-of-the-century Auckland villa is filled with artworks created by its owner. ABOVE Both the kitchen and the dining table in this ’50s bach at Lake Rotomā were designed and built by Mark Bruce.

Although no people feature here, there are many signs of life: artworks creatively chosen, sofas you want to sink into, curiosities you’d love to clutch in your own hand. All are a very entertaining portal to the personalities that have made these walls talk.

Words Philippa Prentice

Rooms by Jane Ussher & John Walsh (Massey University Press, $85) is on sale from October 20, but you can pre-order your copy now from your local bookseller or Massey University Press.

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