NZ Life & Leisure

At home with Neil McLachlan

Prominent interior designer Neil McLachlan lost his heart to a Waiheke Island hilltop.

words: Tracey Strange Watts
photos: Matthew Williams

When it comes to property, Neil McLachlan has a bit of a roving eye.

"I was totally happy in the house I already owned on another part of the island. But I saw this and fell completely in love."

The result of this affair of the heart(s) is a unique building designed around an internal courtyard with a guest wing for friends and family and lots of room for both Greg, a freelance television director, and Neil to work from home. It became Neil's showpiece, a tribute to his professional ability to mix a huge range of materials, styles and inspirations – from concrete-block walls to French antique furnishings, luxury fabrics and the decorative bric–à–brac that comes from years of collecting. The house is a confident coming–together of an enormous range of shared enthusiasms and is as interesting and distinctive as Neil's life and career to date.

Step back to the 1960s. Neil was born in Auckland, the son of prominent architect Ron McLachlan and his wife, Phyl. He grew up in Remuera, not in a traditional Remmers mansion but in a "cracker" of a modernist house designed by his worldly and exacting father. He left home at 17 to take up a liberal arts scholarship at a

college in Wisconsin and two years later was living in Paris in an historic apartment he had convinced Phyl to buy. France was an easy fit. "I gravitated to all that Old World stuff," he says. "It was probably a reaction against all the modernism in my background."

He continued his studies but it was fashion rather than interiors that brought him back home. At the beginning of the '80s, while still in his early 20s, he launched a menswear label in Auckland called Eton Collars. This led to a further, eponymous, label that was also sold in the States and – very unusually for the time – manufactured in Mauritius. "Everything in life is about timing," says Neil. "And, with hindsight, perhaps it was a little early to be manufacturing clothing in Mauritius."

The label folded, mainly due to economic uncertainty caused by the 1987 crash, and Neil was left looking for pastures new. Disillusioned with fashion, he considered – but put aside – architecture. What caught his fancy was television costume design. At that stage all the costumes for TVNZ were produced out of Avalon, in Wellington, and Neil headed south. It was an introduction to television production that was later to stand him in good stead. After a while, though, he was back in Europe, this time on an undertaking with enormous potential for creative costume design – the launch of Euro Disney. "You should see the sketches for the dancing cutlery," pipes up Greg as he makes dinner from the zucchini and squash he's grown in the couple's impressive vege garden. "Costume designing at Euro Disney was – and still is – considered one of the great jobs," admits Neil. "Eventually, though, I realized the corporate life wasn't really where my heart was.

He moved to London and another new creative challenge – hat-making. "I'm a fan of blurring the creative lines," he smiles. Millinery didn't seem all that different from costumes and – apart from the likes of Philip Treacy – there wasn't much going on then in hat haute couture. And like Treacy, who has a reputation for being something of a mad hatter, Neil (who had studied music while at college in the States) also developed a rather unconventional alter ego. By day he made exclusive wearable sculptures; at night he had a job tinkling the ivories at some of the city's poshest nightspots. "I'd get a phone call from my agent, put on a dinner suit, hop on a double-decker bus and go to play jazz piano standards at a glamorous hotel."

He came back to New Zealand because it was the right time, he says. It was also the right time for interiors. "By then I had worked out that commercial design suits my need for constant change." He took a job with Auckland luxury interiors store, Cavit & Co, and was asked to open a branch in Queenstown. By then he had met Greg, who went with him. The couple stayed in Queenstown for a year, Neil working at Cavits, Greg as sole-charge journalist at the local radio station, and then returned to Auckland where Neil started Revolution Interiors. It was while at Revolution that he was approached to audition for Changing Rooms, the franchised reality entertainment show that signalled a new era in New Zealand DIY. Based on a BBC format, it was hugely popular here. Neil, who also later worked on another show of its type, Hot Property, says the experience was invaluable.

"I apply the same principles to a space whether it's going to be worth $2000 or $2 million," he says. "I've never walked into a room and been fazed by it. Essentially, you just break it down into how it will be used, at what time of day and what the owners really want to get out of it."

His philosophy was no different when working on his own home, a structure he both designed and decorated. The building is based around a central internal courtyard and looks inward, rather than out to the view, which is unusual in a Kiwi home. One of the reasons, says Neil, is that he feels views should be "visited".

"I think you should make an effort to go and look at them," he says. Therefore, the best views in the house – out across the valley to the sea – aren't from the main living areas but from the office and guest rooms. The courtyard also emphasizes the house's friends–and–family feel. Sheltered, with a pond and lush garden, it is the perfect place for large and relaxed dinner parties and also provides ventilation, light and privacy.

The house, constructed mainly from offset concrete blocks, has an airy, contemporary feel but it's a maximalist's rather than a minimalist's dream; antique wall hangings, vintage landscapes, ink drawings and crystal chandeliers share space with valuable keepsakes and objets d'art. It's all texture, lush fabrics and container–loads of treasures, each with a story behind it. It's also hallmarked by Neil's quirky use of colour and pattern in everything from soft furnishings to floor coverings and bed linen. "You can make anything hang together," he says, "but it totally depends on the structural or architectural framework of the room as to how you do it."

True to Neil's philosophy about designing a home around how it will be used, it is a house for entertaining. There are three guest bedrooms (including one specifically for children), an enormous entertaining "pit" with its own fireplace, a media room and a large kitchen, dining room and living area. It suits him right down to the rocky foundations upon which it was built.


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