An inexhaustible collector discovers the beauty in a brick-and-tile home built in the ’60s.
Bowerbird by name, bowerbird by nature, Auckland interior stylist Joanna Cowie (aka @bowerbirdjo_wanders) is a collector through and through. Look to your left as you enter her Murrays Bay home, and behold the ever-growing set of tiny wall-hung aeroplanes engraved with the destinations she, her CEO husband Neil and their three children have travelled to. Continue past the bowls full of vintage keys and other enchanting ephemera and you’ll see shelves displaying an assortment of secondhand cameras. But it’s in the guest room where her lifelong talent for finding treasure comes into its own. Sliding open the drawers of her apothecary-style cabinet reveals beautiful butterflies, spiky coral, pale green sea eggs and all kinds of other curios.
She laughs as she recalls how it all began. “When I was nine, I went to a friend’s house and she had a little blown bantam egg. I’d never seen one before, and I wanted that egg, so I swapped my gold signet ring for it. Her mother said, ‘Are you sure your mummy won’t mind?’ and I said, ‘No.’ Well, I never told my mummy, and how bad was it that she let her child take my ring?! It was so wrong, but that was my first thing. I’ve collected ever since.”
Decades of irresistible finds now live alongside Jo and Neil in the 1960s dwelling they’ve turned into their forever home. Having built and renovated many times while living in South Africa, then New Zealand, then Australia, they bought the single-storey brick-and-tile home shortly after their return to Aotearoa, with a view to doing it up and moving on. Planning to retain the original footprint but transform it into a light, bright haven with good flow, the couple brought Matt Davy of Dave Pearson Architects on board with builder Kent Sulzberger and his team at Rusa Construction, and set out to “get it right”. In the end, it took them eight years.
“We just kept thinking, ‘Let’s change this, let’s change that’ – so it’s been ongoing, but we’ve got to the point now where we really like it,” says Jo. “This is the longest we’ve ever lived in one place – and we didn’t intend to stay, but it grew on us.”
First in line for renovation were the bathroom and kitchen. Don’t even get Jo started on the latter, however – it’s recently been redone for a second time. “They say you should live in a home for a couple of years before you embark on a renovation, and it’s true. The initial kitchen renovation was an epic fail, which we had to live with for seven years. We were bitterly disappointed, but hey, that’s life – you’ve gotta have some curveballs.”
Stage two opened up the house front and back. To harness the all-day sun, they added sliding doors in the dining area and living rooms connecting to decks at either end of the house. Cosmetic changes were made throughout – new doors, hardware, carpet, skirting boards, Roman blinds and shutters – and they took to the interior walls with Resene Black White and the previously rust-coloured exterior with a custom-mixed lime-wash concrete paint, which will develop a European-style patina as it weathers.
Finally, in phase three, they sanded and stained the original rimu floors a dark mahogany, created an outdoor entertaining area with a gas fire and low-maintenance native/tropical garden, redid that pesky kitchen, and added a second storey. This retreat-like upstairs master suite includes an ensuite, a walk-in wardrobe, an office nook, and a deck to capture the amazing harbour view, with Rangitoto so close you can almost touch it.
As far as Jo’s concerned, good things do take time. “I’m not into fast homeware at all. I like things with a bit of a story, a bit of history.” She regularly tries to cull her collections because, actually, she doesn’t like clutter, and the result is an expert balance that feels just right.
“In winter I have more stuff around, but in summer I like to pare it back a bit,” she says. “It’s about personal touches. My kids are an influence; I bought our little brass anchor because of Matt, who’s a sailor. I’m very sentimental, and I suppose that’s why old things speak to me. Give me something rusty and a little bit dusty – I don’t like perfect.”
She says she got emotional about the classic metal balustrade at the front entry. “We could have bought a shiny new one, but I thought, ‘No, this is the house. It’s served this house well since 1960.’ So we just painted it.”
Eight years and counting, the family looks set to continue collecting memories here. “This is a little house with a big heart – I’ve had a thing for it from the beginning,” says Jo. “It’s a modest house, you know? It’s not flash, because I’m not flash. I just made it a bit grander.”