House of Fun

What is it about chooks that is so appealing to Mark Lewington? “I guess it’s just that they’re such classic rural icons,” says the graphic designer and artist from his home in rural Warkworth. “When I lived in Matakana there was this rogue street chicken that came with the house. I called her Mr Chicken. I took her under my wing… she was great company, I even taught her a few tricks. She soon became my muse.”

Since then Mark, his partner Tabea and four year old Max have moved 10km outside Warkworth to a small bush block on the flanks of a large and imposingly pointy hill. There are glow worms and kauri snails in the bush, native fish in the stream.

Tabea is German, from near Cologne. They met here in New Zealand – at the Leigh Sawmill in fact. She had come to the Leigh Marine Laboratory on a marine biology scholarship (she’s just finishing her PhD). But she always was a creative and crafty type as well as a scientist; she sews, knits and paints delicate watercolours in exquisite detail. Tabea was responsible also for the screeds of spreadsheets that saw the couple come in under budget when designing and building their own cedar weatherboard home.

“We found this free online design software and just drew up our own plans,” she says. “We thought – hey, we are both creative people who are reasonably technically minded, how hard can it be? And it was actually relatively easy.”

The pair got some great advice from a local engineer who told them if they stayed within the NZS 3604 building standard to avoid heavy engineering they’d significantly cut costs. So they set about designing with this in mind. The house was designed in harmony with its surroundings and to capture the bush and mountain views. The best part of their budget was spent on beautiful windows with deep-framed sills, and dark-stained, solid cedar cladding.

They did other clever things too, like ensuring that all the plumbing was in one place to cut down on expensive pipework. “We decided that because it’s a fairly compact build anyway, we didn’t actually need an ensuite, it’s just an unnecessary expense,” says Mark. “I mean, why do we need ensuites everywhere anyway? When did we become so… needy!?”

The ply walls are practical for many reasons: they’re fairly bomb-proof for a four year old hurtling round on a bike, they’re a good neutral backdrop for art, they’re strong enough for screws to go in, you can hang anything anywhere, and there’s little or no maintenance involved.

Mark is a self-proclaimed ‘registered master hoarder’; Tabea rolls her eyes behind his back. “I can’t wait for the big shed outside to be finished,” she says. “He can unpack all his collections and set them up out there!” She flaps a hand in the general direction.

“My vintage skateboard collection is up to about 70,” says Mark, “and I’ve got enough old road works signs to divert traffic. Tabea busted me unloading them so I pretended I was going to use them as windbreaks for her veggie garden – and I did.”

Mark is hotly in demand as a sign writer and graphic designer but he’s keen to make more time for art. Chooks do indeed feature highly – painted on old ironing boards, table tops or fridge doors. But there’s also a Warhol-esque box of Beehive matches on an old fire-hose reel door; a feisty gull on a piece of worn blue driftwood. He’s committed to never again painting on to canvas. “There are just so many other things that are more interesting,” he says. “Painting on found objects can sometimes add that nostalgic connection to the work. Often the surface inspires the subject.” A recent project involves defacing a series of vintage portraits with animal masks. We like a 1980s portrait of the Queen wearing a corgi mask.

Mark also loves industrial hospital stuff – his latest acquisition is a 1970s optometrist’s chair. His favourite blue wheelchair sits at the table; he leans back in it while drinking coffee. The cabinets above the kitchen bench are from a hospital, and he’s added a little strip light under each. Household light fittings are generally larger than life, often modified. Many have been found at local vintage stores, the Hospice garage sale in Warkworth or on TradeMe. Or simply, right place, right time.

He’s also very handy. He made the laundry and bathroom shelving from galvanised piping and slabs of lovingly sanded old wood. He’s made loo roll holders from concrete and steel pipe, and embedded vintage Dinky cars in them, towel hooks from vintage taps, drawer handles from the heads of All Blacks action dolls.

There are still plenty of things to do – a ‘proper’ deck is yet to appear, but Mark has set up an admirable multi-level outdoor area using a mix of wooden pallets, old scaffolding planks, which young Max loves. He especially loves it when they light a fire in the big old digger bucket and gaze over the flames at the silhouette of their mountain against a dark sky full of stars. There are no chickens yet to share their little piece of paradise with, but they’re working on it.