The Manse on Bertram

The Manse on Bertram Street in Warkworth is a grand old dame, one hundred and twelve years old this year. It’s one of only five solid concrete homes built by the Wilson Cement Works, back in the day. It was the Church Manse; the Pastor from the Anglican Church just behind the house lived here originally. It’s a generous and well-proportioned villa, with some quirky style and plenty of class. Perched on the hill, it would have had amazing views to the Dome Valley hills back then. It still does, to a degree, although there are rather more buildings in the way now. The villa is set in sub-tropical gardens, with some big old phoenix palms dotted about.

Sonia and Chris Couling bought it seven years ago, moving up from Northcote Point. They have a thing for villas – they saw this one and couldn’t resist. Chris loves some of the classic Australian architecture. “This one reminded us of a Queenslander, with its gorgeous shady verandahs,” says Sonia.

Chris is the Operations Manager for Herman Pacific Timber and Sonia’s been involved with vintage sales for quite a few years now. She first got interested in collecting retro memorabilia when living in London over twenty years ago. “Some of the markets and car boot sales in London are just amazing for vintage stuff,” Sonia remembers. “But I went to a really exceptional one more recently in Los Angeles – the Rose Bowl Fleamarket. It’s once a month and it’s jaw-dropping.”

Back in NZ, Sonia worked for the last few years at a vintage shop in Auckland. She was doing the buying for them – going to auction houses and markets was a good way to keep an eye on the things she loves to collect, too: vintage signage, trophies, taxidermy and concrete animals. Sonia also works closely with Annie O, Botanical Stylist. The two of them style weddings, parties, themed events, bar fitout – anything you like, really.

She’s now gone out on her own however, with new business The Magpie Merchant. She can source specific one-off vintage pieces to mix and match with things you may already have, and will consult to create fabulous design in your own home. “It’s all about mixing it up,” she says. “Don’t buy into trends just mix old with new until you have something you love. If you have too much old stuff going on it just looks like a collection of junk – you have to get some freshness in there.

“I like to make little groupings of objects that tell a story somehow… but don’t forget – odd numbers rule!” The large amount of dusting makes her despair a little, particularly when it comes to big collections like her trophies, but we both agree with the Quentin Crisp philosophy: after the first year, it doesn’t seem to get any worse!

Sonia loves to play with colour. Their bedroom is on the south side of the house and didn’t get a lot of light, so she decided to embrace it, painting it in Karen Walker Fuscous Grey. “A dark bedroom is actually really relaxing. It has cosy sanctuary feel… and let’s face, we mostly just sleep in there, anyway! I love Karen Walker colours – she just nails it somehow. And they’re all tonal, so they tend to work with each really well.” The dining room is a bold blue (Karen Walker Shadowy Blue), but she still loves white for busy living spaces – the lounge is in Karen Walker Wan White.

She’s big on wallpaper too, but it doesn’t tend to stick very well on the concrete walls, so she’s just done a few feature walls. A standout is the Designer’s Guild bold pink and blue pattern in the second bedroom. There’s also a white textured paper in the kitchen, which works well with the vintage feel, and a classic Union Jack paper by Vivienne Westwood in the hallway.

Her other top tips for home design? “Accentuate the quirks in your home. If you have something you hate but can’t change – paint it a mad colour, turn it into a feature! Play with scale – if your ceilings are low, get some tall things in there. Throw some unexpected pops of colour around. And get plants – lots of plants!” Sonia’s fiddle figs in the lounge are her pride and joy. “They give a huge lift to any room. And finally – don’t over-coordinate, but definitely do over-accessorise! More is more – animal hides, cushions, just go wild.”

Chris and Sonia have done all the painting and building work themselves. Whenever Sonia has time on her hands, she’ll paint something. But Chris is happy – he’s discovered home brewing and now has a man-cave brewing shed he can retreat to. He’s even branded his beer the Meatworks Brewing Company and is making black and red IPAs and pilsners. Perfect for the coming summer on his Queenslander verandah.