Meet the Auckland-based designer inspired by the great outdoors

From painterly strokes to graphic lines,  Emma Hayes’ work is inspired by nature

Living in the city, Auckland-based designer Emma Hayes is in her element. Her commute to work is a few steps downstairs to her studio, where she designs painterly collections of wall coverings and textiles that are sold around the world. Inspiration for her designs, however, comes from an utterly different perspective. When it comes to firing up her imagination, Emma turns to the great outdoors. “Spending time in nature fuels me creatively. The colours I use in my designs are directly linked to the landscapes I see around me,” she says.

Like many New Zealanders, living overseas gave Emma a renewed appreciation of this country’s natural beauty. When she arrived back from London in 2006, she landed a job designing textiles for fashion label Cybele. The role gave her the opportunity to take a concept right through from design to marketing. Emma thrived in this end-to-end creative environment and the experience gave her the confidence to launch her own business in 2011. “I was ready for a change and I could see a gap in the lifestyle market for beautiful textiles.”

These days, she combines running an internationally successful design house with raising triplets, seven-year-old boys Quinn, Louie and Remi. It’s a busy life, but Emma thrives on the challenge.

What’s your background?
I went to art school in Auckland and my first job in a design studio showed me it was possible to marry fine arts with commerce. That was incredibly inspiring. While I was in London I studied at Central Saint Martins, where Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and John Galliano are all past students. That was an amazing experience and, combined with London’s vibrant cultural hub, had a lasting influence on me as a designer.

What was your first big break?
It has been more about a series of events and relationships that have developed gradually, rather than one thing. Over time I’ve built a team here at the studio and developed relationships and initiatives that have allowed the company to grow. There are five of us that make up our HQ team in Auckland, and a wider network of suppliers and distributors who I consider part of our team as well.

What was the biggest challenge?
Having triplets when the business was in its infancy was, on a personal level a great joy, but a hurdle in terms of stamina. To make it work I had to design my business around my life, not the other way around. As a result the business has become more flexible and that has proved to be a strength during the pandemic. We already knew we didn’t need to operate using a traditional 9-5 model to be successful.

How do you fit it all in?
I thrive on being busy, but I don’t have any special secrets. There are times when I feel like I’m on a hamster wheel. I have had to learn to delegate, and also get better at saying no and not overcommitting. This has got easier as the business and my team has grown and there is more of a support structure in place. When it comes to the international side of the business, lots can be done outside of local work hours so that suits me. I also have great support from my partner Johnny and my lovely family.

What impact did the triplets have?
I probably had less balance before the boys came along. Now I have to take time out from work and often the time I spend with them is active or play-based so it’s a good counterbalance. I always try to get enough exercise and sleep, as well as treasuring the small things in life.

Who inspires you and how do you keep your creativity alive?
Lots of different ways. Nature is a huge inspiration. As well as fuelling my work, getting out into the “green” is good for my health and wellbeing. I think often about scale and how the abstract expressionists considered this in their work. And I think a lot about McCahon and how he created “paintings to walk by” where you had to move your body to view the work. Seeing an artist at work in their studio, creative friends doing great things, and catching up with people who make you feel good about life in general are all an inspiration.

Have you ever had a business mentor?
Yes, I’ve had a few over the years. I’ve also got a wider scope of people I can talk to when I feel like I need some business advice. One thing that I’ve discovered from experience is that verbalising an issue with someone can give you clarity.

Do you have anything in the pipeline?
We’ve got a few exciting projects coming up. There are some new design releases scheduled for this year, including wallpapers featuring grasscloths, and a fresh collection of artworks. Another interesting project is an acoustic collection we are currently developing with New Zealand company Autex.

What’s the best and worst part of running your own business?
The highlight for me is the people I’ve been able to meet and work with along the way, especially my team. The toughest part is that you can be your own harshest critic.

What about career highlights?
Working with Louis Vuitton these past two years. We were approached by the Louis Vuitton design team to supply a selection of our papers for their Auckland city, Melbourne and Newmarket stores. We’ve supplied them with fine grade papers that have a gentle vibrancy of colour and we are thrilled to see them co-existing in such luxurious surroundings. We are grateful that an international brand like Louis Vuitton chose to work with a local brand for these projects.

And rumour is that you’ve made it in Hollywood, too.
Yes, and we didn’t even know. One of our Instagram followers sent us a screenshot of our Bloom paper, which she saw on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills TV show. One of the housewives, Dorit Kemsley, has it in her home. We work closely with our showroom in LA, and with many international interior designers who specify our products, but we don’t always know the full details of their projects so it was a surprise. Social media is good like that. We get to see our papers installed in many different places all around the world.

Words by: Leanne Moore. Photography by: Babiche Martens.

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