In a muted world of beige and taupe, fashion designer turned interior designer Erina Emery offers a cure for the chromophobic in her Art Deco home
When Erina Emery was on holiday in Bali last year, she spied a giant yellow cushion in the shape of a banana and carried it around with her all day before bringing it home to Auckland. It’s more ‘Andy Warhol’ than ‘Bali curio’, but cosied up on a sky-blue couch in the informal living area in her Mt Eden home, it’s a brilliant example of her singular style – a heady mix of colour (her happy place) and humour (with tongue firmly in cheek).
Erina and her husband Matt, an entertainment lawyer, bought their art deco-style home 11 years ago. They’d just had their third child, Oliver (now 12), and learned he had a disability that affects his legs. “We had to find a house that had all the living and bathroom areas on the ground floor and opened out onto a flat section, in case he ended up needing to use a wheelchair,” says Erina. “This house looked amazing from the outside and the agent told me that it was original.”
On closer inspection, the Emerys realised ‘original’ meant it hadn’t been altered since a renovation completed in the ’80s. “Three sisters had been living in the house for 25 years,” says Erina. “They’d loved it and it had amazing bones, but it needed a whole lot of work. The internal walls were plastered stucco, and there were purple wraparound curtains in the dining room and lounge, and pink and peach carpets throughout – not very practical with three kids, then all under five.”
After painting a few of the rooms, the Emerys – including Mason (now 16) and Zoe (now 14) – moved n. The family lived in the house for about a year while Erina and Matt deliberated over further renovations. In the end, they opted to make only aesthetic, rather than structural, improvements. Fortunately, Oliver turned out to not need a wheelchair, so the renovation they thought they’d do – push out the back of the house and put a double garage on the front lawn – never happened. “The house just worked really well for our family as is,” says Erina.
Over the years, they recarpeted, added a little wallpaper and some new curtains, changed light fixtures and painted the banisters red. “In the bathrooms, we just did what I call a ‘lick and split’,” says Erina. “We replaced the vanity and fixtures, then just did fun things, rather than spending a lot of money.”
Erina’s love of fashion began when, while still in high school, she designed, made and sold lingerie to Auckland design stores. On leaving school, she worked in costume departments for film and TV, then once her children were at school themselves, she launched her own womenswear label, Erina Emery, which she ran for six years out of the home office she shares with Matt.
In 2016, the family moved to Spain for a year. When they returned, Erina wasn’t sure she wanted to continue her fashion label. “I’d worked my guts out and it killed me with three kids,” she says. Although she didn’t really think about it at the time, she’d been honing her interior design skills for a while. She’d enjoyed working on the renovations of two homes, one her and Matt’s own and another they’d brought as a do-up property with friends; however, when they arrived home from Spain, they found their priorities had shifted.
“Our move was life-changing,” says Erina. “It made us realise that we didn’t want to spend money on property – we wanted to be able to travel more often instead.” Already regular globetrotters, the couple’s new goal for when the kids finish school is to spend four to five months in Spain every year.
Moving on from her fashion label, Erina decided to launch her own interior design business. “I have to be creating something or I’ll shrivel up and die, and I wanted the flexibility of working for myself, so I took the Donna Jones Design Success course,” she says. The 10-week online course offers a deep dive into the business side of interior design, including how to pitch, price, deal with trade wholesalers and give clients the best experience.
“I was always very lonely doing clothing,” says Erina, who has also joined networking group Venus. “Donna has set up an amazing community that really nurtures designers. She has a wonderful Facebook page and is constantly doing tutorials and re-educating everyone. It’s women in business supporting each other.”
She says her new enterprise has taken off. “I have six clients on the go at the moment. Every day I wake up and feel like I’m doing a hobby, rather than work. I love it.” Erina doesn’t follow any hard-and-fast design rules, preferring to take into account her clients’ unique taste and personality and the functionality of a space. She says her personal aesthetic is over the top and considers US designer Jonathan Adler one of her design heroes.
“I love colour and big, loud prints on wallpaper or fabrics. I like having little corners that make people laugh or bring back memories. It’s not just about being on trend, it’s about feeling comfortable and happy in your space.” Yet she knows when to exercise restraint. Take her home’s mostly simple white light fittings, some bought years ago from Ikea in Singapore for around $15 each.
I keep looking to replace them but can’t find anything better,” says Erina. “They work because it’s such a colourful house and not everything can be in your face.” Little tweaks are constantly being made here. “I made the blue velvet curtains in our bedroom and it helps that Matt loves to paint,” says Erina. “We recently painted the tiles, cabinetry and ceiling in the laundry yellow.”
Even so, a decisive lover of colour sometimes needs a second pair of eyes. “For the staircase, I was unsure what to do,” she says. “It was a really old banister and I almost took it out and replaced it with glass. When I decided to paint it red to match the carpet, I had designer Alex Fulton come over and give me colour advice. I also consulted her on other areas of the house. Matt was like, ‘Do whatever’, but sometimes you need someone else to say, ‘That’s not too mental’.”
The old furniture the family lived with when the kids were younger has been colourfully upgraded too – case in point the custom-made petrol-blue velvet couch in the formal living area – and as the kids grow, their rooms keep changing as well. “We recently redid Zoe’s room, which was pink with a navy backdrop and full-on printed curtains,” says Erina. “Now it’s a bit plain for me – I’d like it to be more frou-frou!”
One thing mother and daughter do agree on is indoor plants – a family trait, as it turns out. “My gran and mother are what you’d call green-fingered,” says Erina. “Plants are like pieces of art, they provide texture, a sculptural presence and beauty.”
Words by: Nadine Rubin Nathan. Photography by: Helen Bankers.