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This terracotta Waiheke Island house doubles as an art destination

This artistic enclave on Waiheke Island embodies a Mediterranean sense of warmth and welcome

The wind wall blocks breezes while still allowing beautiful views of Church Bay. The pitched roof was designed as an accent to break up the wall and looked so much like a bell tower when finished that they had to find a bell to fit. The 19th-century Scottish church bell is regularly rung to call the family to dinner or to serenade guests as they leave.

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Meet & greet: Gabriella (abstract artist, lewenz.net) and Claude Lewenz (entrepreneur).

The property: A Mediterranean-inspired earth brick casale, comprising a main house, guest house and gallery, grouped around an inner and outer courtyard.

Building a home is far from unusual, but building a life from scratch is a far more daunting endeavour. Yet that is exactly what Gabriella and Claude Lewenz did nearly three decades ago, with their small daughter in tow, packing up their life in New York and starting anew in Aotearoa.

Driven equally by logic and a sense of providence, they took the leap and had faith that everything would fall into place. Which it did.

The home is maintained every 10 or 12 years by slapping on a fresh slurry of cement and oxidised pigment, giving the building its distinctive terracotta glow.

Hooked on a feeling

Determined to look beyond US shores for their perfect home, the couple were always on the lookout, as they travelled the globe, for a place that ticked all their boxes.

The enormous island bench speaks volumes about the way Gabriella and Claude live. “We realised all the living rooms we had in other homes, we hardly used them. We were always in the kitchen,” says Gabriella. Contrasting textures create welcoming warmth: hand-hewn macrocarpa beams, marble benchtops and tumbled marble tiles, and copper and brass cabinets made by Claude.

But while Gabriella and Claude approached their search with almost clinical pragmatism (with a young daughter to consider, too, they had to be practical), in the end, it was something far more ephemeral that drove their decision, an undeniable gut feeling. They had been on holiday in Hawaii and were lured by cheap flights into making a little side trip to Aotearoa.

“The moment both Claude and I landed in Christchurch, something just clicked and we felt something quite magical,” says Gabriella. “ We couldn’t explain it, there was no reason or logic.”

Claude’s handiwork is on display here, in a timber table whipped up to accommodate guests hours before a dinner party, and shelves made from leftover construction materials: marble offcuts supported by lengths of rebar (reinforcing steel).

But while Gabriella and Claude approached their search with almost clinical pragmatism (with a young daughter to consider, too, they had to be practical), in the end, it was something far more ephemeral that drove their decision, an undeniable gut feeling. They had been on holiday in Hawaii and were lured by cheap flights into making a little side trip to Aotearoa.

“The moment both Claude and I landed in Christchurch, something just clicked and we felt something quite magical,” says Gabriella. “ We couldn’t explain it, there was no reason or logic.”

This was the first structure built after Claude and Gabriella bought the land and now serves as a retreat for family and visiting art collectors.

A campervan whistle-stop tour of the South Island sealed the deal, seducing them with the country’s beauty and – less easily defined – a sense of possibility. “There was a certain vibrancy and potential we felt here.”

Back in New York, they formed an image of the life they hoped to lead and Claude set off on a solo reconnaissance trip, warning Gabriella that her dream property would likely take years to find.

Though Gabriella prefers the simplicity of blank limewashed walls, she made an exception for these biblical folk art pieces, found in Arizona.

In fact, it took just one ferry ride, from Auckland to Waiheke Island, where Claude found a two-hectare block overlooking Church Bay.

“It ticked the boxes in terms of what I was hoping we would find, which was a beautiful pastoral setting by the sea, with a little village we could connect with, and yet have access to a major city,” says Gabriella.

Mediterranean dream

Born and raised in Greece, a piece of Gabriella’s heart belongs to the Mediterranean, and with its subtropical climate and backdrop of cerulean water, here was an opportunity to create their own Med-inspired enclave on Waiheke.

The need to build a home, plus a studio for artist Gabriella, with a hazy vision of it becoming a future art destination, the idea of an Italian-style casale (cluster of dwellings) took shape, and Claude got to work.

Whitewashed walls, pickled timber floors and doors opening wide to a balcony with views of the ocean make this room a summer paradise. But when the weather does turn cold, the kiva fireplace in the corner warms the space.

Given the chance to design their home from scratch, Claude showed a flair for the creative – hitherto untapped by his IT career. Gabriella refers to the home as his canvas, as much a piece of art as the paintings she creates in her studio.

Earth brick dwellings are not so unusual on Waiheke – though not usually on this scale – and the material is beautifully evocative of the Greek Islands, though in a rich and earthy terracotta, rather than Santorini white.

With filmy curtains blowing in a breeze, blue striped cushions and tumbled marble floors, the sitting room is the space that reminds Gabriella most of her time in Greece. The sofa is an old futon, repurposed, while the marble coffee table was brought over from New York and is “dangerously heavy”, says Gabriella.

Their elevated position above Church Bay exposes the site to southerly gusts, inspiring the design of a wind wall, which forms one side of the inner courtyard, a staple Mediterranean architectural feature. Gabriella and Claude’s main living quarters flank this space, while a guest house and an art gallery bookend an outer courtyard beyond.

Treasure hunt

Keeping your eyes open and ears to the ground is the secret to creating a unique and personality-packed home (and to nailing a bargain), but Claude takes fossicking to expert levels.

“He has a tremendously good eye and he’s very good at sourcing materials. What’s quite extraordinary is that most of what we built here is from upcycled or recycled material, stone that was being thrown away, marble that was on its way to the tip,” says Gabriella.

Leftover mud brick was used to construct this tiny hut, with leftover marble used on the mosaic floor. It has since been used as a writer’s hut, a quiet place overlooking the bush where creatives can concentrate. “It has a lovely, meditative and quite monastic feel.”

The copper on the kitchen cabinets was damaged during shipping (only slight scratches) and picked up for a song, the marble slabs were being flogged cheap from the car park of a stone retailer, while an overheard conversation led to an absolute bargain on a small warehouse full of tumbled marble tiles.

Claude made a project of sourcing some of the home’s most distinctive features, directing his talent for procurement toward – among other things – the rustic macrocarpa beams, hand-selected from the farm; and the purchase of a Scottish church bell, after its tone was demonstrated over speakerphone from the UK.

A full guest house kitchen flows through to the main bedroom and beyond to a bathroom with a gorgeous view.

Blank canvas

The home is Claude’s art, says Gabriella, who chooses not to display her own work within the dwelling. “Occasionally I’ll bring a painting into the kitchen area just to look at it for a while, but then take it back to the gallery and eventually sell it. My art is made to go out into the world. And the detail of my husband’s work [the house itself] is the focus here.”

Set aside from the main buildings, Gabriella’s studio offers light and space aplenty for her to create her vivid colourscapes. They’re abstract by definition but heavily influenced by nature and particularly the exquisite landscape of Church Bay and Waiheke Island.

That said, you don’t have to wander far to see Gabriella’s art. Across the outer courtyard, a dedicated gallery is alive with her abstract colourscapes, which combine vivid pigments with textured elements like crushed stone, ash and marble dust.

The stunning location has brought a new vibrancy to her work, she says. “It’s very deeply rooted in landscape and seascape, picking up on contrast, mood and the emotive feelings of nature. It’s very much tied into a connection to land and place.”

The stained glass church window was found in a salvage yard in Connecticut, completely camouflaged in black soot. Claude snagged it anyway and later cleaned it off to reveal the stunning abstract tree of life design. Gabriella’s paintings are displayed on the whitewashed walls, while a sculpture by Anton Forde stands centrestage.

Too good not to share

Moving to their slice of paradise back in the late ’90s, Gabriella and Claude had no idea that Waiheke would become a creative mecca.

When Claude suggested building the studio large enough to be a gallery space, Gabriella’s reaction wasn’t as positive as she’d hoped.  “Well, that’s a lovely thought, but who’s going to come and buy abstract art on Waiheke Island?” But in a classic case of ‘build it and they will come’, the gallery now attracts local and international art buyers and island tourists alike.

“It’s amazing, the alignment between what we’ve created here and how Waiheke has become quite a destination globally for travellers,” says Gabriella. She marvels at the growth of the island as a creative hub, with prodigious local talent ranging from artists to viticulturists and chefs.

Just as the gallery has become a space to share with the general public, Gabriella and Claude have extended that generosity.

While waiting for her studio to be built, Gabriella poured all her creative energy into an ambitious garden design. More recently, needing a green-fingered hand, she called on chef Josh Emett of Oyster Inn to collaborate. Together they hired a gardener, who uses the land to grow produce for the restaurant.

The garden is now a collaborative project with a local gardener and a chef; a tiny ‘writer’s hut’ has been used by visiting poets; the courtyards and gallery can host events from weddings to music festivals; and now Gabriella offers the guest house to visiting art buyers, giving them a ringside seat as she weaves her magic.

“Offering the space is a way to give back, to acknowledge how much we are blessed here,” she says.

Text: Shelley Tustin Photography: Babiche Martens

Shop Gabriella Lewenz’s Waiheke Island house style

1. Koo Corsage Cotton Rust Rug

From $27.50 at Spotlight

This beautiful rug is ideal for a any Mediterranean home, creating a seamless transition from the exterior terracotta to your interior styling.


2. ‘Red Earth’ Photographic Print

$195 at Shop Your Home and Garden

Welcome the vibrant colours of the sea into your home with this beautifully detailed photographic print.


3. Teracotta Ceramic Water Pitcher

$240 at Shop Your Home and Garden

This beautiful water pitcher is the perfect addition if you’re looking to introduce a pop of colour and to bring your aesthetic into the kitchen.


4. Lilly Coastal Bowl

$159 at Shop Your Home and Garden

Fruit, keys or jewellery? Whatever you’re looking to home in a neat wee bowl, this is the one you’ll need. Its fun and beachy waves emulate the natural motion of the ocean, and brings a sense of joy to any surface.


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