Interior designer Rufus Knight – the man behind a string of beautiful boutiques and a ritzy apartment building – chooses an Auckland future over what might have been a stellar career abroad.
He’s starting to put his stamp on the way people live in this city, and the way New Zealand design is noticed abroad. The briefest survey of his achievements to date gives an overwhelming impression of kinetic energy. What’s firing it?
“I don’t want to sound like a martyr, but if you want to do good work, you really have to commit to it,” he says. “What gets you through is understanding you are connected to wider bodies of thought.” Knight is discreetly stylish, wiry, focused. He confesses to being a workaholic, saying he works “24/7”. He’s single, and the only hobby he mentions is running. The infectious grin he breaks out from time to time goes a long way towards leavening his intensity: when he laughs, it takes years off him.
Knight has a lucrative talent for translating branding ephemera into built spaces people want to be in. His work inhabits a sweet spot between art and commerce, and the spaces he creates share a luxurious tactility without being limited to a strict, single aesthetic. For the Ponsonby store of cult womenswear label Lonely - his first solo project after six years at local architecture firm Fearon Hay - he devised a sleek mix of parquet flooring and sand-blasted marble that feels more like a high-end gallery than a clothes shop. (The first time I went there, I was so over-awed I bought a pantsuit two sizes too big.) A few blocks down the Ponsonby Road strip, candle store Curio Noir has a more dramatic sensuality, all gleaming wood and richly perfumed shadows.
Knight loves designing shops because of the scope for theatre. “You set a stage and then it’s dressed,” he says. “The reason I got into interiors was set design. It was kind of intuitive. I didn’t want to do industrial design or landscape architecture so I went to interiors, because
I was interested in film and fashion and all that stuff…there seemed to be a stronger relationship between them, more scope to explore those broader themes.”
These days, Knight’s sense of theatre is playing out on a larger scale. Developer Gary Groves is relying on Knight to design interiors at The International, a multi-storey luxury apartment tower by Jasmax that’s being created with a dramatic conversion of the old Fonterra building on Princes Street. The commission was unsolicited: Groves approached Knight after his wife Fiona took him into the Lonely store. Knight’s response? “Who the fuck am I to do 80 apartments with no track record apart from a couple of lingerie stores?”
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Still, he took it. There’s a pragmatism in the way he’s applied his artistic talents to business, first with retail and now with residential projects like The International. He and Groves are planning to do more work together, which should bode well for high-density living in Auckland. “I think it’s the grain of places like Auckland that is so interesting,” says Knight. “All of the different contrasts – commercial versus residential, big versus small, expensive versus cheap. It’s the same in Melbourne and Sydney. Contrasts add up to a liveable city.”
Knight was working in Antwerp when Groves got in contact, assisting Vincent Van Duysen, the renowned Belgian architect whose sleek modernist style is beloved by fashion cognoscenti like Julianne Moore and Raf Simons. While he enjoyed the exacting nature of the work, the pull of home was physical. “What drew me back [to New Zealand] was connection to the landscape,” says Knight. “I had to run three kilometres to see green in Antwerp!”
Knight also sees an appealing freedom in this country’s occasionally flexible approach to the rules. “We’re quite lawless in New Zealand,” he says. “That’s certainly not a criticism! Certain things, like jaywalking with no shoes for example, we just do here: that would be a traffic offence in Antwerp! [Composer] Victoria Kelly shared this great line: ‘New Zealanders never made a fetish of perfectionism’. I love that. Over there, it was the complete opposite. I couldn’t shift to that mindset.”
This may seem disingenuous from someone whose interiors always possess a sheen of perfection. Knight’s work is hardly rip, shit and bust, but he’s aware he’s enjoying a career trajectory here that may not have been possible in Europe. He relishes the opportunities offered by Auckland’s rapidly changing cityscape. “[With Fearon Hay] it was unique to be participating in changing the public realm and seeing things like Imperial Lane and Britomart coming up. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that,” he says.
Returning home doesn’t mean his work is confined to these shores. Earlier this year he was invited to curate a pair of rooms that sat alongside the New Zealand exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Te Koha, “The New Zealand Room”, was a showcase for local designers. “The story of the room was the fact that everything was made in New Zealand,” he says. “The wool was from Perendale sheep bred in Akaroa, the furniture timber was rewarewa, the floor was woven harakeke, the plaster finish was developed in New Zealand by Resene.” The absence of conventional trade-show tat – what Knight describes as “symbolic appropriation” was a refreshing change. “We as a design culture are more sophisticated than that,” he says. “We built this story in the room that spoke for itself. It didn’t have to have koru laser-cut into it.”
The polish and sophistication of Knight’s interiors is also a shift from the number-eight wire, she’ll-be-right approach that has formed part of the New Zealand identity – and it’s in this area that Auckland, the city he’s returned to, is changing most. He reckons the insides of our buildings are becoming as important as the outsides, and not before time: “Interiors here, in some ways, have been subordinate to architecture,” he says. “The architecture we practise is very strong. [I’ve] been away in Europe and seen [interior design] established as an industry, centuries old, with its own identity, scope and professional bodies. Coming back to New Zealand and trying to develop that is really exciting.”
Portraits by Meek Zuiderwyk