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Change maker

Maison&Objet interior exhibition colour blast in 2019
Maison&;Objet, Paris. Michelle says: "a lovely autumn palette that’s been popping through is modern, organic tones. Then we’ve also got a mix of all the metals and the bling, and the dark, moody colours too. These trends allow us to have an expression without being a slave to a particular style."

Interior designer, Michelle Laming has made a name for herself transforming people’s spaces and forecasting trends over the last four decades. Words: Anna Wallace; Photos: supplied

Currently the interior designer at long-time Christchurch furniture manufacturer and retailer, DA Lewis, Michelle says the desire for New Zealand-made is strong, with clients wanting to support local.

“We’re fortunate to manufacture our own goods and do custom-made products – a market that’s growing hugely.”

Also popular, unsurprisingly given the number of new builds in Canterbury, is a complete design service for turnkey homes.

“It’s important to me that we don’t bang out cookie-cutter homes. You need to understand the customer’s lifestyle – how the family and dogs fit in,” the experienced designer explains.  

Gravitating towards a style

This winter, DA Lewis will be launching four new atmospheric styles in their Sockburn showroom.

“It’s designed to give customers the vocabulary to say, ‘this is what I like’. So they can come in and gravitate towards a look – like ‘Hamptons’ , ‘New York bling’ or ‘mid-century luxe’.

“Most people have a style; they just don’t know it!” she smiles. “Kiwis are quite styley and we do modern very well.”

An avid international show-goer, up until two years ago Michelle would religiously attend Maison&Objet in Paris every year and has been to interior shows and showrooms in the USA, Asia and Europe.

Michelle Laming on a bridge in Paris
Michelle on one of her annual pilgrimmages to Paris.

“I’m really missing it. When you’re a creative person doing hundreds of schemes a year, you have to be fed. For me, magazines and online are a great resource but there’s nothing like being amongst the real thing. It fills me up.”

That’s why she’s excited about the Decor + Design Show in Melbourne this July. “It will support what we’re doing in store and helps with style forecasting.”

So, what’s hot right now?

There’s still a lot of curves and roundness coming through, observes Michelle.

“These forms are friendly and suit a lot of homes, especially since Covid sees us at home a lot. Chairs with curved backs, swivel chairs – they bring a softness and femininity to furniture that gives us a lot of visual comfort.

“There’s also a lovely autumn palette that’s been popping through – modern, organic tones. Then we’ve also got a mix of all the metals and the bling, and the dark, moody colours too. These trends allow us to have an expression without being a slave to a particular style.”

Action and motion

Michelle has gleaned a lot about people and places over 38 years of helping folks to enjoy their surroundings.

Having moved to Melbourne as a 17-year old who didn’t know what a cappuccino was, Christchurch-born-and-raised Michelle lapped up the cosmopolitan education. Starting out in hospitality, she ended up managing places like Noah’s and the Sheridan.

“We’d have someone build a bar and if it wasn’t right I could see what they needed to do. All of a sudden, I was designing bars and looking at the restaurant, the pass – action and motion.”

Showing how it’s done

On returning to Christchurch circa 1984, Michelle was wandering around the McKenzie and Willis (M&W) showroom when she got chatting with a man who turned out to be none other than John Willis. Upon discovering she was interested in interior design, he told Michelle to speak with their marketing manager about a job. 

She went on to work for them for 20 years. A highlight was the big store renovation the team did in 1999, involving an international reconnaissance trip through Asia and Europe.

“Jean met me in Rome and John flew over for the Milan furniture show – all the top labels were there, and we ended up buying lots of Natuzzi leather suites and bringing other brands back. Natuzzi would do atmospherics too – putting a whole look together – which was quite new to New Zealand then,” she recalls with pride.

Michelle’s son Sam would do his homework after school at M&W. “That’s why he loves furniture and design,” she quips. He now manages Benchmark Homes with his father, Richard Evans. Michelle designs their showrooms and even helped Sam with his new home in Halswell.

“Less is best for Sam and his partner, Georgia, with everything in its place, so we made sure to give them an integrated, uncluttered, nice, clean modern look. Their house is fun and young and their daughter fits into that really well,” the grandmother beams.

Being an initiator

While at M&W, Michelle did some interior design papers at Polytech (now known as Ara Institute).

“It was done through the building department then,” she recalls. Approaching the Dean about it, Michelle found herself on the Board and developing a proper interior design qualification.

“I ended up developing NZQA papers for 28 different courses as I was also teaching in food and beverage there!

“I’m an opportunist; I believe you can do something until I’m proven otherwise – that’s my natural state as an optimist.”

Michelle’s experience teaching design means she can spot talent.

“There’s only a small percentage of people who are naturally talented as a designer and they’re often the ones who do clay, paint, get architecture – the whole creative. They’re what I call initiators who can come up with new things.”

Interior design store, Ellen Estate's zebra chairs and ethnic wares
Modern ethnic pieces at Ellen Estate, Michelle's previous interior design store.

Owning it

Michelle started her own business, Point of Difference Interiors while still working at McKenzie & Willis. Ellen Estate was the next iteration, inspired by the shops of Melbourne and located in Strowan, Christchurch.

“It was great to have the freedom to properly express my own style.”

Needing different premises, encountering health problems and Covid supply challenges, Michelle decided to lay low for a bit in 2020.

Thirty years on and she still has some of her original clients. Establishing trust with people is a must. As is being responsible with a client’s budget and getting to know the product.

“You’ve got to put the research in, you’ve got to live and breathe this.”

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