On a recent visit to see friends and family in the South Island, renowned British architect/interior designer Ben Pentreath granted 03 an exclusive interview over lunch at historic Christchurch homestead Mona Vale.
Words Josie Steenhart
Unless you’re an architecture or interior design buff with a penchant for elegant heritage-inspired houses and decor with contemporary flair, you might not know Ben Pentreath’s name, but you may well have seen the renowned British designer’s work – and some of it perhaps unexpectedly close to home.
Earlier this year while on a visit to New Zealand to catch up with friends and family of Cantabrian partner Charlie McCormick (an award-winning landscape designer, gardener and florist), Ben stopped in for a very special lunch at Christchurch’s historic Mona Vale homestead.
Hosted by Kiwi textile company Textilia, over a lavish three-course lunch a select group of local interior designers (plus lucky me) got to chat with Ben and hear about his latest collaboration with Morris & Co, the English furnishings manufacturer launched by William Morris in the 1870s, now licensed to fabric and wallpaper house Sanderson.
Mona Vale itself is adorned with Morris & Co wallpaper (though not Ben’s) – but eagle-eyed interiors enthusiasts may have spotted a spectrum of his celebrated colourways bedecking the 2022-opened The Observatory hotel in the Arts Centre (selected by London-trained local interior designer Jessica Close).
You can also see Ben’s architectural work on display in the South Island via a growing number of Georgian-inspired townhouses being built around Christchurch by real estate developers Brooksfield – the latest (and most luxurious) out of the blocks replacing the distinctive pink building on the corners of Marriner and Burgess Streets in Sumner.
Oh and I should also mention Ben has designed for British royalty – including King Charles, Prince William and Princess Kate.
“Well, I’ve done a lot of work for a very long time for the Duchy of Cornwall, for the former Prince of Wales, now HM the King,” he says when I slightly embarrassedly but determinedly ask him about it. (Is it considered very poor taste for one to talk about such things?! Oh well…)
“He takes an enormous interest in architecture and masterplanning, as you know, and I’ve designed several projects for the Duchy of Cornwall including Poundbury, Truro and most recently Faversham, in Kent, where we’ve designed a beautiful mixed-use extension to this historic town of 2500 homes.”
“In my interior design role, I played some role in helping the former Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their own home in Norfolk.”
I don’t ask (sorry!) but I feel sure style maven Kate would be quite partial to both his first, and his latest, second collection of wallpapers and fabrics for Morris & Co.
Ben describes ‘Queen Square’, released in 2020, as a collection of “quite bold, richly saturated jewel tones” (and at this point charmingly interrupts himself to thank Jessica, who’s sitting beside me, for using them in The Observatory hotel) inspired by the eponymous address in London’s famous Bloomsbury district.
He and Charlie own a flat there, on top of “a very interesting building” which formerly housed the Art Workers’ Guild – “a group of Arts and Crafts architects and artists, sculptors, stained glass artists, bookbinders, illustrators… a sort of club of all the famous Arts and Crafts designers. It was set up in about 1860, 1870, and then they bought the building that we live in, in 1913, and it has been there since, for more than 100 years…”
Also on Queen Square, “about 10 houses down from ours, at number 24, was another beautiful Georgian townhouse which for about 15 years was [William] Morris’ house, but also his factory and design studio”.
“So I had these amazing connections in a sense…”
Ben says the initial conversation started with Sanderson asking him if he would design a range of fabric and wallpaper “quote unquote inspired by Morris & Co… and I began to realise that for me to start messing with that heritage, with that tradition, was not how I wanted to operate”.
“It’s a little bit like on our architectural side of the practice where we’re working with classic mouldings and details – there are moments when you can push things and change things and there are moments where you kind of need to stick to the rules.
“If somebody hasn’t done [something] in the last 3000 years, it may not be a good idea to start – something you may want to tell some of the architects in Christchurch!” he says with a chuckle.
“But that’s another topic!”
Instead, he paid a visit to the Morris & Co archives (“like walking into a treasure trove of every single pattern ever produced by Morris & Co and Sanderson, which go back to the original production…”), armed with photos of a beloved Morris & Co-covered sofa from a friend’s family’s home in Italy.
“The fabric was in the famous ‘Willow Bough’, in a particular colourway – one which is deep in my design DNA, because I’ve known it for years and years. I’ve got a friend whose parents bought a derelict house in Italy in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and restored it, and it’s one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever been in in my life.
“They restored it in the most gentle way, they pulled the house back from being half ruined, brought in an amazing mix of old antique English furniture… They’d spent a lot of time in the far east, the middle east, so they had all these amazing textiles and beautiful rugs, just amazing layers of things – and then in the middle of it all was classic 1970s English decoration, which had remained completely unchanged for 50 years, once they’d done it, no one touched it.
“And in the middle of their beautiful sitting room was an amazing old Victorian sofa, which was covered in that colourway of that fabric.”
The Morris & Co archivist was immediately able to identify the exact match, and the rest, as they say, is design history.
“So it’s exactly the same [Morris & Co] patterns, but what I’m trying to do is basically what I would call tweak the dial – or in this case more than a tweak, its like wrenching the dial, because part of the brief they gave me was, for a start, just have fun with it, go crazy, think the unthinkable.”
Of the new collection, ‘Cornubia’ (from the Latin name for Cornwall), Ben says “it has a different atmosphere, as I hope you can tell from the colourways, but it had something to do with fresh and warm and bright, potentially a happier collection you could call it, overall – while Queen Square is more autumnal and reflective.”
Getting suitably reflective at this point in our conversation, Ben says “for me, on a deep personal level, and in all aspects of the work that we do in our studio, history is not something which just exists in a box or in a book or in the past – we are actually all in history now, we’re in the middle of it, and we always will be.
“But [with the Morris & Co collab] there’s this fascinating dance across 150 years, where by taking beautiful old 19th century patterns, tweaking things, changing things, they can become completely fresh and modern and contemporary in feel – that whole fundamental ethos of learning from history, embracing history and then not just repeating it but actually changing it.
“And creating something new, for me, is one of the whole fascinations of our craft, of what we’re involved with, as architects or as designers,” he explains.
“Interiors do change – that’s the whole point of interior decoration, is it’s really easy to change, and it’s fun – you can just change one paint colour or one piece of furniture in your room and everything changes, and that’s really exciting for me.
“Decoration is the most temporal of all, it’s on a high frequency, but for me it’s important to imbue everything we do with that sense of history and an understanding of its place and time, which is to do with looking backwards and looking forwards.
At the other end of the spectrum, he describes architecture as ”a more permanent art”.
“And one side of our practice is master planning – actually something which Vinny [Holloway, Brooksfield managing director] and I are working on together a little bit in Christchurch at the moment.
Of that project, Ben says “we’ve been designing a large number of houses for Brooksfield across several of their sites in Christchurch, and at the moment the work is growing. We’re having great fun working with Vinny on a huge number of sites now, and it’s incredibly exciting to be involved in the rebuilding of Christchurch in this way”.
He says the Sumner property is “a really lovely one – closely inspired by the old Sumner Hotel, and then creating a group of three new terraced houses with first floor balconies, based on the historic photograph we have of the old building, and then with a small mews court with two coach house apartments behind.
The historic building is so fantastic and a real inspiration for the new project.”