The co-ordinated trans-Tasman plaster ceiling project

A while back I blogged about the dilemmas of a Moroccan-style bathroom in a post YSL world. Well the concept for that bathroom is developing but as intimated a little more along the lines of Lord Leighton’s Victorian oriental fantasies than anything authentically Moroccan – beyond of course the little brass basin that set the whole project in motion.

Starting at the top – I’m taking the opportunity to create a second plaster ceiling. In part because the success of the one in the ‘boys’ bathroom,’ has given me the confidence to try something a little more complex although, ironically, a great deal smaller.

The ceiling pattern that has evolved for the girls’ bathroom is a bringing together of three different plaster suppliers each with their own stories, each giving give rare in site into the potential of a fascinating trade.

Atlas - every thing imaginable

The cornice (after much consideration I went for something restrained) will come from the Atlas Fibrous Plaster Co of Hastings (who will be assembling the ceiling itself). Atlas had its origins in an Australian plasterer lured to New Zealand in the 1920s to work on the now famous – Civic cinema in Auckland.

The Civic is a masterpiece of Moorish fantasy, populated with plaster lions, elephants, and much, much more. Like so many associated with the Civic, (including its owner Thomas O’Brien), Atlas came pretty close to going broke when the Great Depression hit and were on the point of closing up and going home to Melbourne, when along came the 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake. They relocated to Hastings in order to supply Hawke’s Bay with the very plasterwork that now underpins the Art Deco heritage status of the twin cities.

Now run by Bryce, Atlas is a veritable treasure trove of plaster casts of all sorts of objects – from to Art Deco cornice to a stash of plaques (reading Advance Hastings) left over from a forgotten city-development campaign of the 1940s. Atlas’ range even includes enormous Egyptian style plaster columns (designed for Masonic temples) that one-day I’ll find to use for – although perhaps not in a petite, girl’s bathroom, project.

The bathroom ceiling will feature small panels each with a stylised rose, designed to project down from the cornice at each corner. These come from Carrara Ceilings in Johnsonville, Wellington. Carrara was established in 1903 by another trans-Tasman import, Robert Wardrop from Victoria who joined up with an Austrian named Ernest Schaefer to begin The Carrara Ceiling Company – that in a cross cultural moment they named for the Carrara marble quarries of Italy.

Now run by the endlessly patient Trevor, Carrara’s real specialty is their vast range of amazing Edwardian period moldings – spectacular cornices, impressive domes and even giant plaster cherubs. Trevor’s got a fairly comprehensive website ( but there is a lot more to be revealed from a visit to the Johnsonville factory ­which is where Trevor’s natural patience pays off,  as he unveils sample after sample, to eager renovators.

At Carrara

The final component of the ceiling will be a small grill – designed to disguise the intrusion of modern technology (an extractor fan). For this I reversed the flow of plaster skills and went Trans-Tasman.

Although devoted to décor magazines – I can’t recall a situation where I’ve gone out and bought exactly the same object I’ve spied in the magazine. Sometimes one might pursue a web site or a shop that one reads about but to come away with the object on Page 9 – never seems to quite pan out.

However while sitting in the café at the National Portrait Gallery while on a trip to Canberra, I spied an article in Belle or Vogue Living illustrated with an aesthetic movement plaster grill. I took a digital photograph – I did this without my glasses and later it proved to be so out of focus that it took a bit of work to figure out where the grill could be obtained.

The answer was Sydney Plasterworks ( Although not as old as the local firms – founded in 1960s – I assume Sydney Plaster inherited some earlier firms molds as they too have a spectacular range of Victorian and Edwardian product.

Although their manager, Bryan ,was willing to give me a trans-Tasman postage quote for my grill – it wasn’t something he recommended. So instead, I took his advice and co-ordinated with Peter to bring the grill home when on one of his recent trips to Sydney. Bryan quasi-coordinated a courier pick-up and delivery to Peter’s hotel and he bought it home in a hard shell suitcase (one wonder’s how he answered the did you pack your own luggage question?  Within days the grill was here – intact and fabulous – yes I ended up paying about four times more for it than would a Sydneysider – but plaster is cheap ­ and so such multiplications are bearable.

Both Trevor and Bryce are passionate about the material in which they work and together they have a communal – we can make anything for you attitude. They quote and ship anywhere and make sure you leave with an armful of samples. However there is also awareness that theirs is something of a dying trade. (My heart breaks when Bryce explains they dumped 3 tons of molds when they moved factory a few years back). The fashion for minimal interiors – and I must say some awful plastered rooms in the 1970s and 1980s – have put plaster out of the collective mindset.

Watching recent series of the Australian decorating series – The Block made me realise how plaster clings to the Australian decorating imagination. Contestants clutched illustrated catalogues of plaster components and installed elaborate ceiling roses in their renovations. Here no one thinks much of plaster which is a pity, because so often in New Zealand nothing is authentically period – for example when you buy wooden mouldings they’ve been adapted to metric rather than imperial measurements – the result of which is always something somehow meaner than the original.  With plaster you buy a product that comes from exactly the same mould as it did when first produced and that it itself is worth preserving.

One day I’m going to dedicate a space to the creation of a really and committed plaster fantasy – perhaps with egyptian columns – but in the meantime, I’m working my way down the walls of the girls’ bathroom and investigating a frieze to compliment my bird and rose strewn ceiling design.


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1 Response to The co-ordinated trans-Tasman plaster ceiling project

  1. graciouslyyours says:

    Ohhhh the grill is divine (as is Trevor of Carrara)! As a visitor destined to enjoy the love and attention given to this little space, I am most excited. When will the ribbon cutting be?

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