An Absurd Luxury

Luxury by its nature is absurd. It is excess – not what is needed – but what the heart cherishes and the mind daydreams about. The ‘plate room’ is Douglas and my luxury item in terms of the renovation of the house. (A plate room: a room like a butler’s room in which plates and dinnerware are displayed.)

Now before you start humphing about the state of the economy and states of delusion, I should point out we did not go for: a pizza oven, an outdoor fireplace, a jacuzzi, a conversation pit or an enormous garage to house our notional gin-palace launch. Lord knows – we don’t even possess a jet ski or that other sound pollutant – a leaf blower.

What we have is an architectural indulgence. It is the kind of thing one can do in the provinces (he says straight-faced.) By this I mean one can purchase a very large old dump at the price one would pay for a run-down worker’s cottage in an outer-outer ring of Auckland. So we have space.

What we had, in fact, was the original tiny bathroom of the Finnis family home. In the Edwardian period it had to be used by the four adult members of the family, including two daughters (who presumably disliked its tininess.) It had a short bath and a basin. The loo was in a separate space.

By the time we bought the maze of flats it was still a bathroom but of the baleful ‘flat’ variety – meaning budget, mean and horrid. The only nice thing it had about it was it faced directly north. But also the moment you opened the window the neighbours in their kitchen could observe you literally sitting on the throne…Well hi!

What to do, what to do? I am an architectural dunce, lacking in imagination. Douglas is the person who gives an immense amount of thought to architectural spaces. It was he who suggested we have a ‘plate room’.

Well, readers of this column will know we have a thing about plates. I have written about how nobody wants old dinner services any more because you can’t shove them in the dishwasher. Routinely now we have been buying up the unloved and unwanted – and one-time cherished dinner services. These run from the posh – gilded Irish plates with a coat of arms – to plebian – a sort of best dinner service that a lower middle class family might have had and used only on special occasions.

Who cares? We do. Regard us, if you like, as the St Johns Ambulance of the discarded. So Douglas conceived of a kind of coronation room for these unwanted items.

Arduously the horrible waterproof wall-coverings were peeled off. These revealed a mishmash of tongue-and-groove. The ceiling also revealed similarly damaged tongue-in-groove. (The lovely owners of the house in the 1950s, when converting the despised villa into flats, often took random pieces of woodwork and turned them to new patchwork use.)

But now we had all the rimu tongue-in-groove from the original kitchen, which could be used to repair the mess. The builders did this obligingly but no doubt a little mystified as to the peculiarities of queers on the decor lam. The floor unfortunately was at a different level to the new morning room/sun room. We bit the bullet and had a new floor put in to match (This was the most expensive part of the plate room). Tongue-in-groove covered over the original door into the bathroom. And then it was ready to be painted.

Eyeing the rough mess of paint surfaces the painters – who are used to doing immaculate – as-new – paintjobs – raised their eyebrows and waited in suspense. But we told them the shocking news: we liked it rough. It was even ok for the paint to sort of not sink into all the grooves.

Douglas decided to continue the strange dank utilitarian colour we have used elsewhere [Resene Yuma]and which we call affectionately ‘snot’. He also made the good call of contemporary strong lighting. After all, the enclosed room had no light source apart from an internal door. And if it was to work effectively as a display room, it had to ‘have light’. (He decided on three powerful downlights.)

Now there was a big leap into the dark. We knew the local auction houses often had brilliantly large pieces of furniture which came from big country stations, or the huge wooden mansions of which Hawke’s Bay has so many. Usually these pieces of furniture were much too big for contemporary spaces. We knew we’d luck on something suitable to display our plates.

Jumpcut. I was up in our favourite Auckland auction house, Cordys, and there was a magnificent New Zealand library bureau. It was a curious mixture of rimu, rewarewa kauri and flame mahogany on the doors. It even had little brass beading running down the edge of the doors. It also had lovely old rippled glass.

Douglas – in Napier – measured the space. It would fit.

The bureau hadn’t sold in the antique auction the previous week. A phonecall and Douglas and I owned it. ($120 to transport it to Hawke’s Bay.) Then came the fun part – fitting it into the room – surprisingly easy, as if it always belonged. Then the really fun part – decorating it with all our plates and other things. This was better than Christmas, better than New Years. It was almost better than winning a book prize (…almost.)

It was plate heaven.

So there it sits, a kind of lovely exhibition piece, a luxury item.

But it has its ceremonial uses. Last night, at 5pm New Zealand time, a much-loved Australian friend (who often commented on this blog) Ian MacNeill was having his funeral in Sydney – if I can use the active tense of the verb. Douglas and I were back here in Napier. I wanted to mark the occasion. (Ian admired finesse in dining arrangements.)

I put out a nice clean damask tablecloth. I went into the plate room: I selected a modest but sparkling Edwardian dinner service – pale white, gold and navy blue. I got out the fish knives and forks, which had once been owned by Eric Mareo, the notorious orchestral-leader/murderer whose wife was having an affair with the fabulous I danced-nude-painted-in-gold lesbian icon Freda Stark.

Then I cooked a considerate meal of the kind Ian would have liked. (In fact when I spoke to him on the phone when he was in the hospice – helped along by Good Sister Morphine – he reminisced in vivid detail about an asparagus risotto I had made when he was staying in Napier. It was a meal I hadn’t even thought about.)

This is the meal: ‘Sole Bercy’ – fresh sole cooked a la Elizabeth David (in white wine, parsley and shallots,  in ‘French Provincial Cooking’ p343), new potatoes smelling of the earth, silverbeet fresh from the garden and tomatoes baked with fennel. The wine was Prosesco. We toasted dear old Ian and I felt his presence in the nicety of everything – the silver, the napery – (he came from a world of serviettes) – and the dinner service so quickly selected from our very own fantasy space: the plate room.


This entry was posted in auction finds etc., colour, furniture. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to An Absurd Luxury

  1. puginesque says:

    I totally agree…my standard, yet to be achieved by me, for any house, a china store!

  2. graciouslyyours says:

    A lovely farewell to Ian. I hope there were leopard print gloves in the mix.

  3. Gerry says:


    How can i catch up with the first posts on the blog. ?

    • Editor says:


      The archives list down the right hand side has all the old postings going back to January 2011 – when we started. Just click on those and they’ll take you there. alternatively at the bottom of each page there is an ‘older posts’ where you can click to go back.

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