Operation Yellow Sofa


We have a yellow sofa. It is a Victorian piece picked up at a Cordy’s sale. When we saw it we were bowled over by its rugged attractions and amused to hear that it had passed unloved through a least one-sale prior. So we got it for a good price and carted, or had it carted, to Napier.

It is a hearty colonial piece and soon after we found another, slightly more refined, version of it in William Cotterall’s Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era. This version reminded us that ours is missing its castors but all in all we prefer ours, with its wonderful ebonised black finish over, what I suspect is, a red cedar frame.

The sofa took up residency under the large southern facing windows of the Studio where it has stayed. It has never been recovered and to date the castors remain missing. However, a recent cull of the furniture in the Studio has brought the sofa to the top of the list for attention. So this posting is about the dilemmas of fabric choice and an inherent battle between two styles.


I don’t know if everyone’s life is quite as connected to the world of fabric as is mine – I suspect not. I will happily browse fabrics all day long. I love the down-home charms of Spotlight, were surprisingly good fabrics lurk for those who know their materials. We adore ABFAB the Auckland off cut and remnants store and it has been a source for many a curtaining fabric and even some upholstery that as yet remain unused.  Yes there is a fabric bank of yet to be used dress, curtain and upholstery fabrics – but that doesn’t stop me looking for more.

It didn’t take long to realize that we weren’t going to find the fabric we needed for our sofa at either of the usual sources.  For one reason – later explained to us – New Zealanders hate yellow! I could of course say a few things about New Zealanders and their taste but negative generalisations regarding my fellow Kiwis get me in hot water – so let me say a word or two about the non plus ultra of Hawke’s Bay decorating instead.

Hutchinson’s – a surprising casual name for an old prestige firm – is one of those rarities – a decorating and furnishing business that has been in operation since 1885 and in the building it now occupies since the 1950s.  Now throughout the regional centres there are old firms like this, but most are trading on borrowed time and look it. Hutchinson’s, has probably never looked better and from a fabric point of view it’s something close to heaven. It was here amongst the Morris prints and the Sanderson linens that the ‘yellow line’ had been delivered.


As we are want to do, we had been making clandestine calls on Hutchinson’s fabric department on occasional Saturday mornings for weeks, until one morning a wary assistant asked the pertinent question – ‘what exactly is it you’re looking for?’  Guilty we glanced at each other and offered up ‘yellow brocade.’  He looked at us intensely and said the secret decorating words – ‘chrome yellow?’ We sensed a co-conspirator and said ‘exactly! It was then that he delivered his line – Sorry, New Zealanders hate yellow – I don’t know why?

Hutchinson's - operating in Hastings since 18885

Hutchinson’s – operating in Hastings since 18885

A lesser fellow would have sent us on our way but a connection had been made and instead he offered to call some of his suppliers and haul in a few yellows that might be lingering in the sample books on English manufacturers were yellow is not treated with the same suspicion.

This he did and each Saturday morning since we have picked up a new collection of books of samples only to return them to Hutchinson’s the following Saturday.

We have our own language for rejecting the samples for being to; modern, busy, muted, bright, banana, mustard (none are really chrome yellow), Jacqueline Kennedy, French, (those two are different), New York decorator, grandmotherly, old-fashioned, or Havelock North.

Half of the problem is that Hutchinson’s has a lovely red couch placed seductively in their fabric department covered in  Heron and Lotus Flower a GP and J Baker print and it keeps playing on my mind.


Heron and Lotus Flower

We haven’t been sticking to brocades but have been considering the possibility of a dynamic pattern as long its yellow. Yellow works because the room is essentially blue and yellow. A very large banquette takes up almost the width of the room and this is covered in yellow velvet (it came that way).

The framework of the couch is black and it works well with yellow – as the current covering attests. Now of course GP and J Baker could oblige my supplying Heron and Lotus Flower in a yellow.

Bakers 06

GP and J Baker’s setting of Heron and Lotus Flower

Today we picked up the book and there is barely a yellow to be seen in any of their patterns.   I now start asking myself does the yellow couch have to stay yellow? The yellow we’re replacing is certainly not original covering.

What I like about Heron and Lotus flower is its nod to Aesthetic movement. The Aesthetic movement is a constant presence here. I love its sheer originality. Although inspired by Japanese Art it is madly original and one of the wonders of the Victorian designer’s imagination.  We have any number of Aesthetic movement dinner plates and serving dishes but I particularly love Aesthetic movement furniture with its black ebonised finished – highlighted with panels of painted gold. An overmantle in this style hangs over the black painted library fireplace.

An Aesthetic movement sideboard

An Aesthetic movement sideboard

In essence the Studio is always something of a tug of war between two different styles. The Studio is largely furnished with early Victorian furniture with nod to the classical style – volutes and pediments – including the yellow couch – itself crowned with a heraldic motif (or is that strictly speaking gothic?). We have toyed with Aesthetic pieces in the studio before and there are still two mock bamboo chairs. As it happens we are once again have our eyes on an Aesthetic movement sideboard for the Studio – so once again Aestheticism is on the rise at Finnis house.

It takes me a while is getting my head around is the blend of Aesthetic furniture with other styles. Aesthetic rooms were always completely contemporary – all of one aesthetic style. Pushing the classical styled yellow couch in an Aesthetic direction with a patterned fabric may help to knit the components together. After all the library overmantle sits comfortably amongst William IV furniture.  This option is helped by the observation that Heron and Lotus flower comes in blue the other main colour in the room.


As luck would have it this weekend’s haul as also turned up a good Zoffany fabric more like the one we intended to use in the first place and a promise of even more new samples from a new and enthusiastic participant in Operation Yellow Sofa – ‘if she can understand exactly what were looking for’ – oh dear, I wish I knew but I’ll know when we find it.

In the mean time the yellow sofa sits quietly in the Studio unaware that it is the subject of such attention and I get to spend my weekend with fabric sample books and speculating on the possible arrival of an Aesthetic sideboard and how that might change our favorite room yet again.


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1 Response to Operation Yellow Sofa

  1. Jenn Falconer says:

    Love the story. You should see my bright possibly ‘chrome’ yellow Victorian gentleman’s chair. A c 1980 reproduction bought from Smith & Caughey, it was originally covered in green polyester velvet which quickly became shabby – about 10 years. I hankered to reupholster it in yellow leather. It took me more than 20 years. It arrived home last Friday evening. It is just splendidly bright and makes me smile every time I look at it.

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