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A Kerikeri leathersmith transforms a historic blacksmith’s shed

Leathersmith Dominique Heileson at her Kerikeri studio.

Leathersmith Dominique Heileson has “upcycled” a historic blacksmith’s shed in Kerikeri.

Leathersmith Dominique Heileson has breathed new life into a 19th-century blacksmith’s shed in the Far North. Located next to the Kerikeri Mission Station – home to two of the country’s oldest buildings, the Stone Store and Kemp House – the shed had fallen into disrepair and sat forgotten.

Along came Heileson – known as “Eekie” – with big ideas for a leather studio selling bespoke women’s handbags, men’s satchels, wallets, journal covers and valet trays. Now, old sepia photographs, large rustic saws, fireplace bellows, deer antlers and saddles hang from the ceiling and adorn the walls.

The Kaeo-based designer fell in love with the shed years ago and had pictured transforming it into a florist’s studio, but after suffering a head injury, she was forced to rethink her career options. No longer able to drive, Heileson sold her car, bought a sewing machine, and set about teaching herself leathercraft. “That was my rehabilitation,” she says. “It helped get my brain and body going again.”

dominique heileson

Although there’s some debate over its origins, “The Blacksmith’s Shop” has a long history, dating back to at least the 1860s. Since opening her leather studio last November, with help from an AMP Northland regional scholarship, Heileson has collected stories about its colourful past. She’s met the woman pictured with an ancient kauri tree in an old family photo (taken in Pipiwai, in the Te Horo valley) that still hangs on the wall, and chatted to the man who laid the shed’s concrete floor, which has an old rifle, horse shoes and tools embedded in it.

Over the years, the shed has housed missionaries and an upcycled furniture business, and hosted many dinner and engagement parties. The studio is now in hibernation but Heileson plans to reopen for summer. “I’ve tried to give it a sense of purpose and a new lease of life,” she says. “It’s got so much character. The bonus has been people coming in who have a connection with the place, and piecing together its history.”  

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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