Interior designer Rufus Knight on reimagining Auckland

by Noelle McCarthy / 01 December, 2016

Interior designer Rufus Knight – the man behind a string of beautiful boutiques and a ritzy apartment building – chooses an Auckland future over what might have been a stellar career abroad.

Rufus Knight feels like a man in a hurry. He’s doing interiors for Auckland’s most glamorous apartments at the same time as masterminding some of the most beautiful boutiques in the country. He turned 30 just a few months ago: at an age when many of us are still figuring out what we want to be when we grow up, he’s gathering a reputation as the hottest interiors guy in the business.

He’s starting to put his stamp on the way people live in this city, and the way New Zealand design is noticed abroad. The briefest survey of his achievements to date gives an overwhelming impression of kinetic energy. What’s firing it?

“I don’t want to sound like a martyr, but if you want to do good work, you really have to commit to it,” he says. “What gets you through is understanding you are connected to wider bodies of thought.” Knight is discreetly stylish, wiry, focused. He confesses to being a workaholic, saying he works “24/7”. He’s single, and the only hobby he mentions is running. The infectious grin he breaks out from time to time goes a long way towards leavening his intensity: when he laughs, it takes years off him.

Knight has a lucrative talent for translating branding ephemera into built spaces people want to be in. His work inhabits a sweet spot between art and commerce, and the spaces he creates share a luxurious tactility without being limited to a strict, single aesthetic. For the Ponsonby store of cult womenswear label Lonely - his first solo project after six years at local architecture firm Fearon Hay - he devised a sleek mix of parquet flooring and sand-blasted marble that feels more like a high-end gallery than a clothes shop. (The first time I went there, I was so over-awed I bought a pantsuit two sizes too big.) A few blocks down the Ponsonby Road strip, candle store Curio Noir has a more dramatic sensuality, all gleaming wood and richly perfumed shadows.

Knight loves designing shops because of the scope for theatre. “You set a stage and then it’s dressed,” he says. “The reason I got into interiors was set design. It was kind of intuitive. I didn’t want to do industrial design or landscape architecture so I went to interiors, because

I was interested in film and fashion and all that stuff…there seemed to be a stronger relationship between them, more scope to explore those broader themes.” 

These days, Knight’s sense of theatre is playing out on a larger scale. Developer Gary Groves is relying on Knight to design interiors at The International, a multi-storey luxury apartment tower by Jasmax that’s being created with a dramatic conversion of the old Fonterra building on Princes Street. The commission was unsolicited: Groves approached Knight after his wife Fiona took him into the Lonely store. Knight’s response? “Who the fuck am I to do 80 apartments with no track record apart from a couple of lingerie stores?” 

 

Continues below gallery

 

ArticleGalleryModule - Rufus Knight Gallery

Still, he took it. There’s a pragmatism in the way he’s applied his artistic talents to business, first with retail and now with residential projects like The International. He and Groves are planning to do more work together, which should bode well for high-density living in Auckland. “I think it’s the grain of places like Auckland that is so interesting,” says Knight. “All of the different contrasts – commercial versus residential, big versus small, expensive versus cheap. It’s the same in Melbourne and Sydney. Contrasts add up to a liveable city.”

Knight was working in Antwerp when Groves got in contact, assisting Vincent Van Duysen, the renowned Belgian architect whose sleek modernist style is beloved by fashion cognoscenti like Julianne Moore and Raf Simons. While he enjoyed the exacting nature of the work, the pull of home was physical. “What drew me back [to New Zealand] was connection to the landscape,” says Knight. “I had to run three kilometres to see green in Antwerp!”

Knight also sees an appealing freedom in this country’s occasionally flexible approach to the rules. “We’re quite lawless in New Zealand,” he says. “That’s certainly not a criticism! Certain things, like jaywalking with no shoes for example, we just do here: that would be a traffic offence in Antwerp! [Composer] Victoria Kelly shared this great line: ‘New Zealanders never made a fetish of perfectionism’. I love that. Over there, it was the complete opposite. I couldn’t shift to that mindset.”

This may seem disingenuous from someone whose interiors always possess a sheen of perfection. Knight’s work is hardly rip, shit and bust, but he’s aware he’s enjoying a career trajectory here that may not have been possible in Europe. He relishes the opportunities offered by Auckland’s rapidly changing cityscape. “[With Fearon Hay] it was unique to be participating in changing the public realm and seeing things like Imperial Lane and Britomart coming up. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that,” he says.

Returning home doesn’t mean his work is confined to these shores. Earlier this year he was invited to curate a pair of rooms that sat alongside the New Zealand exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Te Koha, “The New Zealand Room”, was a showcase for local designers. “The story of the room was the fact that everything was made in New Zealand,” he says. “The wool was from Perendale sheep bred in Akaroa, the furniture timber was rewarewa, the floor was woven harakeke, the plaster finish was developed in New Zealand by Resene.” The absence of conventional trade-show tat – what Knight describes as “symbolic appropriation” was a refreshing change. “We as a design culture are more sophisticated than that,” he says. “We built this story in the room that spoke for itself. It didn’t have to have koru laser-cut into it.”

The polish and sophistication of Knight’s interiors is also a shift from the number-eight wire, she’ll-be-right approach that has formed part of the New Zealand identity – and it’s in this area that Auckland, the city he’s returned to, is changing most. He reckons the insides of our buildings are becoming as important as the outsides, and not before time: “Interiors here, in some ways, have been subordinate to architecture,” he says. “The architecture we practise is very strong. [I’ve] been away in Europe and seen [interior design] established as an industry, centuries old, with its own identity, scope and professional bodies. Coming back to New Zealand and trying to develop that is really exciting.”

Portraits by Meek Zuiderwyk

This article was first published in Paperboy magazine.
Follow Paperboy on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail

Latest

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more
IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computing
102458 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computin…

by Peter Griffin

The Q System One, as IBM calls it, doesn’t look like any conventional computer and it certainly doesn’t act like one.

Read more
James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth gap
102456 2019-02-15 14:54:45Z Politics

James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth…

by RNZ

The week before a major tax report is released, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has again challenged his government partners to back the tax.

Read more
Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma Chand
102448 2019-02-15 10:28:12Z Crime

Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma…

by Anneke Smith

Arishma Chand was just 24 when she was murdered.

Read more
Top wine picks from Central Otago
102233 2019-02-15 00:00:00Z Wine

Top wine picks from Central Otago

by Michael Cooper

Tucked into small corners, Central Otago vineyards offer nuggets worth digging for. Wine critic Michael Coopers offers his top picks.

Read more
Ivanka and her tower of crumbs
102404 2019-02-14 10:33:12Z Arts

Ivanka and her tower of crumbs

by Preminda Jacob

For two hours each evening, an Ivanka Trump lookalike has been vacuuming a hot pink carpet at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Read more
Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing to keep up
102393 2019-02-14 09:52:16Z Social issues

Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing…

by The Listener

The introduction of a free youth mental-health pilot for Porirua, and later the wider region, is welcome news, but it's far too little, far too late.

Read more
Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensive crouch
102387 2019-02-14 09:21:07Z Politics

Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensiv…

by Guyon Espiner

For a government promising 'a year of delivery' it has begun in something of a defensive crouch.

Read more