Written by John Williams
By his own admission, Matt Brew is a ‘total retro boy’. His house, his cars, even his slicked-back hair all hark back to a bygone era of style and design. “I’ve always been a rockabilly,” he says. “I’ve had big hair since I was 16 and at university a group of us had an ongoing competition to see who had the biggest quiff.”
Whether his passion for music and culture led to his appreciation for the design of the same period, he isn’t sure. But wherever it came from, it has certainly influenced the way he thinks about the homes he designs.
“There’s a certain aesthetic to mid-century design that I appreciate and love,” he says. “When I can, I’ll go on pilgrimages to places like Palm Springs, and that brings me great joy. And I do admire the Group Architect houses and the early tract houses of people like Paul Rudolph and William Krisel, who created great little suburban homes with floating roofs, beautiful little courtyards, and external spaces that flow on from the internal, giving the impression that you’ve got more building than you actually have.
“I enjoy designing work like that,” he adds enthusiastically. “Those are the sorts of influences that will come into my architecture time and again.”
That said, Matt is quick to point out that he doesn’t live in the past, and neither does his architecture, and he says he certainly doesn’t try to replicate 1950s design unless he is specifically asked to. “There are elements [of it] that may come into a design – but I firmly believe architecture should be of its era.”
But that hasn’t stopped him indulging personally. Take his latest acquisition, a wonderful example of Kiwi, mid-century-influenced architecture, designed in 1974 by one of the country’s pioneering female architects.
“We bought it on the spur of the moment about two years ago, as an investment, when we were living in Sydney,” Matt says. His wife, Kate, had seen the house, listed by Ray White Damerell Group’s Titirangi-based agent, Lynn Lacy-Hauck, and suggested he go and check it out while he was back home on one of his regular work trips.
“Lynn had it all decked out with retro furniture, and it looked great. That’s what first piqued our interest,” says Matt. “I knew Oratia, having designed a residential property for a client in Carter Road, but I had no idea what the house values were, or what we could afford to buy. It was the first property we had seriously looked at in Auckland, so we weren’t expecting to buy it; it just worked out that way on auction day. And I guess that became the catalyst for us coming back, because we had somewhere to return to.”
Since moving in, Matt has gone about removing the various pergolas and lean-tos the house had acquired over the past 40 or so years.
“So far, we’ve stripped off everything we could that wasn’t original, and then repainted the outside of the house and surrounding decks, re-carpeted, updated the lighting, installed a gate, and spent a lot of time in the garden. It’s a work in progress,” he adds, “and we still need to look at the bathrooms and the kitchen, but it’s getting there.”
Years of collecting meant that Matt and Kate already had much of the furniture and accessories that now compliment the period interiors of their new home. “We’ve been collecting art glass since we first met. We have always bought glass on road trips we do together and now have glass pieces bought in places from Levin to Hamburg and everywhere in between. It’s now grown into quite a large collection; most is Murano, but we just buy what we like,” he says.
Returning to the provenance of the house, Matt says that its architect, Lillian Chrystall, now in her 90s, is one of this country's pioneering female architects, and her name is perpetuated in the Chrystall Excellence Award initiated by Architecture+ Women.
“From what I’ve read, she and her husband lived in a house in Airedale Street and it became a real hub for writers and architects, including members of the Auckland Group, to meet and socialise around their dining table,” he says. “I know some people who know her, so I’ve asked them to make her aware that an architect now owns the house, and that I’m intending to look after it and try to pull it back to what the original intent was. And she’s welcome to come and visit any time,” he adds.
Turning to his own thoughts on design and his ambitions for the future, Matt says it’s been rewarding to spend time working on his new home in Oratia, but the main thrust for his return from Sydney is to get a number of projects off the ground now he’s home in New Zealand.
“I am certainly a believer in intensification, if designed well, and I do believe that it is a necessity if Auckland is to grow as a city,” he says.
Matt notes that living quite comfortably in a 3.6m-wide terraced house in Sydney for the past six years has given him a far better understanding of how we can all manage in smaller spaces, and says he thinks that people’s expectations are changing as the pressure on land and building costs increases.
“With this in mind, I have been working on a series of concept plans, based on a relatively small and regular footprint, with each having a bit of a twist and always relating to the individual site requirements,” he says. “Plus, I am integrating the building with a landscape design, to create a series of external spaces that extend the sense of the internal, making the most of what can be relatively small infill sites”.
It’s here that Matt borrows from the past, referencing some of the design details and principles his predecessors from mid-century design put into practice 60-odd years ago.
“I’m a big fan of getting the eaves right on a building, particularly size and orientation, and I love big, floating roofs that can be extended to create outdoor living areas. There’s a horizontal aesthetic to that which I love.” He also mentions his fondness for permeable screens to create semi-private spaces and getting landscaping engaged in that process – breaking up the boundaries between inside and out.
Looking around his current house, Matt points out that you don’t always have to physically bring nature into the house. “Just by creating vistas at the ends of corridors or on half-landings, you can bring the bush in – and the irregular shape of buildings like this one helps with that.”
As this article goes to print, Matt and his family are heading to Italy, where he’s been engaged to renovate a church and priory in Tuscany for some very close friends, who currently live in Sydney.
“Apparently, the church was first built in the 13th century, on an old pagan temple, but destroyed and rebuilt around 1600,” he says. “It’s named after Chiesa San Lorenzo, who is the patron saint of the shooting star, which is kind of cool. I can see some tribute moments from my favourite mid-century Italian architect Carlo Scarpa coming their way on this one.”
The Car Thing
“My love of classic American cars comes from my grandfather. When I was born, he picked me up from Wellington Hospital in a 1967 Buick Wildcat Coupé. That was my first ride in a car. There’s a picture of him holding me in front of the car – and we still don’t know to this day what he was most proud of – his first grandson or the Buick.
“He always had American cars, and he’d buy a new one every year or two. And each time he bought one home he would line up the family in front of his new pride and joy and take a family portrait. We still have the pictures of him in front of a 1952 DeSoto, a ‘57 Plymouth, a ‘60 Fairlane 500, a ‘62 Galaxy, a ‘64 Buick Electra and a ‘66 GTO, which, by the way, he had to get rid of because it was a two-door and he had five kids.
“He left all the grandkids a little money when we turned 25. And, whereas my two sisters spent their money on overseas travel, I bought a 1960 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. It was my daily drive for many years and it will never be sold.”
Lynn is passionate about this period of architecture; she understands the significance of the homes and is knowledgeable about the architects who worked in the area 40-odd years ago. She goes to great lengths with marketing and styling these architectural time capsules appropriately and authentically, and is attracting a growing niche of buyers. When it comes to mid-century design, Lynn is giving Titirangi and its environs a reputation for being the Hollywood Hills of Auckland.