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The Fabric of Home

Michal McKay01 May 2018

BB40

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘creativity’ as the use of imagination or original ideas to create something. A ‘something’ Asha Payton has in abundance. Little & Fox, her wonderfully imaginative and original business situated in an old warehouse in Ahuriri, is proof.

Walking through the entrance of Asha Payton’s fabric warehouse is akin to stepping into Aladdin’s Cave.

A sumptuous display of lush and lovely fabrics that immediately urge you to throw your entire interior out the door and start again. Housed in a warehouse of soaring ceilings and concrete floors on top of which are tossed at random deep-piled rugs reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. An eclectic array of velvets, linens, crewels, embroidered and embossed fabrics and textures line the walls in a display that literally seduces – demanding immediate touch and feel and even inhale.

Asha moved into her warehouse a year ago last February, finally deciding that working from her Te Awanga home and a tiny dusty garage in Onekawa was just too restricting. “I needed to move, but it was Joe [her husband] who found the warehouse. Basically it was just a shed but we knew it was right. We found the owner. He gave the okay. We put in walls and lights and made it mine.”

Overlooking the waters of West Quay in Ahuriri she confesses she didn’t even think about customer catchment. Quite simply, they went with their gut – “We just loved it.” Obviously her instincts are reliable. Little & Fox has become ‘the’ place for any home owner, threading a path to redecoration, to explore.

By then she had four children – Otis age 7, Teddy a year younger and twins Pepe (Māori for ‘little’) and Fox, age 4. And her business (named after the twins), had grown … from the odd client popping in to ask advice on re-upholstering a chair or a colour for a room to a full scale interior and upholstery consultancy that demanded space. That may well have daunted a lesser determined spirit. “But I had a nanny and au pairs from the time I first started and Joe is incredibly handy as well as having a great eye.” (His father is the artist Simon Payton so that’s not a surprise.)

It’s a far cry from studying commercial aviation and graduating as a pilot. But as evidenced everywhere you look both in her Ahuriri warehouse and her home in Te Awanga, Asha has a very strong creative streak. She says her grandmother Maddie played a pivotal role in bringing out her flair for interior design. “She was before her time. Full of style. A little eccentric but very cool. And she nurtured that passion in me.”

Asha’s own style is reflected in the eclectic array of heirlooms and found pieces along with contemporary touches she has given to her home in Te Awanga.

It all began when Asha wanted to re-cover an old armchair, but quotes were blindingly dear. Local upholsterer Beau Hollyman was recommended to her. “I just knocked on his garage door where he worked. I loved watching him. I was in Te Awanga and he was in Clive. And basically I did that for nearly three years. He was so generous with his time and friendship.”

Meantime she had started doing odd jobs for friends. They built a very close bond; when he developed brain cancer and passed away soon after, she found he had written her into his will and left her all his tools and equipment. Much of which she still works with today. It was the springboard for her next move.

Initially her social media infiltration came through a well-read Facebook page, with Instagram and Pinterest swift to follow … picking up customers in droves. “But our website we came to quite late,” Asha explains. “Our development really came from Facebook and we built up contacts that way.” Facebook continues to be the fabric from which she has created a wide network of followers. The website now serves as a major factor in assisting customers in fabric selection, offering a tantalising selection of hard-to resist textures and patterns.

That too has come about through Asha’s initiative and realisation that many of the good quality and designer fabrics available required long frustrating periods of ordering time. And were expensive. “I found in doing up upholstery pieces particularly I couldn’t find small quantities and we needed to relax the process of choice. We now buy from leading NZ designer fabric houses and hand select from UK and USA choosing high quality close-outs and end-of-line stock. This means we get it at very reasonable prices and can supply direct to clients.”

She maintains a close liaison with suppliers through Skype and now has plans to travel for more resourcing. It also means she is able to hand-select from all over the world … always with an eye to providing something just a little bit different. “We have a lot of the top-end names and many favourites including Designers Guild, House of Hackney, and Clarke and Clarke from the UK along with Ralph Lauren in America.”

Tricia Guild is probably her most favourite with her brilliant bold designs … and someone with whom Asha finds a close affinity, having started her own phenomenal business in 1970 when finding unusual decorating textiles and fabrics was a challenge. By changing colours on a collection of traditional Indian hand-blocked fabrics, the brand was born. Much in the way that Asha has developed Little & Fox … finding a gap in the market and building a framework that filled it.

Opposite the seductive selection of fabric bolts, huge wooden tables are set up for the upholstery section. A fascinating scene.

Last year Asha persuaded Sophie, whose talents in old-school traditional style upholstery were apparent when she searched through specialist schools in England, to come out with her husband to work with her. As she taps away restoring many a family heirloom, Margs is at another vast table creating cushions and squabs. It is a hive of activity and brings a confidence-inspiring reality to customers who are able to discuss their needs and desires there on the spot as they watch.

Drapery is now also a part of the Little & Fox offering. “I have two ladies who work for me and do all the measuring and quotes,” says Asha. “And we are working with a man in Pakistan who actually contacted me who will over-dye Persian rugs. So often we find that the needed final touch in a room is the rug. So we’re into that now too.” Along with a burgeoning bespoke headboard and ottoman area created by client demand.

Asha’s philosophy is to find “one piece that sparks”. She collects furniture, keeping her eye out for good pieces … Trade Me is a big area of opportunity. “Old pieces are usually incredibly well made; much better in many cases than the brand new. Which was why I scouted round in the UK to find Sophie. We encourage customers to take photos of their homes and bring them in so we have an idea of what their surroundings are like and can then, with that visual information, relate much better to their decor and how to enhance.”

She has a bank of heirloom and vintage chairs-in-waiting ready to achieve a new life through Little & Fox TLC and notes that there is a move to restore older pieces. Making a feature of a bespoke piece is definitely the trend.

Her own home in Te Awanga is a living example of the Little & Fox style. With its pristine plaster walls and simple symmetrical shape it is the perfect backdrop to the eclectic pieces and artworks that the home houses.

In contrast to the current throwaway culture, where everything from clothes to furniture seems to be seen as short-term and disposable, Asha is definitely of the school that finds it far more interesting and soothing to be surrounded by things made with care … and have stories to tell.

She inherited many pieces from her grandfather Peter Norman, the original MD of Borthwicks meat works in Hawke’s Bay, and grandmother Maddie, who also owned the beautiful Drummond Cottage in Greytown (her grandfather’s birthplace). Bentwood chairs, carved wooden beds and an elegant sideboard pepper her home, nicknamed ‘le Cube’ by the former French owners.

Asha and Joe’s love of art is obvious with walls adorned with works including those of Robyn Fleet (a great friend and ex-nanny) and Lex Benson-Cooper. And her collector’s instinct is evident with the two enticing eau-de-Nil velvet chairs in the living room, which were a ‘deal’. Another set sitting beside the pool was found on the side of the road.

She is a self-confessed hunter and seeker. “I will pick up pieces for the warehouse and find I have to stop myself because it is compulsive to give old pieces a second chance,” she smiles. Both she and Joe are of the recycling and repurposing school. So little surprise to find recycled timbers and metals throughout the house, alongside the inherited heirlooms.

Downstairs, the free space of living room and kitchen opens out to a garden filled with fruit trees and a recently installed swimming pool – a brilliant aqua that reflects the blue from the walls of the facing veranda. “They told me only two clients out of 250 pool owners had chosen that particular blue,” Asha laughs. One finds it hard to understand why as it sparkles like a brilliant turquoise under the sun.

A found table frame sits by the pool fitted out by Joe’s brother Toby with a newly minted lightweight concrete form. “It’s an amazing composite called GFRC, which is glass fibre reinforced concrete,” explains Asha. “It is so easy to lift, a third of the weight of concrete, requires no reinforcement and you just wipe it down.” Another addition reflecting their inbuilt hospitality streak that makes their house a home. She adds that bespoke shapes can be ordered through the warehouse or from Raw Concrete Design.

The house when they bought it had been recently repainted, which suited them well. Asha has just added stunning Designers Guild curtains to the kitchen which houses the repainted Bentwoods tucked under a dining table of recycled wood made by Joe (with his trademark planks painted ad hoc). And a Pyroclassic fire from a Hawke’s Bay company was installed in the living area. “It’s good for the environment,” says Asha, “and we also like to support local.” Another wall was added separating the laundry to make a great private room for the essential live-in au pair.

In fact the only serious redo needed was the bathroom upstairs where, as luck would have it, metres and metres of original copper piping were discovered behind the walls. They commissioned the plumber to make a shower and tapware out of the copper, “which saved us heaps”. Joe also sourced wood from old stadium seats at the Hastings Show Grounds and having commissioned a local metal producer to build a frame to fit the vanity space, cut and glued them to fit. The copper lights above are from Bali.

Joe’s much loved outdoor pizza oven, which took months to build, is another of his achievements. A perfectionist at heart, he wanted it to fit perfectly in the sunken outdoor space at the side of the house … so naturally he did it himself. “It’s one of Joe’s love affairs,” comments Asha dryly. “He’s just resigned from the Magpies after nine years and had thoughts he might start a pizza business. No, it’s a passing phase.” Can a sense of relief be detected?

A very large campervan parked outside has usurped the pizza period. “Joe is planning to do it up,” she explains. “Actually it functions very well. The whole family spent three weeks in it at Lake Rotoiti in the South Island this past Christmas. But it will be nice to have the odd refit before the next family expedition.”

This year all four children are now at school, so who knows what this inventive couple will venture into next? Whatever, that collective creative thinking will be tapped. The world awaits.

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Michal McKay01 May 2018

BB40