An unexpected factory reset gave chef Sam Mannering free rein to reimagine the Parnell apartment he’d coveted for more than a decade.

Method Man

Method Man

“People who visit have asked me, ‘Who’s your interior designer?’ and I’m like, ‘My what?’ I did this all myself; this is all me.” Sam Mannering isn’t being arrogant when he says that; he’s just telling it like it is. Because when the Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland-based chef moved into this apartment in Parnell’s iconic Axis Building, he had no budget left for interiors. Instead, he played around with what he already had to introduce colour, shape and livability to the open, industrial space.

Mannering fell for the building a decade ago when an up-and-coming chef named Nadia Lim invited him over for a beer. “I turned up to this address and just thought, ‘Oh my god, what is this place?’ It was like a rabbit warren, where spiral staircases and strange hallways led to these open-plan apartments with huge, high ceilings and amazing tiled floors,” he remembers. “It was unlike anything I’d seen in New Zealand and I just fell in love with it — I coveted everything about it.”

Living in a Grey Lynn villa at the time, he kept an eye on Trade Me over the following years to see if any Axis apartments came up — immediately disregarding them as too expensive when they did. Then, in 2021 when Covid-19 had the country in a stranglehold, this one hit the market. Being used as a design studio (all Axis properties are leased as commercial, meaning the chef can live and work there), it had an open kitchen, four large steel windows, a little balcony, and two poky offices plonked right in the middle. “It was that first week of that major lockdown, and in the same way as we all did with online shopping, I thought, ‘What the hell, just do it, take the plunge,’” says Mannering.

The Axis Building was built in 1926 as the Nestlé chocolate factory. Arranged around an internal courtyard, the three-storey plant fell into disrepair when the food conglomerate shifted to the South Island in 1988. It was left abandoned until Samson, a local company that invests in commercial character properties, stepped in, engaging Pattersons architecture studio to reinvent the 4000-square-metre building as a mixed-use development. The architects transformed the former factory into a hub of commercial offices, showrooms, eateries and apartments.

The building’s early 1990s revival circulates around that courtyard and celebrates its raw 1920s design. Impressively, no two spaces are the same. Cast-iron beams, large steel windows and steel-latticed walkways play up its industrial roots, while recycled elements, like the hexagonal terracotta tiles salvaged from the factory floor, embrace the original character. A longstanding rumour goes that you can still see cocoa seeping out from the tiles under certain conditions. “When it gets really hot, they sweat,” says Mannering. “Far be it from me to put my nose to them or lick them, so, fuck it, let’s say it’s true.”

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Buoyed by his lockdown-induced lease, Mannering was blindsided when he turned up to find the two rooms/offices he’d planned on using as bedrooms were gone. “The landlord had been a little zealous sprucing the place up,” he says. “They’d returned it to its original state, which was just one huge, open, empty space with a kitchen – the only enclosed area was the bathroom.” Miraculously, amid a nationwide plasterboard shortage, the chef found a friend-of-a-friend builder who happened to have some squirrelled away. Exploring ways to divide the space, he landed on this central bedroom layout, fashioning the sleeping area out of two internal walls. Vaguely attached to the building on one side, the new walls are stabilised by wires hooked up over the rafters. “In the end, Samson getting rid of those rooms was the best thing that could have happened because they had been blocking off access to the balcony and all of that light.”

Mannering had indulged a “maximalist vibe” in his old Grey Lynn villa, à la Luke Edward Hall or Ben Pentreath, but the apartment demanded more restraint. Larger furniture pieces and countless possessions were culled, while other items found fresh purpose. A hardy outdoor table he was never fond of suddenly made sense, its concrete profile gelling with the apartment’s raw aesthetic. Directing many belongings to an existing bookshelf he had painted green, Mannering describes the somewhat simplified style as “a diary of the last decade of my life”.

Artists he’s encountered over the years are colourfully exhibited. Like the bold yellow Phil Cuttance candle holders, a “joyous” piece by Cat Fooks and an Emily Karaka work he picked up for a steal from Webb’s years ago. Charlotte Rust’s Babelogue shop is well represented, along with nostalgic touches, including a portrait in the kitchen that once hung in his childhood home. “I don’t like art to be static; that’s why most of the pieces aren’t hung,” Mannering says of his interior design. “My aunt has an amazing collection and always said art should be mobile and move with your moods.” It’s comfortable, personal, and created on a shoestring budget.

The shift taught him that we “don’t need that much stuff”, particularly in the kitchen (still in its original 1990s condition), where he wrote and tested his cookbooks, Food Worth Making Volume I and II. Moving in, Mannering tried desperately to convince Samson to swap the induction cooktop for gas — “classic ego chef wanker who needs it for his fancy copper pans,” as he puts it — but the landlord flat-out refused. The company is committed to ensuring its heritage projects deliver the same comfort, sustainability and environmental performance as a modern building, so gas was out of the question. “It’s actually been fantastic because I’ve completely reduced my kitchen equipment. If I, as a chef, don’t need all that stuff, an Aga or a fancy oven, no one does,” he says. “Plus, it’s safe, easy to clean and sustainable.” Win, win, win.

After taking some time to reset with whānau in Ōtautahi Christchurch over summer, Mannering is back home and considering his next move. He’s toying with ideas of shifting overseas, reinvigorating the pop-up dinner, hosting cooking classes, penning another cookbook or focussing on his food writing. It’s all very uncertain and exciting, but it puts the future of the apartment in limbo, too. “It’s so special that more than 30 years after Andrew Patterson completed the project, it’s still relevant. It’s playful, fun and a little audacious. But while I love my home, I can’t stay for it,” Mannering says philosophically. “Ultimately, we’re all just custodians of places and objects, right?”

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