Life in Colour

Ann Shelton and Duncan Munro meticulously restore the original modernist colour scheme in their 1950s home.

Life in Colour

Ann Shelton and Duncan Munro meticulously restore the original modernist colour scheme in their 1950s home.

In 1957 Nancy Martin was purportedly the first single woman in Wellington to receive a mortgage to build her own home. Martin didn’t have a husband, and is listed on her mortgage as a spinster.

Armed with the independence, privacy and self-determination that her own home would allow, Martin claimed an autonomous space for her single and alternatively constituted feminine self; her home was critical to this end. It wasn’t a typical New Zealand home either – Martin commissioned Jewish emigré architect Frederick Ost, and it remains one of a handful of examples of a home designed by him.

Ost was Czechoslovakian and trained and worked in Vienna before escaping Nazism with his wife, arriving as refugees in New Zealand in 1940. In her review of Leonard Bell’s book Strangers Arrive, Sally Blundell describes how “a cohort of new architects, including Ernst Plischke, Helmut Einhorn, Henry Kulka, Frederick Newman, Imi Porsolt and Vladimir Čačala, introduced a Bauhaus-informed modernism that was simple, sophisticated and functional, and aesthetic in its use of space and light. Many new arrivals found a receptive audience, but there was also a prevailing sense of wartime suspicion.”

Martin lived in the house until her death in 2006; we purchased it in 2013 and it is almost entirely unaltered. There have been a few minor changes, mostly in the seven years between Martin’s death and us taking ownership – the exterior had been repainted, the shagpile carpets and curtains had been removed but the interior was largely untouched – light fittings, tapware, built-in speakers, lino flooring, pegboard walls. At some point, however, the kitchen, bathroom, hall and toilet had been repainted in a mix of off-whites.

The first major task was rewiring: when the switch and outlet covers were removed, we discovered the original colour scheme. Further clues to the scheme were found on the kitchen’s chipped cupboards and drawers and in remnants like the red kitchen lino, red and dusty-pink ceilings in the back bedrooms, and the pale pink ceiling in the entrance hallway. What was eventually revealed was quite a radical palette of more than half a dozen different colours.

We resolved to return these rooms to their original colours. It took a long time, and a lot of test pots. We got extremely close but things still felt slightly off until, at the last minute, an Instagram post of our progress received a comment telling us that in 1957 there was only one colour chart to choose from – BS2660. On the Saturday before the painters arrived, we found that BS2660 was still on Resene’s database and we were able to precisely match all the paint colours.

The new painting connected up the dots. The house has a strong personality and the new/old colours immediately fitted right in. It beams a little, it’s spirited – it’s like the stripes in an old-school toothpaste.

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