|For those of us with disheveled lives, designer Sandra Nunnerley’s apartment is a kind of fantasy of order and calm where we can sit and delude ourselves that we too might be able recreate this kind of serenity one day. She grew up in New Zealand and studied architecture in Australia, but established herself here in the 1980s. As passion for interior design and shelter magazines and the whole industry based on our increasingly sophisticated nesting instincts has gone global, she finds herself, on occasion, returning to both places to do projects but New York does seem to be home especially now that she has found a place where she can sleep with the window open and wake up to the sounds of the birds in Central Park each morning. It’s possible the birds are being just as argumentative as any New Yorker … another happy delusion we probably all share, but she’s right when she says it’s amazing.
Your house is very, very clean but I did read somewhere that you have said ‘Imperfections are the soul of a beautiful house’ – um, how have you allowed for that in this apartment?
No, no, lack of imperfection! What do you do to bring that soul in?
Well, I think when you said ‘clean’, maybe it’s because I’m an architect as well as an interior designer. There are lots of imperfections here because I put two apartments together. The front one was renovated, not to my taste, and of course the owners were so proud of it, and the back one was really, like ‘tenement’ condition. I don’t think it had been touched since the building was converted. There’s a lot of imperfection … quirks in putting them together … I used to live on the 53rd floor of The Metropolitan Tower.
Why did you move?
I wanted to be closer to the ground, quite frankly! Even though [The Metropolitan Tower] was terribly glamorous, and that sort of cliché ‘very New York’, I never actually really felt that was a home. And I never really slept well in it in all the time I was there. A friend of mind says it’s from the energy, the feng shui, both from above and from below. And I’m sure that may be right because I here, I sleep well.
|What do you think of the ideas of feng shui? Do you follow it?
No, not really … but it’s been around for a long time.
There is such a thing as ‘atmosphere’. This apartment feels very peaceful to me.
Well certain spaces definitely have harmony. It is peaceful. It’s like being in the country in a way because in the mornings I wake up to birds, the birds from Central Park. I sleep with the window open, it’s amazing!
You said you grew up in a creaky old house in New Zealand.
I did! I grew up in a Victorian house. Where did you get that from?! You’ve been researching me! You know everything. My mother still lives in that house.
|Tell us about your move from New Zealand to New York.
I studied architecture at the University of Sydney and then I worked in an art gallery … and then I was also married in Australia and that marriage came to end and I thought ‘Well, what do I want to do?’ And then I took off overseas. I was wandering around … got a trainee workers permit to work at the Marlborough Gallery. It was just one of these things because I was about to go back to Australia and a friend of mine, her father bought a townhouse and he said did I want to oversee the project. One thing led to another and I ended up getting a job at a corporate design firm.
Why didn’t you want to do architecture?
I think I had just discovered this new profession called interior design.
My impression of Australia, I’m not so sure about New Zealand, is that they are obsessed with shelter magazines and there are so many incredible houses there.
I know, but that’s been in the last 20 years. There is, there’s a whole movement. Do you know what it was? They’ve traveled the world, lived everywhere, experienced everything and then they brought it back and did that fusion of the Asian, the American and European. It’s amazing.
|I grew up in Africa and I always wonder if people in New Zealand grow up in a similar way, sort of barefoot and a bit wild.
It’s very much like that.
But it’s a far cry from this New York life you lead. You must think about that sometimes.
I do! Yes, when it was the holidays your parents would say, off you go and I’ll see you at the end of the day. Do you miss it?
I do but I have not tried to recreate it, and neither have you. Why did you not do so, do you think?
I love going back and I also do projects now … but it’s just sort of life, it moves on and you go on different adventures and have different experiences. And this is where my profession was, at that time [starting out in the 1980s], New York was very exciting, creative-wise. It wasn’t coming out of London or Paris or Germany or Belgium at that time.
|When you were a little girl, did you ever have a glimpse that you might live like this?
Well, my mother always had a great flair and design and my mother and auntie lived in London because my grandfather was a diplomat, so they were exposed to a lot of different things. And then my mother was the women’s editor of the morning paper, The Dominion, so she was always very aware of what was going on. And I always remember Margot Fonteyn and Nuryev coming. I was always taken to see those things. I think I did more cultural things growing up than I do here!
I read somewhere that you spent a semester on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Can you tell us about that?
It was the time when they placed an embargo on bringing the artifacts out but there were certain dealers that had licenses to bring them out. So I went out on the Sepik with them and, it was very interesting, we collected things for the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church didn’t have an embargo. They could collect whatever they wanted. Then the dealers were allowed to take a portion of it.
Er … I’m not sure what you mean, an embargo.
You weren’t allowed to take the artifacts out.
|Who was the dealer?
Kellmer. K-E-L-L-M-E-R He was in his seventies then.
Oh. So you went specifically to see if you could take things out?
Well, that was why we were there. He was the dealer. We collected things and he gave X number to the Catholic Church and then they would allow you to keep a certain amount. So that’s how it was done.
What was it like?
Primitive. Could I do it again today? No. It was very tough. You slept on the ground in a hut and you ate what they gave you to eat. It was very tough going.
Maybe that’s where your childhood helped.
Oh, good old colonial stock! It comes in right! I’d rather be in the best hotel or sleep on the floor. I hate that in between.
— Lesley Hauge and Sian Ballen; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch