14 June 2018

Romancing the Craft

Rose & Heather’s Martin Bell says setting up their furniture showroom and bespoke workshop in a combined Grey Lynn space, the only one of its sort in central Auckland, is “kind of like coming back home”.


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In an era of mass production, it is the meticulous timber craftsmanship that has always set Rose & Heather furniture apart.

The new facility is smaller than when Rose & Heather had a large Glen Innes factory with retail outlets spread across Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. But it’s now virtually all in one place. Not far from Jervois Road where they had a store for 20 years and a convenient e-bike away from Herne Bay where they have lived for 30, it’s focused on showcasing their history of the craft of the furniture.

Visitors can now look down through the windows of the showroom along Great North Road into the workshop and see how the furniture is made. There you will see head cabinetmaker Brett Walker, who has been with Rose & Heather for 25 years, and his two apprentices take the raw timber shapes, fashion them into elegant bespoke designs and apply the washes and stains that create the final look.

“There’s a connectivity between the raw materials and the finished item,” explains Marty. “Customers value the product more through the greater involvement in the actual making process. Being more hands-on has allowed us to be closer to our customers which is what we love. Mary-Jane and I get a kick out of personally doing the deliveries.”

So, it was serendipitous when the dust extraction system at Rose & Heather’s Glen Innes factory was edged out by noise control as a plethora of apartments started rising all around them. That gave Marty and his wife Mary-Jane, who manages the day to day running of the company, an opportunity to rethink their business.

"A whole lot of little things make a piece attractive."

"A whole lot of little things make a piece attractive."

They have continuously evolved with new ranges to suit an ever-changing market since Mary-Jane’s parents Tim Heather and Lucille Rose launched Rose & Heather after demand for Tim’s colonial wooden coffee tables in their Warkworth café began to exceed demand for biscuits.

Not the least of these changes has been imposed by the march of online retailing. Rose & Heather was always an early adopter of new technology. Establishing their website with a complementary CD catalogue in 1998, enabled them to sell furniture to customers in far-flung places around the globe, often to ex-pats who regard Rose & Heather almost as Kiwi as hokey pokey, except a lot more sophisticated.

“We try to retain our uniquely New Zealand flavour,” says Mary-Jane.

“It’s not only New Zealand designed and New Zealand made, but our designs are created especially for New Zealanders based on a boat building tradition using structural elements of wedges, pegs and exposed dovetailing.”

Marty continues: “As cabinetmakers, we’re very good at making boxes. But when you build a piece of furniture, it’s like building a boat. You must figure out many other tangents.

Simon Coughlan, Salesperson

Simon Coughlan, Salesperson

The popular Bailey table, with its structure visible like an upturned boat beneath a sheet of glass, is a good example.

“There’s a lot of problem solving as you go along, creating the angles and curves that you have to marry with other considerations to make a piece. That involves getting the proportions right, including height to width ratio; matching the timber grain throughout the drawers; graduating drawer sizes – they’re narrower at the top and deeper towards the bottom; putting knobs in the right place – they’re never in the middle. A whole lot of little things make a piece attractive." "It’s about designing a formula. Once you have a formula, you apply it to traditional proportion."

“Often people can’t tell you exactly what they like about a particular piece. But whatever we do, we’re very careful to maintain the hallmarks of the brand. There’s no written manual. I can’t give you a piece of paper that says, this is what we do. Otherwise we would have been swamped with competitors doing exactly what we do.”

Rose & Heather Furniture Makers located at 406 Great North Road, Grey Lynn

Rose & Heather Furniture Makers located at 406 Great North Road, Grey Lynn

He adds, they couldn’t have moved bricks and mortar, had it not been for the internet.

“Customer buying behaviour has changed a lot. People now come into the store with more knowledge than previously because they’ve already been online. They’ve done their research and they have an idea of what they want to look at. Once they’re comfortable with what we do, it’s not about how we do it or the quality. The conversation is just about the size and price.”

A sign of the times, is the expanding recycling aspect of the business as many of their Ponsonby and North Shore customers return to have their favourite pieces refurbished.

“It’s not something we’ve always done,” says Marty. “But we now have 40 years of product development history to draw on. People can see we make each piece with the same exacting standards. When it becomes part of the home, it also becomes part of a family. People want to look after their pieces. They know they’ve invested well when they bought a piece once. So, it’s worth reinvesting in. Refurbishing means there’s no use of new resources, so environmentally, it’s a win win.

“When they bring furniture in, we suggest different ways to bring it back with different ideas and stains. We’ll often pick up a piece of furniture from a client who’s had it for 20 years. Then we’ll give it a bit of TLC. When we return it to the client, the relationship starts all over again.

“We delivered a piece yesterday to a girl whose mother had left her a bedroom suite. Obviously, it had a lot of emotional meaning for her. It was an early colonial set. We redid the stain and refinished it in a darker colour and put new handles onto it. Now, it looks like new. She was blown away and had a tear in her eye. It’s kind of romantic.”

With the workshop and showroom in one place, Marty has enjoyed being “on the tools again”. It helps to expedite prototypes through design development. To celebrate 40 years in business, he’s launching a new range that will be on the showroom floor by July, having been embryoed for just a year.

Martin Bell

Martin Bell

“We’re re-releasing the Very Very Tall Boy, which came out in 1995. But we’re also looking forward to showing our new range with a clean, coastal look, very mid-Century Modern, utilising a mixture of materials – granite and marble tops with washes and clear finishes. It will have a light tapered leg with a simple look for a new bed, bedside cabinets and occasional pieces to start with.

Their Grey Lynn store has reawakened Mary-Jane and Marty’s passion for design. They’ve returned to being hands-on, local business owners, concerned with giving people a better appreciation of what quality craftsmanship is all about.

Visit and they’ll encourage you to touch; run your fingers along the underside of a table top, even smell their furniture, which was an ad slogan they ran in the late 80s to demonstrate consistent standard of finish – one of their hallmarks. When you’re caught up in their enthusiasm, chances are you’ll develop an ongoing tactile relationship with Rose & Heather furniture and it will become part of your family too.

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