Written by John Williams
Photography by Kallen Macleod
Celia Visser has been designing kitchens, bathrooms and interiors from her College Hill studio for over a quarter of a century. Well known and respected within the interior design fraternity, she is a regular speaker at industry events and has been a judge at the annual Kitchen and Bathroom Awards.
As any good designer should, Celia is constantly on the lookout for the new and the interesting, pushing the boundaries and trying different ideas and techniques. And so, after winning multiple design awards in New Zealand, she decided to enter one of her kitchens into a prestigious international design competition, putting it up against fellow designers from 46 countries.
The design she chose to take to the rest of the world is a striking, white, minimalist kitchen and matching bar she created for one of her clients as part of large interior design project that included five bathrooms and a laundry, plus another kitchen in a self-contained part of the house.
“I was brought on board at the very early stages of the design, so was able to work with the architect to mould the space, to give the best functionality and aesthetics for my client,” she explains. “The brief for the kitchen was for a simple, minimalist design with space to seat the whole family. They wanted it to connect it to, but not compete with, the adjacent outdoor area and pool yet, at the same time, command a presence in the space. They also wanted a matching bar in their lounge, because they entertain a lot, and wanted continuity between the two. It was a fine balance,” she says.
Tongue in cheek, her client also asked Celia for an award-winning kitchen. She said she’d see what she could do. “I never in my dreams thought I was going to deliver on that last part, especially on the world stage,” she says.
Celia created the connection between the kitchen and the bar in two ways – firstly, by designing both elements as similar forms and, secondly, by manufacturing them from the same material. The two geometric shapes, enhanced by the use of stark, white Corian, tie the spaces together perfectly and, at the same time, give the finished pieces a serene, sculptural feel.
“I’ve loved using Corian since I first started designing,” say Celia. “The beauty of Corian is you can make all the joins invisible. Because of the length of the kitchen island on this project, if I’d used any other product you’d have seen where the sheets joined. Using Corian, it looks like a single piece, with no seams.”
The designer broke up the mass of white Corian by using bead-blasted, stainless steel sheets formed into minimalist shelving inserts. She used the same material for the custom rangehood housing, and also used it structurally at the seating end of the island, which allowed her to create a slim profile and a very sleek, fine edge.
With the project finished, Celia followed through on her promise to her client and entered the kitchen into the prominent SBID Awards, held in London. As with any award programme, she was hopeful, but not expectant. “You’ve got to be in to win,” she says.
A few months later, Celia was thrilled to receive a message that her design had been chosen as a finalist, and she was invited to a three-day event in London that kicked off with a reception at the House of Lords and ended with a gala luncheon in the ballroom of The Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane, hosted by comedian Julian Clary. So, with her best frock packed, Celia headed to the UK.
“Well, blow me down, I won,” she says, clearly still excited. “I was honoured just to be one of finalists, but to win was very special. The board of judges included heads of design for Google, Bentley, Louis Vuitton – all world-class brands – so to be chosen by this elite group as the best designer in the Kitchen Bathroom & Bedroom category was a real honour.”
Celia describes the event as like nothing she’d ever experienced. “There were lots of paparazzi, and people interviewing me before I’d even got off the stage. Then there was another photo shoot out the back for all the winners. It was so great to represent New Zealand on the other side of the world. We’re small, but it’s good to know that what we design is as good as anywhere in the world,” she adds.
These days, anything goes in the kitchen, says Celia. “It’s not like in years gone by when there was a definite trend to follow. Sometimes designers are led by the products and materials that are coming through from the suppliers, but personally, I really try to focus on my clients’ needs, how they live, and what they want in their individual spaces.”
Where possible, Celia likes to integrate appliances into her kitchen designs, to get a more cohesive, furniture look, rather than seeing various appliances dotted around the space – especially in open-plan homes, she says. Looking at individual appliances she says that combi steam ovens with conventional ovens are still huge, she says, more so than combi microwave ovens.
“People still want microwaves, but ask for them to be tucked away in the scullery or in a cupboard. Glass-fronted wine fridges are also hugely popular, especially multi-zoned models, where you can store white and red in the same fridge. I always try to keep the wine away from the main fridge, as it’s not the correct temperature to store your precious vintages.
“I’ve been waiting a long time, but I’m now seeing the first generation of computer fridges actually coming through into the market,” she says. “These are glass-fronted, with touch-control panels, much like your smart phone, where you can scan in items and the fridge knows all the use-by dates, and can also automatically re-order regular food items for you from the supermarket. It will also store all your recipes and can control your entertainment system.”
“With colour, pinks and purples are coming through in fashion, but I was using those colours over 20 years ago when I first started my design career. It shows that things do come around again, and my preference isn’t to use on-trend colours because they do date and come in and out of fashion.”
If a client wants to highlight a particular colour, Celia says she often chooses something from the new ranges of coloured tapware and accessories coming through… they’re relatively affordable and simple items to swap out after a few years as colour trends change. “I like to design with looks and colours that will stand the test of time – using classic shapes and tones, but with a twist, so that no two designs are the same,” she says.
There are a lot of interesting new materials coming through, but Celia draws attention to the new ranges of high-pressure porcelain that are can be used for benchtops, as well as drawer and cupboard fronts. They come in large sheets, like huge tiles, but are thinner, very durable, and scratch and stain resistant, which makes them ideal for work surfaces, as well as floors and walls. One thing to be aware of, Celia points out, is getting these huge single pieces into your home, and this especially applies to apartments, where access may be limited.
“For that minimalist look, I usually take the benchtop material and use it up the wall, which pulls the whole design together, giving a clean, modern feel.” Tiles, she says, are still a very popular choice for splashbacks, and there are so many options out there – colours, shapes and patterns. “If you decide on a tiled splashback, I do recommend using epoxy grout, especially for small mosaics. It’s more expensive, but it will last a lot, lot longer and is easier to keep clean.”
“Interestingly, if you go back to the 1970s, coloured taps and taps with various metallic finishes were very popular, but the quality of the coating wasn’t very good, and they chipped and wore off easily. Today, the coatings are much more durable, but for me it is still a trend, and some of those more out-there colours and finishes will date quickly, as they did back then,” says Celia. “My advice would be to stick to classic colours and finishes – stainless steel, nickel, chrome and brass, and black and white. But, as I mentioned previously, taps are relatively inexpensive items, so you can change them out as trends fade away.”
Multifunctional taps are a very popular product, especially the ones that offer chilled sparkling water as well as boiling water. Installing one also means you don’t have to buy bottled water any more, which cuts down on the use of plastic, so is great for the environment, too. There are some considerations you have to take into account, however, says Celia. “They can take up quite a bit of room, so they need to be planned into a new kitchen right at the early stages of the design.”
“Funnily enough, barstools are my pet hate – not because I don’t like them, but simply because people don’t think about barstools until the last moment, after the kitchen is finished, then they go out and buy something that doesn’t match, or that’s really cheap. And that can ruin the whole design,” says Celia. “I always talk to my clients about barstools right at the very beginning of a project. That way, we can plan ahead for something that fits in with my design. Normally, I like clean-lined barstools. Think about it, if you have three or four, four-legged barstools all bunched up together, then that’s a lot of legs, and it can look very messy.”
Sculleries and butlers’ pantries continue to be popular. They help to keep the open-plan living spaces many of us tend to live in these days clear of clutter and mess. However, Celia’s advice is to only include one in your new kitchen design if you have a decent-sized area to accommodate it. “Don’t try to squeeze one into a space the size of a large cupboard; it really isn’t worth it,” she says.
Celia says that this is an exciting and developing part of kitchen design, and one that she really enjoys working in. “Outdoor kitchens aren’t just a barbecue on a benchtop in the garden, they are fully specified kitchens – including sinks, fridges, dishwashers, and even crockery – that are capable of being permanently outdoors. There’s a lot of thought and technology, and careful choice of materials, that goes into designing and building cabinetry, installing plumbing and fitting electrical componentry that can all withstand seasonal temperature differences, especially in places like Queenstown, and also in marine environments, where corrosion is the main concern.