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7 October 2021

Simply Divine

Freshly crowned NKBA Designer of the Year Davinia Sutton says she is humbled by her success, but behind this modesty is a highly talented creator.


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At the recent NKBA Excellence in Design Awards, held at Te Papa in Wellington, Christchurch-based designer Davinia Sutton all but swept the board, making history by taking home, among other accolades, the Supreme Kitchen, Supreme Bathroom, and Designer of the Year awards. Given her complete dominance of this year’s kitchen and bathroom awards, the first obvious place to start off our conversation has to be around trophies, and the value she places on them.

“From a business perspective, it’s great advertising. For me personally, it’s validation that you are doing the best within your industry. It’s also a real encouragement, not only for myself, but also for the team that’s behind me, and it supports those visions; all that hard work was worth it. And for the client, too: if a project wins, it’s also an affirmation for them that the investment they’ve put into a designer is being celebrated and recognised on a national stage, and validates the time and investment and risk that everybody has put into the project.”

Davinia says awards need to push boundaries and they have to discover new territory to be successful, by pushing not only the designers but also the trades and craftspeople involved in bringing the projects to fruition.

Looks aren’t everything

With many awards programmes, it’s often about the way a project looks, but for Davinia, it goes a lot deeper than that. She says she admires how, say, the architectural (NZIA) awards are done, where the judges actually go and visit the projects, to see them as a whole, in context, but in the same sentence, she says she understands this is not always possible with kitchens.

“A lot hinges on the photography, too,” she says. “I’ve had projects that I know could be award-winning, but they just haven’t photographed well. It’s a challenge and a shame because some of the most beautiful, simplified and architecturally considered spaces don’t photograph well.”

The kitchen is the most practical, functional and innovative space in a home, yet those elements of the design often get glossed over in awards, overshadowed by the look and aesthetics. As a judge for the NKBA in the past, Davinia says she has fought the corner for functionality.

“It may look beautiful but, at the end of the day, from a practical point of view, it needs to work as a kitchen. Good design shouldn’t just come down to the bling or the wow factor. When you’ve been given a good budget, yes, you can push the boundaries of the design and the flare, but a cost-effective kitchen should be equally considered and well designed.

“Historically, yes, those with big budgets have been recognised, because they have been given the scope to push things a bit further and have the detail in them. But, as designers, we need to be mindful that those high-end kitchens only talk to a very limited audience.”

Not all kitchens are equal

While on the topic of money, we ask Davinia if it’s necessary to spend a lot of money to get a good design. Her view is that designing to a budget is a different kind of challenge, especially with bespoke kitchens, which is the only way she and her teamwork.

“From a design perspective and a reward perspective, you are still supplying a client with their dream kitchen, regardless of whether it’s high end, or on a $30k budget. However, you need to understand that there are two levels of the kitchen – there are your basic modular kitchens, which keep the costs down by supplying cookie-cutter cabinetry in same-size units – like a puzzle that you put together. Then, there are bespoke kitchens, which are always going to be more expensive, because you are having to use more materials to get the right form and the right sizes to fit the space you’re designing for.

“Often, but not always, in the case of modular kitchen, you are dealing with a salesperson as opposed to a qualified designer – and that can make a huge difference. So, if you do opt for a modular kitchen, ensure the person you are dealing with is a designer.”

To use an analogy, kitchens are like men’s suits, where your off-the-peg range is inevitably going to be more affordable than a made-to-measure number. Body shapes are like room shapes, in that everyone is slightly different. Some bodies will fit into suits straight off the peg, whereas others will need their suits taken in or let out so they fit snugly. Most of us fall into the latter category, unfortunately, both in suits and kitchens.

Sharing the love

Within the design industry, it’s well known that there can occasionally be tension between architects and kitchen designers – Davinia says it’s an interesting topic.

“I’ve worked with many architects around the country. Often, from past experience, they have felt a bit bruised, or feel that they are going to lose control of their vision for their design of a home. They are protective, and I can understand that.”  

“In the past, they may have thought, ‘Oh god, she’s going to make it bright pink, or she’s a primadonna without the skill base to follow the design through’, but that’s not the case. Our ethos is that we want the home to read as one, and we want the architecture to read as one. As an interior architect, we are actually extending their level of service by making the kitchen function well, and also in the details that we introduce.”

Space planning is key

Materials and finishes are important, but the layout is the key, says Davinia. This is especially true with smaller spaces. And that’s where bringing in a designer can really make the most of the available space, giving you the wow factor and a unique result, tailored specifically to your needs.

Technology, too, is a never-ending learning curve for designers – another reason why Davinia says it’s best to deal with a dedicated trained kitchen designer because we are constantly upskilling themselves and learning about new technologies and the latest products.

“It’s a whole new level with technology these days. There are servo-drive electric door and drawer opening systems, app-controlled appliances connected to the internet that allow you to see what’s cooking in your oven from your iPhone, in-bench induction hobs and wireless ‘invisible’ charging for your phones, multi-zone fridges… the list goes on,” she says.

Best in the world

When it comes to kitchen design on the international stage, New Zealand has always punched above its weight – and that’s mainly thanks to designers such as Davinia, who are pushing boundaries and paving the way for new talent to follow. Without a doubt, kitchen designers seem to have more of a role here in New Zealand, even compared to our close neighbours across the Tasman. But why? Most probably because we have had to design our kitchens ourselves, rather than rely on international brands and designers, says Davinia.

“There is certainly that number-eight wire mentality, and even a throwback to the eighties, to the ‘buy New Zealand-made’ label, but also, traditionally, there’s the cost of getting some of those high-end kitchens into the country, along with their limitations,” she says. “I think also that we are a creative nation. Look at the likes of the Wearable Arts – that was created here in New Zealand. And I think that generally, we are also a very home-proud nation, having our own properties and owning our own homes.”

Davinia says she is humbled and also very fortunate to have found herself in a position throughout her career to have worked with some amazing clients, who have entrusted her to create beautiful spaces for them.

“That journey has been a blessing,” she says. “I see my role now as trying to give back to the community that has given me so much support and put me on that stage. I am now on the board of the NKBA, looking at how we, as an association, can support the design community and help the younger designers coming through, and using my mana in a positive form, to give back to the industry and create that sense of community.”

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