Half of interior designer Sonya Cotter’s work is convincing people to embrace their own clutter.
Minimalism has sucked a lot of the personality out of our living environments, she says. White walls and houseplants are pretty and on-trend, but what do they say about you?
Cotter cautions that Pinterest and Instagram are oversaturated with vignettes of “perfect” interiors that aren’t very comfortable or interesting to live in.
The chef turned design expert talks about how to make a home look like it belongs to you, not the pages of a glossy magazine.
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Tell me about your place in Grey Lynn. What made you want to live there?
This is actually the second house in this street that we’ve purchased and done a major renovation of.
When we first bought it, it was split up into three flats and the first time we walked through the door there were a lot of students sitting around watching cricket in this tiny room out the back.
You could hardly get into the bedrooms, but I could just see that the villa had really good bones and a lovely wide hallway, so we just went for it.
We knew we needed a good structure to work from and everything else we could create and develop as we went along. My partner Richard and I have been here 14 years now, which surprised the hell out of me.
How did you get into interior design?
I used to be a chef and when I was of a certain age, I realised it wasn’t an industry that I wanted to grow old in. The hours and the commercial kitchen environment got really hard.
Whereas I felt that interior design is something that you just get better at as you go along.
I was having a coffee and reading the newspaper (back when people did that) and saw an ad for an interior design course. Within a week I had enrolled. It just felt like the right thing.
A lot of my work is new builds or very big renovations. My favourite part of the job is creating the concept initially. And when clients come back and say I never would’ve gone this far without you. That’s what a good interior designer should do – take people out of their comfort zone to something that is really tailored for them.
Are there any trends that you flat out don’t like?
I’m not a fan of minimalism. I believe you should have a comfortable home. You should be able to enjoy it and not be too precious about the things around you.
I’m not a fan of throwaway trends because it ends up in landfill and is a waste of good, hard-earned dollars. I think you should buy the best quality that you can afford in regard to some of the bigger purchases that will last you for a long time. You’re future-proofing the design.
Why don’t you like minimalism?
We all have a lot of personality, and we should feel like we can show it in our environment. Create something that is yours, not something that you see in a magazine that’s been styled to the nth degree.
Pinterest and Instagram are small vignettes of a greater world that could be chaotic when you go outside that camera lens.
If you have more stuff in your home or more of your lifestyle out there, you don’t constantly have to put things away. If you have stylised clutter, you can enjoy the space a bit more.
What does ‘stylised’ clutter look like?
I talk about creating a mini still life. There is a collection of items together, little stories.
Quite often I’ll go into a home, and they’ll have a display shelf where everything is placed out evenly. I think you should move it together into clusters of items that tell a little story.
I put a couple of vases together and layer heights. Or you might put it on a tray to create a space to collect it together. You don’t have to fill every vase with a bouquet of flowers, sometimes a single stem is quite beautiful. I often go into the garden and find twigs or whatever that might be out there. Recently with the stormy weather, I got a branch from a lemon tree that fell off and put it on to the dining room table.
Can you describe the styling concepts in your own kitchen and lounge?
My kitchen is about contrast. I like depth of colour between light and dark. I like natural timbers and stone and think you can layer all of that on top of each other.
The coffee machine has pride of place because it makes our days work. I bought it for my partner for a birthday and it’s the best gift I’ve ever given anybody. I’ve had a coffee from that machine every morning for the last 15 years, and he’s made them all for me.
I do like to work with rugs and texture. They create a space, almost a mini-island in amongst our open-plan rooms.
There’s a great variation in price in rugs. If you’ve got a young family, you don’t need to be paying thousands and thousands.
We bought this self-portrait that was hanging in a gallery owner’s office. It’s been in our life for a long time. I find it calming, it’s like he’s paused in thought.
The funny thing was, I was at a wedding a few years back and thought, that man looks familiar, and it was the artist. I didn’t ask him, I’m quite happy just guessing at what he was thinking.
I purchased these two vases for a client because I loved them and I took them to the client’s house and they just didn’t work the way I thought they would. Instead of taking them back to the supplier, they came to live with me.
What are the things to consider when we go shopping for interiors?
I think we should be careful of fast trends. Rose gold is one that immediately comes to mind. For a moment it was everywhere. Hanging plants on geometric frame stands are another one.
It’s okay to jump on a trend if it’s just a few dollars, but be careful of committing a whole design around it.
Cushions can be changed in and out with new covers. The expensive part is often the inner.
Before shopping, if you want a quick fix or change – move your furniture around. You can create a winter configuration. We’re not so confined to looking at a big television screen in a lounge any longer because we tend to watch more on mobile devices.
You’d be surprised how well furniture can fit in a totally different orientation.
What can renters do to style their homes?
Invest in some bed linen, a headboard, and some small furniture that you can take with you. An armchair or some beautiful side tables, or a rug.
Possibly ask a landlord if you can paint a room. Create a space that feels a bit more substantial.