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It’s just before eight on the first Monday morning after the end of daylight saving. I walk through the Mt Victoria street to the cottage that Prak Sritharan rents with his two flatmates, Jarred and Janelle. The streets are bustling with activity – a woman holding a keep-cup slips past me, two little girls kiss their dad goodbye from their front door, a big yellow bus noisily rounds the corner.
Prak’s flat is nondescript from the outside, but when the door opens and I follow him in, the commuter buzz is forgotten and we’re in a world of good design, balanced colour, and the soft whirr of a heat pump. “We called this the chapel for a little bit,” Prak says, pointing up. The cottage’s original ceiling has been removed, opening the space up and exposing the roofline of the building as in a church. “You’d never do renovations like this, in this day and age, it would just cost so much, look at that joinery work up there!” he says. It does look remarkable, and although it adds volume, the honeyed wood creates a sense of warmth.
Prak is still eating a piece of toast and Radio New Zealand is playing from his phone. He’s got a new morning ritual – well, new since opening his carefully curated design store, Precinct 35, four years ago. “I’ll get up around quarter to seven, go for a run if the weather’s nice, make my toast, which probably doesn’t even leave the…’ Prak signals around the kitchen where he’s making me a cup of tea. “The toast gets eaten straight off the board.”
He brings the freshly brewed pot over to the table where his computer and two journals are sitting. This is all part of the routine. “I sit down, and I write a list of things to do for the day, but it will be very casual, just a nice little to-do list, and it’ll even be things like ‘Call my sister’.” Precinct 35 doesn’t open till ten, so Prak has the freedom to take his time and be considered. “Everything about it is very meditative.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Prak used to be out in the hustle of the streets and down at Lambton Quay by eight every morning for his finance job. Prak can pinpoint the moment that sparked his interest in good design. It was on a trip to a friend’s flat in Auckland, nicknamed “the Hutch”.
“In this little house, the Hutch, there were three of my really good friends. It was kind of like a sitcom,” he laughs. “The house was so special. It was just thrown together. Mainly op-shop finds. They played records, they had a little turntable set up, little bits of art on the wall. It had this real sense of living. My eyes really opened up to how nice it is when you have a bit of house pride.”
For Prak, creating a great space is never just about owning lots of things, it’s also about the personalities living in the house. With the objects he buys for himself, and for the store, the maker and their story is always paramount. “We put them on a pedestal, they are the most important thing in the transaction − you know who they are, there’s a sense of traceability, you know where the object is coming from.”
Prak shows me one of his latest purchases, a bowl by the Mount Maunganui potter Laurie Steer. He’d bought his girlfriend some tumblers from the same artist for her birthday and wanted something for himself too. He picks up the bowl and holds it, solid in his hands, black clay with very visible dimples from the maker’s fingers. “I can imagine him pressing this. How nice is that?” he says, admiring it.
The other reason Prak bought Steer’s piece is because it speaks to another one he has – a ceramic trivet that sits on the dining room table. Its maker is Jamie Jenkins who was one of Steer’s students. “I like having that element of interaction between the two objects. Sometimes this one is on top of that one,” Prak motions the bowl over the trivet. “I love the stories. They have personalities and it makes every interaction with them way more special.”
Having an appreciation for the makers requires a reassessment of values. “I find it odd that people just see objects as luxury items. I think they’re just ethical items that have to cost a certain amount.” He lifts Steer’s bowl back up. ‘He’s getting paid a fair wage to build this and do that for a living, you know?”
While Prak doesn’t like the term “art object” to describe what’s sold in Precinct 35, he has been diving into the world of art, as there’s now a dedicated gallery space “35b” at the back of the store. On his living room walls there are artworks that have come from shows at the gallery and gifts Prak has acquired from friends and artists he’s exhibited. “It’s nice to be a space where artists can be seen and eventually sold,” Prak says of 35b.
I ask whether his flatmates are on board with his design aesthetic. “We’re a happy little family, all sort of early 30s and on a similar wavelength in terms of what we enjoy,” he smiles. “We’re all adults now, if someone doesn’t like something words will be said and it’s all okay. No one takes offence.”
Tim Lambourne is one of the artists Prak has exhibited. His photograph Sendagaya Hedge, from the Tokyo Bloom series, is hanging on an internal wall in the living room, above two mid-century chairs and a chess board. It’s a full scale close up of green and red foliage that gives the impression you’re looking out onto a lush garden.
There is in fact a small outdoor space at the back of Prak’s house. We have to walk through his bedroom to get there. “It’s not that tidy,” he warns me, though his bed is beautifully made and there are fresh flowers in a vase beside it. French doors open out into a small paved back garden. It’s not as pretty as inside, and certainly not as cosy, but there’s a nice view, across neighbouring gardens full of corrugated iron sheds and drooping apple trees, with the misty hills looming behind. “That morning ritual is the thing I enjoy the most,” Prak reiterates, looking up at the town belt where he tries to go every morning. “You’re running against the flow of traffic, of all these people walking to work, you know?” I laugh and turn to go back inside. I do know. I’m running late for my desk-job.