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Internationally renowned for the container house he built in Happy Valley, a stone’s throw from the Wellington landfill, the industrial designer is now slowly building a new home on a sprawling four acre-site in South Featherston.
Ross and his German wife, Petra Alsbach-Stevens, bought the section in 1995, and he began building on it 13 years ago. The industrial design icon and design futurist camped on the site in an old railway cottage, spending three months constructing two buildings − a design studio and living area, and sleeping wing − with his father.
The buildings sit high on a hill, with sweeping views across the Western Lake and Palliser Bay in one direction, and Lake Pounui (owned by film maker James Cameron) in the other. About half the property is covered in protected native bush. It can be an unforgiving environment, as the house is frequently battered by brutal winds.
The exterior of the main shadowclad plywood and glass building boasts recycled macrocarpa slabs leaning inwards, like trees protecting its inhabitants inside. Ross deliberately chose materials that have had a previous life, turning up to construction businesses asking for their rejects − offcuts, mistakes and seconds. Steel and Tube gave him sheets of rusting steel with circle cut-outs which it rejected; they now resemble oxidising sculptures sticking out of the house.
The house is insulated with 200ml polystyrene panels once part of an old coolstore. “I was taking my students for a trip out to Seaview and I hadn’t been able to figure out how to make a house and what the base material would be. I had loved the container house, and I saw this mountain of poly panels in Seaview. I said, ‘Stop the bus’. My students thought I was mad.”
He has half the panels left, which will form the basis of a new building he is about to begin constructing with his 18-year-old son, Finn.
A senior lecturer in future studies and 3D printing at Victoria University School of Design, Ross is driven to this style of design because it’s cheaper to build, better for the environment, and he likes materials and objects that are weathered and worn. ‘I love things with stains, metals showing rust, buildings with cobwebs on them. I like things with a history,’ he says.
“The backstory is actually more important. Most people are starting to realise we just can’t keep biffing everything too.”
Working for Philippe Starck in Paris for two years in the early 1990s, Ross is also something of a design rebel, challenging Kiwi ideals about homes and the way we live. The hallway to the bedroom wing and also the living room are painted black. “I got told you can’t have a black room. I thought, ‘Really? Now I’m definitely going to have a black room,’” he laughs.
The living space is reminscent of a formal living room, with pops of futuristic design. A mix of old and new, it includes Petra’s inherited German furniture and family heirlooms near Ross’ laser-cut black wall panels. “I’m trying to use digital tools to make a traditional room. I think people have misunderstood what decoration is about.’’
Ross found Italian marble tiles online and laid them in the window sills and near the fake fireplace. The power systems running around the edge of the room came out of a foreign exchange bank. “The guy was made redundant and he was pissed off with his package so he literally stripped the building of its wiring and flogged it off,” Ross laughs.
“All the wiring I can get to. I don’t like putting services inside stuff. I want to get at it and have a play with it.”
The room’s ceiling is a futuristic nod to the traditional pressed tin ceiling. Ross made a 3D map of the Wairarapa terrain out of vacuum-formed plastic − a packaging material for chocolates − and turned it into ceiling panels. “I figured that one thing that will never change out here is the lake and the house’s relationship to it.”
In the master bedroom off the dark hallway, he made the stunning rimu-panelled walls out of rejected door skins, which glowing a honey yellow in the dim downlights. Ross says: “I have a real issue with paint. There is a blandness to it. I prefer things that have more complex colours and tones.”
The designer even built the dressing table out of old Formway desks.
The bedroom wing deliberately has just a few skinny windows, so the family can hunker down inside rather than trying to embrace the outdoors. The living room also focuses inwards, blocking out views which could be stunning on a good day. Again this is Ross making a design statement, while also being brutally practical in recognising that his house is typically exposed to the elements. He argues that many Kiwi homes aren’t built to cope with our extreme environments.
“The New Zealand tradition of having indoor-outdoor flow, I just wanted to slaughter that. You’re outside and I’m inside and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Daughter Kara’s bedroom features a laser cut ceiling made by her father − this time, the pattern resembles a daisy pattern. “It was such a simple sounding idea when I thought it up, but it actually was far harder to achieve,” he laughs.
To get between the buildings, the family walk through a sheltered internal courtyard. Along with a vegetable garden, it houses Ross’ spa pool, which is powered by wind turbines on the roof. Each morning, he sits in the spa pool, thinking and processing work and life.
Before he does this, though, he listens to his stereo for 45 minutes. Also an audio designer, his products have earned him an international reputation, with a client list that includes B&W, Perreaux, Plinius and Pureaudio.
Petra, a writer, also likes to make things and while her husband embraces the latest technology − he recently lectured in Japan about 4D and talks a lot about artificial intelligence − she is drawn to traditional crafts like sewing and embroidery. Like her husband, she also upcycles: in the design studio off the kitchen, a dozen bags she made out of discarded jeans and jackets hang off a coat rack. An embroidered orange doily, made by Petra for Ross’ birthday, has become one of his treasures. Says Ross: “These old ideas I think are really interesting. It’s made, which for me is special.”
It’s a remote way to live, especially with two teenagers. However, while he likes Wellington and particularly Cuba Street, the designer says: “I need quiet to be reflective. I like being away and then I like being right in the thick of it.’’
The week Capital visited, Ross was preparing for the arrival of the concrete truck and the next chapter in his home-making journey. Pointing to the frame of building number three, Ross says: “Building this way just takes time. And time is one thing that a lot of people don’t have and a lot of people don’t protect.”
“Our home was literally put together by my hands, and I think that makes a difference for my family.”