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Over the rainbow

From BlackWhite magazine - issue 01, over the rainbow

Sonia van de Haar and John Mills talk about their careers, inspiration and favourite Resene colours.

Six questions with Sonia van de Haar

When Sonia van de Haar moved back to Australia from England in 2010, she decided to design herself the ‘perfect job’, one that would combine her experiences as an artist and architect. “To me that meant working for myself, working across disciplines, pursuing collaborative opportunities and working with colour on a large scale,” she says.

Sonia van de Haar
Sonia van de Haar

Sonia founded her practice, Lymesmith, as a bespoke colour studio working across the built environment. She studied painting at the Canberra Institute of the Arts, ANU and architecture at the University of NSW, but she also studied fresco painting at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India.

“I had recognised a lack of colour knowledge in the discipline of architecture and I felt there could be an opportunity to create something unique in that area. My first job was to design 12 large chimneys for an eco-powerplant in a city park. I used colour to create a resonance between the industrial chimneys, the park trees and the architecture of the swimming pool within the park. It’s subtly playful, and people really responded to the concept. Lymesmith grew from there.”

“I always wanted to work in an interdisciplinary way, it just takes time to develop the skills to get there. I tend to think of interior colour design as painting in three dimensions, and I think about exterior building colour through a lens of urban design principles.”

Sonia tells us more about her journey, influences, and what she does when she feels stuck on a project.

Floating Vamps mural

Mural in Babcoq Restaurant in Cronulla

House: Sonia recently completed this mural, titled ‘Floating Vamps’. It features Resene Ruby Tuesday, Resene Grass Hopper, Resene Hive, Resene Fresh, Resene Tiber, Resene Elm, Resene Red Berry, Resene Adrenalin and Resene Drop Dead Gorgeous. Image by Vikram Hingmire.   Restaurant: Sonia created this colourful and stunning mural for C.C. Babcoq Restaurant in Cronulla, NSW for Tom Mark Henry Studio, using Resene Half Escape, Resene Tacao, Resene Paper Doll, Resene Apache, Resene Cape Palliser, Resene Turtle Green, Resene Black, Resene Feijoa, Resene Red Oxide and Resene Apple Blossom. Image by Damien Bennett, and Rachel Kara.

How has your time in India and your education in fresco painting influenced your architectural and interior design work in Australasia?

India was a turning point. I was a very young art student, my head in the clouds, all my ideas were very esoteric. India was not a spiritual experience for me; it was a hard, physical shock. I had my eyes opened to the physicality of life, of colour, of pigment and painting, through studying fresco. Working daily with the caustic lime plaster had the effect of burning away my fingerprints.

Lime is ubiquitous in Indian life – every family kept a bucket of slaked lime in the house. It is used to cleanse and purify, to make mortar and plaster, for ceremony, for painting and decoration, and even in food and medicine. My studio name Lymesmith comes directly from that experience. It represents the interconnectedness of our bodies with nature, art and architecture.

Whom or what has influenced your style?

There are so many influences, it’s difficult to pinpoint the most important ones, and they don’t stop accumulating. I’m just going to list a bunch of them in no particular order and people can look them up if they want to: Louise Bourgeois, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Mabel Juli, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Colin McCahon, Bernini, Rover Thomas, Joseph Albers, Alexander Calder, Gerrit Rietveld, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, Nonggirrnga Marawili, Matisse, Paul Pholeros, Phillip Thalis, Indigenous architecture, Jorn Utzon, Jean Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation in Paris, Studio Mumbai, Hella Jongerius, Katrin Trautwein, Piet Mondrian, Fiona Hall and Carlo Scarpa. Being on land in the country with traditional owners and always trying to continue learning are influences, too

Blue and cream bedroom

Sonia paired upper walls and a ceiling in Resene Duck Egg Blue with lower tongue-and-groove walls in Resene Quarter Pearl Lusta on her Ballast Point House project. Architectural design by Fox Johnston Architects, image by Anson Smart

Of course, my clients are also a vital influence. I want to work with their influences to create spaces with which they have a strong affinity. This keeps me trying new things and taking risks. I don’t like repeating myself, even when I have sometimes used the same colour in different projects, I would never repeat an entire colour palette in a different location. The palette has develop from the site.

I have a passion for colour, and specifically for colour that is contextual and colour that carries meaning for a site, place or for the people using it. Clients and architects who value that approach and want to experiment with colour are the ones that tend to seek me out.

Which are your favourite types of projects to work on?

Architectural projects where I am involved from an early stage, so that the conceptual approach to colour and materiality is developed in an integrated way. I always work with long-term collaborators, such as Sam Crawford Architects, like this, and our results speak for themselves.

Also, projects where the clients are involved and contribute to the journey, and where there is enough time for the research into the local context of the site, the environment, history of use, culture and architecture. Everything becomes better with time and care.

And mural commissions. I love painting on a large scale, it’s physically demanding, it involves taking risks, but I am happiest when I’m on the tools rather than at a desk.

Where do you find your inspiration for new designs, both for your 2D and 3D work?

Hella Jongerius said, “it’s absurd and arrogant to begin the design process with an empty piece of paper. Cultural and historical awareness are woven into the DNA of any worthwhile project.”

Researching the site and its context is often my key source of inspiration. Native flora, fauna and geology are important to me. In Australia, this naturally means developing my awareness of the Indigenous culture of the place, which is deeply significant for me. The best colourists in Australia are undoubtedly Aboriginal painters.

A recent mural project, ‘Floating Vamps’, is a small example of how research informs my process. I discovered that there used to be a Boot Making School and Factory in Erskineville, very near to this house. While looking at old boot making pattern books, I realised that the proportions of the mural wall mirrored that of the human foot. The mural was therefore based on shoe making patterns, as a subtle reflection of family life – all the shoes that get strewn about in various sizes as the children grow. The colours were developed in response to the interior colours in the house, and to provide a striking and playful focal point in the house. The clients’ lives, their colour tastes and local history are woven into the work.

I know this year has been really hard to plan for with so much being ‘up in the air’ for many people, but do you have any exciting upcoming news to share?

The largest, most complex project I’ve ever worked on has just gone to tender. It’s a new Animal Rehoming Centre in Western Sydney designed by Sam Crawford Architects. I first started working on it in 2016, and I have designed a 100m long screen/ security fence, which is made up of hundreds of coloured metal angles. The colours represent six different bird species from the endangered Cumberland Plan Woodland habitat that’s adjacent to the site. I have also designed the interior and exterior colour palettes for the six buildings of the facility. Each building represents a bird, so there is a lot of colour variation and playfulness incorporated into what are actually very utilitarian, shed-like structures. The colours are a key element for wayfinding and public engagement, but they also carry a story of place. I can’t wait to see this one built.

What do you love about Resene products?

I use Resene for lots of different reasons, but foremost among them is they have the best colour range. For interior spaces, I almost always use Resene SpaceCote Flat. It has a beautiful finish, the painters love it, and because it is so much more serviceable than a standard flat paint, I can sell its benefits to most clients.


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Eight questions with John Mills

With a distinctive aesthetic, one that combines a passion for materials, striking use of rich colours and a desire to create uniquely tailored buildings, architect John Mills believes the story of his projects begins and ends with the client. He says that it’s by taking the time to understand who they are and what they value is how he is able to create spaces that will work for them just as well in twenty years’ time as they do today.

John Mills Architect
John Mills

Since establishing John Mills Architecture (JMA) in Wellington in 1990, he’s held strong on this intent. “I always wanted to fulfil a vision of working to contribute toward a colourful and evocative New Zealand building style. There is so much great NZ architecture, so finding my own small place in it has been my path since 1990.”

John’s portfolio is an impressive one, full of high quality and highly unique projects – many of which have garnered multiple award wins.

But part of what makes him a real standout is his poetic approach to his work. “We endeavour to create architecture that speaks of its sites and surroundings, with grace and personality – unencumbered by blind conformity and dictates of transient fashion,” he explains. “We work together with clients and builders to craft beautiful forms and engaging spaces that make the heart leap and the soul sing.”

His level of commitment to everything he takes part in has made John a long active figure in the industry, too. Not only is he a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA), he has been a convenor and member of local NZIA chapters as well as other national awards juries, and is also a visiting lecturer and tutor at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture.

John tells us more about where his inspiration comes from, his favourite types of projects to work on and what he does when he feels stuck on a design.

Wellington multi level renovation

This multi-level Wellington renovation by JMA boasts beautiful harbour views, which led architect John Mills to incorporate vibrant Resene blues and green. Feature wall in Resene Bermuda Grey, walls and architraves at left in Resene Half Fossil and right wall painted in Resene Half Robin Egg Blue. Image by Paul McCredie.

What drew you to becoming an architect?

As a boy growing up in Nelson, there were always building sites nearby which I was drawn to. So many interesting materials and a constantly changing structure was fascinating. Making things became my passion, and when my grandad suggested architecture, it just made sense! Although, my mum was disappointed I did not follow her passion for accounting!

Your work has quite a distinct style to it, with flowing curves and eye-catching feature colours. Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?

I’m inspired by other architecture from New Zealand, from colonial through to our extensive collection of late-modern local domestic homes around the country. Also, the landforms and abundant nature we are surrounded by here.

Resene Endeavour brightens this stairwell

Southern Cross Garden Bar & Restaurant

Stairwell: This stairwell was renovated to bring in more light to the area, by building in glass balustrades and skylights. Resene Endeavour on the walls brings drama and interest combined with Resene Cut Glass. Image by Paul McCredie.   Bar & Restaurant: An accent wall in Resene Royal Heath punctuates JMA’s design at Wellington’s Southern Cross Garden Bar & Restaurant. Image by Kirsty Ballard.

Do clients seek you out because of that distinct style?

Some say it is the stylistic individuality and connection to the environment that leads them to seek their own place to settle into. Or, because they want to be challenged and participate in the creative process.

Which are your favourite types of projects to work on and why?

I love working on homes that are on unique sites that demand a unique response and with clients who are wanting to create their ‘forever home’ and work alongside us and the builders to make a place that we all are proud of. All of our projects, big and small, are a team effort and working alongside interesting clients who have an ambition to make architecture that speaks passionately about place, and the people who occupy their unique slice of Aotearoa.

Weatherboards in Resene Crisp Green

Weatherboards in Resene Crisp Green help define the entrance of this home designed by JMA. Other weatherboards in Resene Tea. Image by Paul McCredie.

It seems like, because of lockdown, there has been a big push by homeowners to use money that they might have been saving up for other things (such as overseas travel) for renovating their homes instead – or even designing and building a new one. Do you think that’s been true in your experience this year, and do you feel like you’re actually having a busier year because of it?

There has been a recalibration about ‘freedom’, I think. It used to be the ability to go where you wanted to go. Now, it is more about being to be able to stay where you want to stay – to live in a place that reflects your values, enriches your life and delights you. Everyday life is where the important things happen.

What do you do if you feel stalled creatively on a project?

I usually take a long walk in the Eastbourne hills… or perhaps a large latte and Afghan biscuit or a midnight espresso!

What do you love about Resene?

Their quality service to the design community, and their long term support for the NZIA awards programme for over 30 years. This is fantastic and gives all of us architects a chance to show off our best work, as well as facilitating us sharing ideas at award events.

Which are your current favourite Resene colours?

Resene Mystery, Resene Swiss Caramel, Resene Untamed and Resene Quarter Surrender.

Resene Untamed

Resene Mystery

Resene Swiss Caramel

BlackWhite magazine

This is a magazine created for the industry, by the industry and with the industry – and a publication like this is only possible because of New Zealand and Australia's remarkably talented and loyal Resene specifiers and users.

If you have a project finished in Resene paints, wood stains or coatings, whether it is strikingly colourful, beautifully tonal, a haven of natural stained and clear finishes, wonderfully unique or anything in between, we'd love to see it and have the opportunity to showcase it. Submit your projects online or email You're welcome to share as many projects as you would like, whenever it suits. We look forward to seeing what you've been busy creating.

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