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The French collection

The French collection

Crystal chandeliers, fringed lampshades, Scandinavian wood— French design certainly has its signature elements. So when Paris-based husband-and-wife team, Rod Fry and Laurence Varga conceived the idea of a company that would showcase the best New Zealand designs, products and visual arts to the discerning French market, and eventually greater Europe, they quickly discovered that broadening the taste of the French design palate takes time.

Firstly, they embarked on a research project, starting by driving around New Zealand and meeting creative sorts, like architects and designers, to get an idea of their values.

They repeated the process with the French creative community. “We got a very cerebral response that said, ‘Yes, it’s fantastic. It’s very intelligent and interesting, but it’s too radical for French people to get stuff like this into their apartments’,” says Fry, the Kiwi half of the partnership.

But like many good ideas, there were a couple of people who still backed it—people Fry says had already proved themselves successful in spotting future trends. So, in 2004, moaroom was born.

The going was slow. “Everybody told us it could take three years for people to get to the point where they can see a relatively new object and realise they can live with it in their homes,” says Fry, who fell back on his consultancy work until the business could pay its bills. 

Moaroom now boasts an impressive list of Kiwi designers, including lighting and furniture designer David Trubridge—who joined them early in the piece—furniture designer Simon James, architect Brendan MacFarlane and Patrick Morris, creator of the famous Boskke Sky Planter. Most recently, Fry himself has dabbled in a bit of furniture making, creating the flat-pack Pi Table. A hundred have already sold, making it moaroom’s most successful launch to date.

The company’s New Zealand aesthetic is now beginning to catch on. The Pompidou Centre has featured three moaroom window displays in its design shop, and David Trubridge lights have decorated the Printemps department store. Further afield, the company is also displaying work with the Dutch design group Droog.

“We’re not a colloquial New Zealand design company,” says Fry. The company’s USP is that it allows world-class New Zealand designers to get recognition in Europe.

When moaroom ran its first show of Trubridge lights in 2006, Fry says he was taught an important lesson about the European perception of New Zealand: “They knew so little that we might as well have been Patagonia,” he says bluntly. Sporting success, sheep and the 100% Pure campaign have, unsurprisingly, defined New Zealand in Europe to date.

Following the show, Fry published a book that would present New Zealand through its art and architecture. By showcasing unique and intelligent design from these shores, the result, Long White Book, tells a different story about the country.

Focusing on artists, designers, architects and Maori art—everything from Zambesi fashion to Jo Luping ceramics—the book initially had an enthusiastic reaction from NZTE, which offered a chunk of funding to help get 3,000 copies published and distributed.

The plan was originally to sell the book at New Zealand bookstores and airports, “so that everyone who visited New Zealand and wanted to return home with a story that wasn’t about rugby could do so”.

However, a week before printing began, NZTE changed its mind and pulled the funding. Fry proceeded with printing, but the near-$30,000 funding shortfall resulted in a lower-than-planned output and an increase to $35 retail price. (However, NZTE did later purchase 500 copies of the book.) 

But now, Fry has a more ambitious plan for the Long White Book, based principally around the book’s website (www.longwhitebook.com). The site is getting a revamp and will feature 242 fullsized images, representing the number of years since the first Pakeha and Maori ‘collaboration’.

“Leading up to the Rugby World Cup, the press in Europe is going to be floundering for New Zealand stories,” says Fry. “We want to put in front of them the clever people here, doing genuinely world-class work.”

The site is due to go live in March, in time for a launch at the New Zealand Embassy in Paris. Says Fry: “I want a situation where, if Europeans are asked at the end of 2011, ‘What are the most creative and design-savvy countries in the world?’, New Zealand will feature in the top ten.”

Originally published inIdealog magazine #32, page 20.