Oct 24, 2023

Conjuring up enchanting interiors is this Napier woman’s superpower

This story is from the team at NZ House & Garden magazine.

If Napier builder Arthur Davis was sitting on a heavenly cloud looking down on the home he built in 1937, he’d probably smile approvingly, knowing it is in good hands. Suppose he peeked through one of the curved bay windows to see what was happening inside. He might see the homeowner, Sarah Bell, relaxing on a pink velvet couch, dressed in one of her vintage kaftans, long red hair spilling over her shoulders. "I love sitting here in the afternoon sun with a cup of tea and my cat Lola; it's my favourite seat in the house," she says.

Arthur, who traded as AF Davis & Sons, built the house for his family in the art deco style popular following the devastating Napier earthquake in 1931. And while he built several homes along the same street, their designs are far more modest. Arthur also managed the construction of Napier (now Waiapu) Cathedral, which was destroyed in the earthquake.

READ MORE: * See how this Kiwi paint entrepreneur has transformed an unloved London apartment * Check out this dreamy seaside sanctum in the Kāpiti Coast sand dunes * The ultimate work-from-home for the owners of this gorgeous Gisborne reno

The house Arthur built came on the market just as Sarah was searching for a home for herself and her children, Harry, now 18, and Pearl, 16. She’d returned to Napier in 2011 to live near her elderly parents after 12 years working as a fashion stylist in London.

Sarah took one look and was smitten. "I loved its split levels, balconies and curves. I instantly knew it was the one for me."

By quirky coincidence, Sarah's older sister Mandy once flatted in the room that is now Sarah's bedroom. She recalls visiting, aged 7: "Even then, it made an impression on me; I thought it was an interesting house."

Sarah trained as a dress designer, graduating from Massey University in Wellington in the late 90s. After her studies, she travelled to London for work and discovered an exciting new world. She began working as a stylist for luxury online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter and decided it was more to her liking than being a dress designer.

In her new home, Sarah had a creative outlet for everything she is passionate about – fashion, styling and decorating. The precious pieces she’d found while living in London, including an antique chandelier bought while on holiday in Rome, and four Eames fibreglass stacking chairs that once belonged to a gentlemen's club in London's East End, found their place.

And she has a diverse range of styles that she somehow marries together: "I pull my inspiration from everywhere and anywhere; Egyptian, African, Victorian, the 60s and 70s – I love it all."

Sarah might be a superb decorator, but confesses that DIY skills are not her forte. She overcame her trepidation, however, to line a wall with glass tiles above the fireplace in the lounge. "I felt so proud of myself, and it has made the room look bigger"; her niece, Rose, helped her create a subtle marbled effect around the fireplace with finishing touches of black lacquer on the mantelpiece.

Sarah has painted two murals: one in the sitting room is "a nod to film star Marlene Dietrich, who had a similar mural in her home in Beverly Hills". The delicate blossoms adorning the wall above the servery between the kitchen and dining room are also Sarah's handiwork.

Despite having different owners through the decades, the features crafted in 1937 remained intact. Rimu window frames and floors have been restored, and there is an internal access garage which was unusual in those days.

Each bedroom has a balcony with a nautical-style balustrade; hers is another favourite spot to relax after a busy day. "It's my perch where I watch the world go by."

Sarah has dedicated a room upstairs to her vintage clothing collection. Like her furniture and other collectibles, hunting and seeking for clothes in op shops, antiques shops, on Trade Me or wherever she happens to be, is in Sarah's DNA. A pair of thigh-high silver boots are from the Spanish luxury brand Balenciaga. "I went on a waiting list and had them couriered from France. I feel like a silver praying mantis when I wear them."

Hanging in a corner is an intricately embroidered jacket from Biba, the London fashion store popular with trendy young things during the 60s and 70s. Sarah says Biba is one of her biggest style inspirations, alongside musicians Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks, 60s model Sarah Moon, and Australian artist and dancer, the late Vali Myers. "These beautiful and iconic women influence my outfits and makeup. There's a crossover in style between the 70s, the Victorian era and the 20s. I’m mesmerised by their dark femininity, exotic silhouettes, Egyptian influences and witchy seduction."

Sarah operates her vintage clothing shop under her Instagram name, spoiltvictoriannchild, in a room connected to the garage. Her partner Mario Anderson, a carpenter, has created an intimate little atelier, which is the perfect space to showcase Sarah's collection of clothing and other vintage memorabilia.

Napier might not be as big and exciting as London, but Sarah has found her niche here, weaving a special kind of magic.

Q&A with Sarah Bell

Best decorating move: Adding a feature of black lacquer and dark maroon paint around the fireplace.

Best money spent: The rose-coloured velvet couch I bought on Instagram.

Best advice: Buy things from your heart, and you’ll always find a place for them, even if at first you don't know where.

Best seat in the house: The curved velvet couch in the bay window of my sitting room.

I can always count on: My cat meeting me at the door, support and a foot rub from my partner Mario, and the love and company of my two children, Harry and Pearl.

This weekend I will be: Doing a spot of gardening and having friends over for a glass of wine in my sunny garden, welcoming customers by appointment to my vintage studio.

I love this part of New Zealand because: I feel at home. For many years I lived away and it was always so nourishing to come home. I enjoy the warm climate, friendly locals, creative events and festivals, excellent restaurants, food and wine, iconic band venues and music.

Favourite local shops: Sarah Zonneveld's vintage clothing shop, The Little Vintage Room in Napier. Decibel Wines’ cellar door and tasting room in Hastings.

This story is from the team at NZ House & Garden magazine. READ MORE: * See how this Kiwi paint entrepreneur has transformed an unloved London apartment * Check out this dreamy seaside sanctum in the Kāpiti Coast sand dunes * The ultimate work-from-home for the owners of this gorgeous Gisborne reno Q&A with Sarah Bell Best decorating move: Best money spent: Best advice: Best seat in the house: I can always count on: This weekend I will be: Doing I love this part of New Zealand because: Favourite local shops: