Jason Bonham, interior designer

One of New Zealand’s most awarded interior designers dishes on inspiration, identity – and interiors.

By Anna Thomas 18/03/2019

It is not unusual to find one of New Zealand’s leading interior designers feeling as much at home in his garage, fixing a classic motorcycle, as he is when styling the most exclusive residences on Auckland’s ‘golden mile’ at Takapuna. Jason Bonham, 41, worked in New York, San Francisco and London, before returning to NZ in 2008 and establishing Bonham Interior. He’s now the go-to designer for many of New Zealand’s most affluent clients, with project budgets typically in the region of NZ$3-$6 million. Bonham has won many national and international awards and recently was in the public spotlight as a judge on NZ’s The Block reno-reality television series. Bonham describes himself as someone who does nothing by halves, and is passionate about life and art.

How did you get involved in interior design?

I have always enjoyed the virtues of good taste on my mother’s side of the family, and the practicalities of building and design from my father’s side. I left New Zealand when I was 19 and studied Interior Architecture at a small private college in California. While there, I was fortunate to get a position as an intern with a boutique firm in Palo Alto. The company’s principal happened to be the president of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). From there I moved between London, New York and California, working for various firms. This is really where I learned my craft, engaging with some of the world’s best designers.

What is your idea of luxury?

True luxury, at its most pure, is about capturing the spirit or soul of the owner, designing a space that reflects their identity and then adding comfort and ergonomics. While the homes we do can be substantial, they all have a softness and warmth to them. The mixture of textiles, multiple finishes, wood, metal, stone, furniture and art, all layer together to create a seamless, internationally inspired environment.

How has New Zealand’s style and identity developed and matured over the years?

It’s been amazing coming back to my home town of Auckland and being part of an evolving city and culture. I think as Kiwis, we have a very easygoing nature and laid-back charm, but we are still discovering our own understanding of luxury, fine detail and value as a legacy. We have the opportunity to move beyond the Scandinavian/industrial metal-and-plywood look that the culture has embraced!

Where do you get your inspiration?

I work closely with international brands that we import, and I’m always looking for ways to make things better. I love making things personal and creating a scheme. Plus, I read a lot and I love to travel. This year I’m heading to Europe not only for inspiration, but I’m like a magpie – I’m always on the look-out for great furniture and art for projects.

What do you try to do differently from other interior designers?

We don’t overload ourselves; we take on a few projects a year to ensure quality and a personal, bespoke, hands-on approach. We source internationally from many brands that aren’t readily available in New Zealand and Australia. In addition, we work with leading international galleries to curate interesting and unpredictable art collections. No one else does this in New Zealand. We sit above trends.

Describe one of your more lavish projects.

I recently worked on a project that involved a large formal dining room. Starting from the floor up, we darkened all the oak flooring and added a custom silk and wool rug, inspired by a Hermès scarf. The table in the centre of the room was a silvered, conical-shaped metal dining table made in Los Angeles. The chairs were made in New York and were hand-painted to mock a rosewood straight grain. We upholstered the chairs in a petrol-blue velvet with printed shagreen motif. Overhead, we added a three-tier custom bubble chandelier from Charles of Paris, reflected in a silver-leafed ceiling by an artisan who works for the Danish royal family … The walls were panelled in high-gloss black and paired with a black rubber wall covering that was heavily ribbed, creating an amazing play on light. Custom sideboards from an LA supplier sat each side of a fireplace with a black lacquered mirror and petrol-blue lamps from Larsen, with oversized shades. We then featured a John Armleder painting on top of the black rubber. With art lighting, we created an incredibly dramatic and luxurious setting for any dinner party. Truly unique and personal.

Is there any one secret to your success?

Unreserved passion. This industry can be a difficult one. You have to love it with every fibre of your being.

How do you relax?

I’m an active relaxer. I’ve never been much good at slowing down or sitting around. I pick three to four things each year to learn and that allows me to keep growing creatively. This year I’m learning pottery, helicopter flying and I am restoring an old BMW R80 motorcycle. I also love to ride motorbikes, and have a few friends I do this with. I call it ‘helmet time’ – a time to go on the road and clear my head.

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