Herriot Melhuish O’Neill Architects - Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, Tauranga

Martha's Vineyard to HMOA: Meet Interior Designer, Karin Thurston

June 8, 2021

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web karin and olly

Karin working with HMOA architect, Olly Markham

Before moving from LA to Wellington four years ago, Karin Thurston’s experience of New Zealand had mainly been visiting the Bay of Islands. While her new home in the Capital is also on the sea, it’s a far cry from the subtropical clime of Northland. We asked Karin about her move from Martha’s Vineyard via LA to Wellington, and her role as HMOA’s interior designer.

Karin, your childhood sounds storybook …

I was born and grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in a house my father built. It was not the traditional cedar-shingle house common to Martha’s vineyard though, it was much smaller and simpler.

The house where Karin was raisedThe house that Karin's father designed and built

My parents had both spent time living on boats so that was the inspiration for how Mom and Dad designed our home—at that stage he didn’t know he was going to have four children.

The house in winter

It was an idyllic childhood but Martha’s Vineyard is super quiet in the winter. Summers are really intense and busy with lots of visitors, which I loved. 

Young karin mid 80sKarin with her favourite backpack, mid-80s

Thailand also featured in your childhood

When I was a young child, we left Martha’s Vineyard for three and half years to live in Thailand.

Karin and her mother and siblings about to go to school Nakorn Phanom Thailand early 1980sKarin (third from left) off to school in Thailand, 1980s

Dad, who speaks Thai, worked at the American embassy on refugee placement but the move was also so he could build his boat there (better wood and cheaper labour). He built the hull in Thailand, then when I was six, he filled it with wood and shipped it back home to Martha’s Vineyard where the rigging and cabin interior were done. Now it’s the family boat.

Karin and her family sailing from Marthas Vineyard to Nantucket July 1988With her siblings on the family boat, Phra Luang

Dad returned to Thailand years later and now lives there for half of each year.

Phra Luang recentPhra Luang today

Your parents were both adventurers …

My parents met in Thailand when Dad was first mate on a Thai junk and my mother was the chef. Dad had been in the peace corps during the Vietnam war.

They got their own boat and would pick up antiques from Indonesia and take them to Thailand and Singapore to sell to dealers.

Karins Parents MV mid 70sKarin's parents in the 1970s 

My mother was born in Finland and had a child, my half-brother, when she was very young. My brother was brought up by both sets of grandparents and my mother went travelling, first to Stockholm to do a culinary course, then to Asia.  She travelled all over Asia and was one of the first women to hike into Tibet in the 1960s. My brother has since made a documentary on her travels, based on the letters she wrote home—to him, her parents, sister and a friend.

Mom Pargas Finland Late 50sKarin's mother in Pargas, Finland, 1950s

How did your childhood influence your choice to become an interior designer?

In my school holidays on Martha’s Vineyard, I used to work for my aunt who was an interior designer. One of my brothers is an architect, another brother is building his own house, designed by an architect cousin, so there’s definitely something running through our family.

I had dreamt of being an actress but didn’t get into the theatre course I was aiming for at Ithaca College in upstate New York. So instead, I did Speech Communication (with a minor in Art History and Art).  I also did a semester abroad in Florence at an art school (yes, I was very lucky!).

Karin Early 20sKarin in her 20s, LA

After graduation, I moved to LA for the sunshine and started working in retail interiors for a large silk trading company. It gave me a window into the wholesale side of interior design and led me to the UCLA post-grad certificate interiors programme. It was a fantastic course—I was taught by working professionals, including one of the most impressive Green architects in LA.

How did the move to Wellington, and HMOA, come about?

I’d worked as an interior designer in LA for 11 years on a range of projects, including on a number of open plan workplaces of a similar scale to HMOA’s FNZ, which I worked on.

My husband Kimball worked in the film industry and we decided we were ready to leave LA, there was too much time spent sitting in the car. Because I’d been to New Zealand before, but only north of Auckland, I convinced Kimball to apply for a job at Weta Digital. If that hadn’t worked out, we would probably have moved to Seattle or Boston. I’ve been at HMOA ever since.

What have you learnt working on commercial interiors?

I’ve gained insights into so many different professions that I’ve got involved with, and learnt a lot about their businesses in the process of designing and implementing their office fit-outs. I’ve worked with such a range and scale of businesses, from law firms—ranging from an eight-floor office to a 4-person boutique firm—to medical centres, engineering companies, film production companies and accountants, to interiors for therapists, including a mikvah (a Jewish bath).

Even though New Zealand has a slightly different work culture to the US, the process for working with clients is largely the same. It’s ideal if the designer can get involved before the client has even selected a space so we can ‘test fit’  the options. This helps ensure they are choosing the space that’s right for them.

What’s coming up for you?

Plenty more interior projects for me at HMOA but once Covid calms down in the US, I’m really looking forward to visiting my family on Martha’s Vineyard again. I want to visit my nephew and niece and see my brother’s new house.  

Screen Porch Dining Marthas VineyardHoping for more family meals around this table on Martha's Vineyard soon

 Phra Luang Sailing recentSailing on Phra Luang in recent times