Creative process and design philosophy with Buster Caldwell

From hospitality hotspots like Kisa or Mr Go’s to destination retail stores Yu Mei, Wynn Hamlyn or Lamplight Books – each space showcases a strong sense of individuality. Their common link is award winning Auckland interior design studio Wonder Group, led by the inimitable Buster Caldwell. We caught up with Buster to learn about his creative process and design philosophy.

Tell us about yourself and what led you to start Wonder Group?

I wish it was all thought out from the beginning, but in all honesty the early days weren’t glossy & pre-meditated by any stretch.

The business started out as a design build studio, handling projects of a ‘pop-up’ scale, such as champagne stands at the races or brand stunts co-created alongisde ad agencies.

The scale naturally shifted, as clients gathered more confidence in our ability to create and deliver. The process organically developed and deepened, and we gradually shifted from fleeting to permanent spaces.

I guess we found the niche whereby local businesses with international aspirations wish to stand out from their crowd, but are usually still limited with the capital they can invest. That’s where we’ve been playing the last few years.

We’ve set up our studio to deliver very special interiors that punch above their weight, with the hope to make iconic environments for the brands & businesses that will call them home.

Can you give us a little insight into your design philosophy and process?

Our spaces are usually layered with character & filled with charm, and are always made to reflect the people behind the business in a way that embodies their character and outlook.

We start with the skeleton - what must go where - and once the structure is in place we gradually add her layers through a series of project phases. After the skeleton comes the body (equipment, services, utility), after which is the skin (materials, detailing, form), and finally the clothing (artistry, craft, styling and the like).

We love to wrap around as many local creators within our projects as possible, and so champion things that are designed and fabricated close-by. This allows many moments of storytelling to fill the volume, and provides depth for our clients to enjoy and discuss.

What’s been your favourite creative project to date, and why?

As of writing, we’re getting close to completing the build of our very own workspace. It has been both incredibly liberating & also really hard!

The building is a gift itself, a beautiful old ex-brothel sitting proudly overlooking the park on Ponsonby Road. It’s been refurbished by the talent at Patterson Architects, and we’re now filling the space with things by all of our favourite people.

It’s so lovely to build something for our team that is made to suit and reflects how our business has developed. Our crew have all been hands-on, right down to chainsawing the timber for our tables and crafting the details in situ.

This is now my favourite project, and will be my favourite space.

You are known for collaborating with local artisans, can you expand on why you think it’s important to champion other creatives in Aotearoa?

It’s such a gift for our clients to host unique moments of storytelling within their environment. As their guests notice special details, it’s compelling to have a beautiful story to share about the maker, the process, the background.

Also important is to keep as much production as possible local. This has obvious benefits relating to both the environmental footprint and the success of our community of small business owners.

We are a very young country, but there is an insane diversity of incredibly creative people at our fingertips. The community that our studio holds amongst this space only deepens with time, and there is a level of personal satisfaction sharing our craft with theirs.

We know scent and mood can be linked, and that scent can invoke a feeling. Do you ever keep this sense in mind when designing a particular space?

Scent is a very tough angle to introduce within our works, as the layers get increasingly subjective and difficult to insert permanence through. More often than not our clients will choose to scent the environment with their own choosing, but having a more active part in this process is definitely front of mind as we continue to grow the depth of our project influence.

Sustainability and ethical practice have become increasingly important in the world of design. How do you incorporate sustainability into your furniture, and what role does it play in your overall design concept?

At this stage, it’s the many little layers of fairly rudimentary practices that we slot throughout our studio process. Be it investing more in responsible demolition, asking the right questions through the process of materials specification, or ensuring that templates for cutting elicit as little waste as possible - every little piece adds up and offers a more sustainable approach to building.

Anything that requires physical building on a budget and on a deadline becomes painfully waste-producing, and the whole industry is underway with forming an understanding of how we can do better.

We like to use timber sourced from New Zealand forests where possible, and limit the amount of importing through our list of material suppliers & fabricators.

An overlooked element to sustainability is how a minimalist approach to interiors reduces the level of materials required, which also has the benefit of being able to invest in less - but better. By committing to fewer items within an environment, we are able to afford a better quality of materials and be increasingly more selective around what these are.

Quick-fire Q’s

A daily ritual you can’t live without?

Duo of poached eggs on daily bread kumara sourdough with bacon and OJ. Every day.

Favourite dish and where would you like to eat it?

Venison heart carpaccio at Cazador.

What’s your favourite space in your home?

Anywhere on the floor, in the sun, cuddling up with the pooch.

What’s something interesting that’s caught your eye recently?

Interesting things set within resin, and formed into furniture pieces - especially the works of Marcin Rusak. I’m patiently waiting for the right project to have a play with this process.

Your most-loved Ashley & Co. scent?

Anything on the more subtle side and with a little acidity. We’re a little bit obsessed with the dew bud situation - the geranium and bergamot are dialed back for a nice mellow scent.


Imagery by our friend, Alex McVinnie.