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

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


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Karin Thurston grew up on Martha's Vineyard and four years ago moved from LA to Wellington.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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).

Dad 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.

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

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!).

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.

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.

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.

Mom 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.

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.  

The house where Karin was raised
The house that Karin's father designed and built
Karin and her mother and siblings about to go to school Nakorn Phanom Thailand early 1980s
Karin (third from left) off to school in Nakorn Phanom, Thailand, 1980s
Karin and her family sailing from Marthas Vineyard to Nantucket July 1988
Karin and her family on the family boat, Phra Luang, sailing from Martha's Vineyard to Nantucket, 1988
Karins Parents MV mid 70s
Karin's parents in the 1970s
Karin Early 20s
Karin in her 20s, LA
Screen Porch Dining Marthas Vineyard
Karin is hoping for more family meals around this table on Martha's Vineyard soon
Young karin mid 80s
Karin with her favourite backpack, mid-80s