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Ambient ambitions

1 March 2022
Eclipse light over dining table, with sea in background
Eclipse light at a bach in Taylor's Mistake

Jonny Hall is what you’d call an ‘active relaxer’. The sculptor, constructor, and now business owner, is always turning his hand to something. Anna Wallace finds out about his varied career, which included post-earthquake landscape design, and his latest venture into the illuminating world of lighting.

These days you’re likely to find Jonny in his Phillipstown workshop, handcrafting a bespoke light shade out of wool and reclaimed timber, or other local materials he can get his hands on. Having started his career in landscape and design before moving into sculpture, Jonny is one of those unique types who can draw what’s in his mind’s eye – and then make it too. An end-to-end guy I suggest, or... “maybe I’m a control freak?” he jokes. 

A self-taught artist, Jonny was sought out to help create the ferro cement sculptures that grace the award-winning Giant’s Garden in Akaroa, as well as exhibiting at Sculpture on The Peninsula.

This mix of creative and practical skills came in handy post-earthquakes. Christchurch needed skilled people who could see beyond the rubble and vacant lots. It helped if they were well connected too. Jonny’s partner Wendy Hoddinott, a landscape architect, told him the call had gone out for skilled people to create gardens around the city. He had just moved back into town from Banks Peninsula “to get amongst it”, as Jonny put it.

Reflections of a rubble-rouser

As site supervisor for Greening the Rubble (GtR – a council-funded initiative set up to create green social spaces around the central city) Jonny designed and constructed over 40 public space installations and gardens over six years – with the help of a crew of volunteers.

Many of the helpers were enthusiastic gardeners, or locals keen to be involved in something positive after the quakes, Jonny recalls. “We were all probably drawn to the anarchy of it – we were working without boundaries as we didn’t need council consent to build these creative green spaces all around the city.”

It was a way of bringing a mourning community together, to grow something beautiful, like: the Pod Oasis (part of the RE:START city mall); a sound garden full of outdoor musical instruments; Nature Play (a mini braided river and native Canterbury setting for family play); a restless forest that moved around the city. Ideas came from the GtR Trust and contractors. Many of the unique gardens told a story of what had been there, making the project even more meaningful for locals and visitors alike.

The legacy of Greening the Rubble may have been temporal – with some gardens only lasting a few months, while others lived for a few years. They’re all gone now. 

“I’m interested in temporary projects, ephemeral creations – they’re experimental and a way of testing ideas for a future project,” he explains.

“We quickly saw the need to re-use components like seats and planters, that could last up to three gardens! We could unbolt these and re-configure them, being resourceful was key.” 

Jonny is especially proud of being able to take their vibrant, community-oriented work into Christ-church’s inner-city suburbs of Linwood and Phillipstown, areas that had been hard hit in 2010-11 and had transient populations. 

Their work was recognised internationally, and the team was shortlisted for a national Community of the Year award.  

Jonny Hall standing in front of one of his lighting creations

Sculpture by day, lighting by night

But working outside takes a toll. After surgery to remove sun-damaged skin, Jonny experienced a sea change. In 2018, he leased a workshop and started Variant Ltd specialising in bespoke builds. He continued producing council projects, such as Insect Hotels for a new city reserve, traffic bollards, parklets and Tiny Shops in Linwood village.

When Covid hit, it became apparent that Jonny needed to diversify his income.

“I’d dabbled in lighting before,” he says. “I used to sell rocket lamps – in the mid-century, space-race style, with a modern twist.”

Last year, Jonny started up Cast Lighting Ltd, a business making and selling hand-crafted timber light shades alongside his bespoke builds. Developing his range over the last twelve months, his products are available online and the complete range is now sold in Lighthouse Lighting on Moorhouse Ave.

“They’ve been big supporters of my work and give me great feedback, which is important when you’re working in isolation.” 

Using locally grown timber and materials is important for Jonny. He'll source reclaimed timber, especially rimu and sustainably forested, locally grown acacia and eucalyptus from a North Canterbury sawmill.

wool pendant lightshades

Ever the ideas man, Jonny is always being innovative. He’s developed a unique technique of bonding wool to a cylindrical form.

“I like the result of the light coming through it – it gives a really warm glow,” he enthuses. The spun look is reminiscent of mid-century lightshades; an era Jonny loves.

The wool used on the light shades is carpet over-runs from a local yarn manufacturer using this excess resource for beautiful effect.

Jonny creates functional art: sculpture by day, mood lighting by night. “I love the idea that it’s not just one thing!”

Being so handy, Jonny can tackle everything from table and floor lamps, pendants to LED luminaires. His website advertises bespoke builds too. Aside from obvious skills, it’s his vision and down-to-earth manner that marks this man out for great things.

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