From blogs to the backyard, Julia Atkinson-Dunn combines her love of flowers and design in her work. She talks to Louise Richardson about how her career blossomed.
“Oh no! Where do I start, and how much time do you have?” asks Julia Atkinson-Dunn – red-haired and vivacious with seemingly endless energy – in response to the suggestion of a quick, potted biography.
It turns out potted is an appropriate word, as this successful interior designer and design blogger (she has 41,000 followers on Instagram) has found herself morphing into a passionate suburban gardener over the past few years.
Finding beauty, joy and enormous satisfaction in the process of planting and nurturing her beloved flowers, she’s eager to share her gardening experience – which she’s captured in her beautiful new book, Petal Power.
“I grew up on a farm in North Canterbury, and although my mother was a keen gardener, I don’t think I really took too much notice,” she reflects. “But I liked flowers and I do remember Mum making pretty tussie-mussies for friends. Even today, whenever I stay with her, there’s always a little arrangement of something fragrant on my bedside table, waiting for when I arrive.”
After high school in Christchurch and a year as an exchange student in Canada, Julia came back to New Zealand and trained to be a ski instructor.
“My parents said I couldn’t come back and do nothing, and the skiing was great,” says Julia. “I worked in Queenstown, Wanaka and Mount Hutt and skied in the United States and Japan. But suddenly, when I was 23, I realised what I really wanted to do, and decided to go into design.”
Julia did a number of courses, including a diploma in interior design where she learnt practical skills. “They can’t teach you the most innate part of interior design though – it has to come from you,” she says.
But perhaps the most significant thing in Julia’s life during this period was the discovery of now-legendary US blog, Design Sponge.
“I thought it was totally amazing and I loved that it was bringing these ideas to us, but generally we couldn’t buy products from overseas very easily,” Julia says. “So before I knew it, I’d started my own blog, Studio Home, in 2008 – covering creative people and products in New Zealand and Australia. It quickly became very popular, partly because at that stage there was no Instagram or Pinterest.
“So, I guess I was a trailblazer of sorts – I just loved design, but writing had always been my first love, and this way I could do both.”
Julia worked in various aspects of interior design, consulting and running her own business, but when the global financial crisis hit at the end of the 2000s, things took a disappointing turn as customers decided professional interior design was a luxury, not a necessity.
But Studio Home was still going nicely, and its emphasis had expanded beyond simple interior design, so Julia went overseas to New York to better her skills – photographing and writing about all kinds of people in the design sphere.
Realising she was largely ahead of the pack, back in New Zealand she decided to collaborate with other small businesses – something that was ultimately very successful – and eventually she decided to share her expertise further still, by presenting hands-on workshops.
She held her first workshop at a local pub in Christchurch, and that night she met her husband-to-be, T Dunn, who owns bricklaying company Team Brick.
“I carried on travelling throughout New Zealand for the next 18 months holding workshops, but I missed T and, because he’s a true Canterbury man, we decided to settle here in Christchurch and bought our lovely villa in Linwood about four years ago. We chose it because it has such a lot of character and it’s only 10 minutes from the central city.”
Julia says that naturally she was excited by everything the house offered, in terms of interiors to be reimagined and styled, but as she stood outside, looking at a stacked vegetable garden, vaguely noting that it would need to be planted out in order to look its best, she felt another love affair swiftly developing.
She’d always personalised the interiors of rental properties while living in them, but she’d never really done anything in their gardens.
“Now I just threw myself into gardening, heart and soul. I had no experience and not much knowledge, but I wanted to learn, and Yates Garden Guide soon became my constant companion!”
I just threw myself into gardening, heart and soul. I had no experience and not much knowledge, but I wanted to learn
Although she grows vegetables, it was soon clear to Julia that flowers were going to be her absolute passion.
“I set off around the neighbourhood, looking at other people’s gardens for inspiration, and I even took a sneaky cutting or two along the way,” she admits. “What I realise now is that gardening people are giving people, and you only have to ask.
“In interior design, sometimes people can be cagey and don’t want to tell you the name of a paint colour or where they sourced a particular couch, but if you knock on a gardener’s door, they’ll not only give you seeds, a plant or a cutting, they’ll also happily share their wisdom and experience, and even come and check on you later to see how it’s working out.”
Her friend Penny Zino, who wrote the foreword to Julia’s book, is one such hero.
“I’ve attached myself to as many other successful gardeners as I can, and Penny is one of the best – having turned her property (Flaxmere Garden in North Canterbury) from dry, stony ground into a garden that looks absolutely magical all year round.”
After an exciting and professionally satisfying period during which she curated and held art exhibitions at the Linwood villa, and started a part-time business with T, working as framers in their own backyard studio, Julia has decided to dial back on some of her business commitments for 2021.
“I’m still working at home and focusing on producing my own art. I photograph my flowers and make fine archival prints, later painting over the original photo using acrylics. Then T and I frame them ourselves. They’ve been received very well,” she says.
Julia has learnt along the way that perfection isn’t a requirement when it comes to this kind of art.
“I love all my flowers, no matter what they look like. I guess that’s because, as a designer, I can’t walk past the perfect pine cone or a dead bumblebee. I can see beauty in almost anything!”
Petal Power, published by Tonia Shuttleworth at newcomer Koa Press, is the culmination of Julia’s last several years spent enthusiastically developing her garden and reacquainting herself with the seasons.
“I’ve been photographing everything as I go along,” she says. “When I’m working at home, I go outside about 10 times a day to see what’s happening out there. This isn’t a traditional garden guide but, rather, it’s me as a beginner, writing for fellow beginners and drawing on the words I’ve written on my blog.”
Julia says she wants readers to see her garden as she sees it. “Some parts are best viewed standing behind a tree, with just a little peek at a certain flower in a certain place – it changes all the time.
“A lot of people around my age, in their thirties and forties, are having ‘ding dong’ moments and recognising the pleasure that gardening can bring. If they don’t have the knowledge yet, that’s fine. I’ve included a glossary which even covers garden tools, such as the trowel. I want my readers to feel confident when they go off to hardware and garden stores!”
Julia has painstakingly researched everything she’s written in Petal Power for accuracy and reliability, and, as well as tips on basic garden design and personal sources of inspiration, she has provided growing information on 12 different flowering plants, which have proved successful as cut flowers .
A mixture of annuals and perennials, the featured plants, all beautifully photographed by Julia, include sweet peas, dahlias, snapdragons, Verbena bonariensis, Japanese anemones, fennel and cosmos.
“It’s a perfectly good place to start,” Julia says. “Then next season, a new gardener might plant something else beside that cosmos – and so their garden odyssey begins.”
Seeing the first copies of Petal Power coming off the printing press was a very moving moment for Julia – and for Tonia, an experienced art director and stylist who came back from the United Kingdom in 2019 with a dream of starting her own publishing house, and saw success written on the wall when she met Julia.
Meanwhile, Studio Home continues to be one of New Zealand’s most popular interior style blogs and Julia feels she’s really living her dream, including her life with T, whom she describes as “the best man around”.
“People who don’t have their own gardens just don’t know what they are missing!” she says.