Creative space . . . Helen Riley-Duddin in her new Inc. Design Store, located at 6 Itchen St. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

For about 10 years, Oamaru artist Helen Riley-Duddin has dreamed of a space for her business Inc. Design Store, which champions New Zealand creatives. She talks to Ashley Smyth about finally opening the doors to the “proper version” of that dream last week.

When Helen Riley-Duddin first stepped through the door of the space that was to become her new store, it was far from love at first sight.

‘‘I just said no. ‘No, no, no’, because it was so disgusting,’’ Mrs Riley-Duddin said.

‘‘I kept looking around, and for about an hour I kept saying no, and then I realised I’d been here for quite a long time, just saying no and there was obviously something to it.’’

The Oamaru stone premises at 6 Itchen St had housed Heritage Radio for close to 20 years, and were suggested to her by the Waitaki District Council, after she inquired about possible spaces to lease.

Because the premises had been occupied for so long, they had not had any work done in that time and required some attention from the council before they could be leased.

The council asked her advice on what she thought might work, and Mrs Riley-Duddin began thinking maybe this was good timing.

‘‘And what we’re standing in right now is what I started to imagine that day.’’
Inc. Design Store began about two and a-half years ago from the front rooms of her Greta St family home.

The artist, who had her own creative brand, Tinch, had previously co-founded a collective design store in Dunedin.

She followed that up with a pop-up version of the store in her home town of Oamaru, after moving back with husband Michael and their three, soon to be four, children.

‘‘After having [baby] Claude, I was having customers coming to the house picking up Tinch works anyway . . . so it just made sense to have some more designs from other designers there in the studio, and it kind of grew from there.’’

The nudge into finding a premises came from a comment eldest daughter Jemima made to her mother almost a year ago, asking what she had planned for the shop, how she was going to grow it and whether it was going to “grow and take over the entire house’’.

‘‘We had been looking, just quietly, without any pressure, for a long time for the right space for the shop,’’ Mrs Riley-Duddin said.

‘‘But the house at the time was just the perfect vessel to showcase everything there and I was there with young children and it just really worked.’’

Now baby Claude was 3 and at kindergarten and second-youngest Sylvie had just started school, the timing seemed right.

‘‘I think there’s been a lot of serendipity through all of it, you know,’’ she said.

‘‘Nothing has been pushed or pressured. It’s all just sort of fallen into place.’’

After she first saw the site in June, and the initial emphatic ‘‘no’’, she admitted she found the building ‘‘intriguing’’.

A few key things suggested potential — the north-facing windows that were boarded up, but revealed ‘‘such a beautiful outlook’’, the ornamental fireplaces, and ‘‘the glow’’ which reflected off the facing Oamaru stone Repertory Theatre building in through the south-facing windows.

It also came with some big challenges.

The site had never been a retail space, so did not have retail windows — and it was dark.

‘‘I know living at home with high ceilings, it’s a real challenge to light things well. And I’m a big believer that lighting can make or break a space.’’

Planning the space and getting it right took time, as did getting her head around the massive change in the business— dealing with lawyers, leases and the bank.

‘‘Going from being a teeny, tiny business, which I still am, kind of working from home, to taking on these massive extra expenses that I hadn’t had before.’’

The new store opened to the public last Friday, and was already busier than Mrs Riley-Duddin expected.

The reaction had been ‘‘incredibly positive’’, she said.

‘‘It was so amazing seeing real-life people in my imaginary space, because it feels like for the longest time, even before I found this space, I had dreamed of a space . . . and I had managed to create it in various ways, but this feels like the final version, the proper version.’’

She had managed to make room for 10 more New Zealand designers and hoped to have scope for more, but it was important all the products had ‘‘room to breathe’’ and be showcased in the way they deserved.

Inc. Design was what she called a ‘‘concept store’’. Everything could be bought or ordered or had a story.

The purpose-made shelving, the display tables and Matthew Hall Glass light fittings were all available for order.

The Covid-19 situation brought with it some uncertainty, but the business owner was buoyed by the fact New Zealanders were turning to online shopping and were particularly keen to support small businesses and New Zealand designers.

‘‘Ultimately people still need some joy in their lives.

‘‘So, [we’re] kind of just ignoring everything Covid and hustling on. Obviously working within the government guidelines, and there’s huge challenges around it, but we’re all still alive, and we all still have birthdays, and we all still need cheer and we need to be inspired. So that’s what this is about.’’

The shop was at present open Tuesday to Sunday, or by appointment for groups, and Mrs Riley-Duddin hoped to be open every day in December in the build-up to Christmas.

‘‘There’s something that inspires me, the kind of old world charm of the old-fashioned department stores, so there’s that feeling of looking up at the majestic window displays, and that special customised service where you are known by name, and you know you can access beautiful things that are a little more boutique, maybe.

‘‘The world of retail has kind of moved away from department stores, and it’s important to be also online.

‘‘There’s some sort of sweet spot in between; that’s something that inspires me anyway.’’