At only 29 years of age, Buster Caldwell is responsible for the design behind iconic & emerging local brand spaces including Duck Island, Yu Mei & Wynn Hamlyn to name a few.
With an Industrial Design degree from Wellington’s Massey University graduating, Buster then moved to Auckland where he began to build himself a name for distinct physical spaces strong in personality.
Fast forward to today, the formidable Wonder Group studio is quickly growing a strong track record for delivery, underpinned by a vision for remarkably special interiors championing a return to local through all aspects of their design. He took us inside his latest space, Forte Showroom to chat about all things design, organisation and his creative process putting pen to paper.
First things first, how did it all begin & what was that light bulb moment that formed Wonder in 2017?
I wish there was a lightbulb moment and clear thinking from the beginning! Looking back, it was really just a (very tough) discovery process of exploring how to blend creative skills with the commercial landscape. I started out as a product designer, moving through to temporary installations - and then on to permanent spaces.
Lucky stars & hard work seemed to put our studio in front of some cool clients at the right time. New Zealand is a small space to work, and so if you do good stuff with a client you get introduced to a few more. So there’s that.
I’ve got an interest in creating new things & also have a short attention span, so partnering up with cool businesses for a shorter burst of time & making something special together feels like a great fit. Interior Architecture is a great space to play & we’re now well on our journey of finding our space in the market.
Top 3 ways you organise your life?
I see a business coach who helps break big thoughts down into smaller tasks.
I tick these tasks off when they're complete & then move on to the next.
I keep track of information that I’d like to understand more & take the time to think it through.
We’re lucky to share a studio with Oddthing, Henry has kitted our studio desks out with his locally made desk products. We’ve got toolboxes, monitor stands & table trays to give our busy team a little order. I like to keep a plain page A4 notebook nearby to capture any notes, ideas & scribbles that fly past. It's kind of wild to dip into the stack of old journals & see what I was thinking about at that point in time.
How would you describe your approach to design in 3 words?
Local, fun & humble.
Tell us about the Forte Showroom, its inspiration & concept?
Timber flooring is essentially a tree, once alive, that gets cut down & processed into toughened planks. Our vision was to showcase the beauty of this living material by setting it in an otherwise neutral setting.
It’s ultimately a space for designers or homeowners, and so an architectural skeleton felt like the natural space to start. Soft elements were layered with restraint, and the material selection was kept to a minimum - as not to fight with the beauty of the wood.
Why is local so important to you in your design process?
The practical reason is that it’s far easier to create unique items locally, whilst under the pressure of time. The emotional reason is that it feels much better. Have you ever bought something that a good friend has made? It’s that thing.
How do you incorporate putting pen to paper in your design process?
The concept phases have never really felt challenging, I’m always desperate to get started. Usually, I take the time to research & learn, and with enough of that the ideas just kind of settle naturally. It’s almost like the concept already exists out there, you’ve just gotta find it & help shape its delivery.
What are design elements that you love or try to incorporate into every project?
I reckon every space should have a smoking gun, a detail that guests will remark on & remember long after their visit. If you look at the projects of Cheshire, Nat’s an expert at embedding these little special moments in many thoughtful and inventive ways. I’m making an effort to improve here as I really see the importance of this skill.
Career highlight to date?
Mum visited a little bar that we’d designed shortly after I finished uni. The owner said some really nice words & she cried a little. That was pretty special.
& Favourite project you’ve worked on?
I’ve visited Duck Island tens of times more than any other fit-out we’ve designed, so let’s lock that in.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from your business growth?
Don’t judge me here - but Lorde wrote ‘all business all day, keeps me up a level’ and as gross as that sounds, whenever I work fucking hard good things seem to happen.
What are your future goals for Wonder / what upcoming project are you currently excited about?
I’d like our team to have a bit more fun around the country, so we might see another studio location southwards shortly.
In terms of what’s keeping me excited, I’m a dreamer and so the projects in the concept phase are always the most exciting. Currently - a colourful Asian-fusion restaurant in Wellington, a paired back boutiquey financial advisory office & a civic hospitality experience in Central Auckland.
Explore the work of Buster at @wonder.group_ and shop his A4 Vegan Leather Notebook HERE
Imagery by Holly Burgess @hsburg