Geoff Fiebig is an old soul - but still has young blood.
For more years than he would care to tell me, he’s been working upholstering Wellington furniture, from the Beehive to new boutique cinemas, bars, and restaurants. Over the years, from the 1960’s to today, much of Wellington has changed. However, Geoff remains, working diligently as ever to deliver lovingly crafted new bespoke furniture and faithfully restored pre-loved pieces with a particular interest in mid-century classics. I met up with Geoff to discuss why he has stayed in the business so long, what he loves about Wellington and whether he’s learned some lessons on how to be content in his time.
“There was no such thing as nannies in those days, not in Wainuiomata anyway” Geoff explains"
Geoff Fiebig was born in Wellington hospital. Geoff’s parents were hard working Kiwis: his mother, a traveling hairdressing salon consultant, was from Fielding and his father, a Wellington engineer who, as a youngster, moved to Te Horo. His father owned the iconic Te Hero shop ‘Red Store’ (which burnt down last year). The family moved when Geoff was young from Johnsonville to Wainuiomata. At age five, Geoff was sent with his older brother to a convent boarding in Seatoun - Star of the Sea. “There was no such thing as nannies in those days, not in Wainuiomata anyway” Geoff explains.
Geoff admits that while he had no real bad memories at convent boarding school in Wellington having left his childhood home there were sad times nevertheless. He also remembers, in particular, a nun who was quite cruel who left the Sisters of Mercy order eventually to get married to a cab driver and have a tribe of kids in very quick succession! “It probably says more about her unhappiness at being a nun than anything else. There was a bit of thrashing” Geoff shrugs.
"I vividly remember blowing up mum and dads radiogram trying to amplify a very old, very bashed around and extremely difficult to play Jansen guitar”
It was at boarding school that Geoff first learned to play the piano, leading to a love affair with music that has stayed with him all his life. He was later taught modern piano by a neighbor in Wainuiomata. “It was invaluable to me being taught modern music. He broke down the sounds and chord structures which proved to be incredibly useful when I started played in bands. I also taught myself guitar and vividly remember blowing up mum and dads radiogram trying to amplify a very old, very bashed around and extremely difficult to play Jansen guitar.”
“I was in a band with some local boys at a bar called ‘Raymond’s Nightclub’ in Lautoka which was really, really rough"
Geoff went on to study at St Bernard’s and Wainuiomata College. At 16, his parents moved from New Zealand to Fiji so his father could set up a branch of Clyde Engineering. Geoff moved over to join them, leaving school for good. In the vibrant early 1970’s it was a colourful period in a young man's life. Over the next two years, Geoff drove bulldozer’s for his father by day and played at hotels and nightclubs by night. “I was in a band with some local boys at a bar called ‘Raymond’s Nightclub’ in Lautoka which was really, really rough. All the molasses boats used to come in and the sailor’s off them were tough men” Geoff remembers.
At 18, Geoff decided to move back to New Zealand. He settled in Auckland and “took up with a woman”. She suggested that Geoff should get work with a furniture factory where her brother worked. As a result, he went to work for Rudi Schwartz, a well-known Austrian cabinet maker. Geoff started working as an upholsterer for Rudi, learning at 18 the fundamentals of upholstery and making frames for furniture.
Back in the 70’s, there were restrictions on importing furniture to New Zealand so lots of Geoff’s jobs were on products made license. He did work for commercial interiors and also Government work. “A great contact I had back in the mid-1970’s was for the Ministry of Works who were responsible for all Government projects” Geoff explains “Thanks to two architectural designers Geoff Hargraves and Michael Lamb I made quite a lot of the prototype furniture that ended up in the Beehive and Auckland Airport. It was then put out to tender and produced on a large scale after but I did all the fun and interesting stuff. Not too shabby for a young fella”
"Overnight, they went from being a Wellington hippy to being a punk, cutting their hair off and getting angry at stuff”
All through this time, Geoff continued to play music, now in a punk band ‘The Assassins’ at a club called ‘Zwines’ and played a gig down in Wellington. “Some people have told me they were at that gig,” says Geoff “And it changed their life. Overnight, they went from being a Wellington hippy to being a punk, cutting their hair off and getting angry at stuff”
Moving to Wellington: "It was getting a bit indulgent"
At the end of the 1970’s, Geoff left Auckland for good. “It was getting a bit indulgent” he explains.“The scene was very edgy in those days and awash with serious drugs during the whole ‘Mr. Asia’ thing. So it suited me to move to Wellington.”
Once in Wellington, Geoff teamed up with furniture-makers setting up shop at the top of Adelaide Road. Back in the day, furniture makers and stores were a strong trade in Wellington. Rents were cheaper and, due to import restrictions, furniture was often made locally. “A friend of mine, David George - he and I opened a shop in Wellington on Victoria Street - Fiebig and George. We made and sold interesting contemporary furniture” Geoff explains. However, in the 1980’s, with the stock market crash, Geoff lost the business, along with many other New Zealanders who found themselves out of pocket and out of business (there is little furniture industry today, except for people like Geoff who specialize doing bespoke work for individuals).
“Back then, there were no cafes in Thorndon and Wellington didn’t have a massive cafe scene then"
After a stint at Foot Law, selling and managing property, Geoff took a ten-year detour to work in the restaurant industry, running a place in Thorndon called ‘Fiebig’s’ with his ex-wife, Lynn, on Mulgrave Street. “Back then, there were no cafes in Thorndon and Wellington didn’t have a massive cafe scene then. Looking back, it sounds like a long time, but it feels like it went in a flash” Geoff says. After ten years, in 2002, Geoff knew it was time to close that chapter of his life and he went back to furniture making.
Geoff started working upholstering furniture again, this time out of Form Furniture on the old Hutt Road. His time in the restaurant industry gave him a notable profile in Wellington. “People knew I did furniture and when something needed work, they’d think “Oh, Geoff!” he says.
"I don’t want any stress. I’ve worked all my life to this point to achieve a life/work balance. If I get up and want to take a walk in the Botanical Gardens, I can”
In his upholstering business since Geoff has employed design graduates and subcontractors - but overall his business model is simple “…it’s just me. I want to be in control of my own time. I don’t want any stress. I’ve worked all my life to this point to achieve a life/work balance. If I get up and want to take a walk in the Botanical Gardens, I can” he says. Geoff also has a nine-year-old daughter Ruby, who he co-parents, that he spends time with (he also has much-loved step-children from his marriage to Lynn). “I make enough money for me to be able to treat my day as my own and do as I want. I still work hard when I need to, but I don’t want to create stress in my life. The one thing I’ve learned is that the key to happiness is to live within your means” Geoff says.
Working Relationships: “A lot of work in Wellington is about relationships with people"
Geoff admits it has not always been smooth sailing. “Four years ago, I came unstuck financially and had to go and work for someone, a large soft furnishing factory. They wanted to get in the upholstery business. After three years, however, it was clear we were from different tribes. I respected the way they did things, but it wasn’t for me. I decided to go back on my own and luckily my clients came too” Geoff says “A lot of work in Wellington is about relationships with people. That’s what I love about Wellington - it’s not so much about an old boys network but there are genuine long-standing working relationships that people have over years which last.”
Today, Geoff continues to re-upholster and remodel furniture. He believes that furniture can be brought back to life and re-purposed. “Not all retro is good and well designed” he cautions. “Re-upholstering and restoring old furniture is not always cheaper. You can often buy new furniture cheaper but that furniture won’t last over time necessarily. The trick to it is to have a good eye for it and buy something good” Geoff explains.
"It brought a bit of a tear. Sometimes furniture has very strong nostalgic value.”
One of his favourite stories from his long career is about a client that Geoff once reupholstered a chair for. She was a young woman who knew of a letter her tucked inside her grandfather’s chair which she had inherited. Her grandfather had written it for his fiance, from the perspective of the chair, comparing his lasting love for her to that of the chair lasting a lifetime. “It brought a bit of a tear. Sometimes furniture has very strong nostalgic value.”
So what would Geoff rate about Wellington? “I find it very easy to live and do business in this town. I love the weather, the topography, the coast and how all these things shape us who live here. I love that I live so close to the Wairarapa and as a passionate motorcyclist spoils us with some of the best motorcycling roads in the country. I love that I can walk from my home to work. Hillside for breakfast, Prefab for lunch, Havana and Ombra for delicious food and ambiance and Hawthorne for wickedly delicious cocktails” Geoff also enjoys going to the movies, a lot, often on his own. “My older brother used to take me to the movies when I was a little kid. I’ve always loved movies, these days particularly going to the Lighthouse Cuba, also within walking distance to home. I actually designed all the couches. I still play music, still have our old family piano but mostly play just to amuse myself occasionally catching up with like minded crusty and rusty mates. I try and spend what money I do spend on the people who do business with me. What goes around comes around.”