Monday, 18 November 2013

Industry and the artist: Eric Lee-Johnson and design

Eric A Johnson and his dog, London, about 1937
Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds
In the painter and photographer Eric Lee-Johnson’s somewhat hastily written and lightly edited autobiography, passing reference is made to his becoming ‘one of the original members of the Institute of Industrial Design’ whilst in London in the 1930s, noting that ‘I was invited to join by the organiser, Milner Grey (sic), and took no active part beyond attending lectures, but was glad to lend my name to the aims of such movements (sic).’ (Eric Lee-Johnson, No road to follow: autobiography of a New Zealand artist (Auckland: Godwit, 1994), p. 31).

There was no such organisation as the Institute of Industrial Design, organised by Milner Gray, constituted in London during the 1930s. However, Gray was one of the founder members of a group of practicing designers that in September 1930 became the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA). The SIA aimed at ‘becoming a controlling authority to advance and protect the interests of Industrial Artists and at raising the standard of Industrial Art in this country, both from an economic and cultural standpoint.’ (James Holland, Minerva at fifty (Westerham, Kent: Hurtwood, 1980), p. 1).

Eric A Johnson – as he was then known – arrived in London in May 1930 and, as an employee of some of London’s leading advertising agencies, initially S H Benson Ltd and, later, Arks Publicity Ltd, he would have been intimately acquainted with the efforts of British designers to obtain professional recognition. Johnson was not the only New Zealander to be recruited to the SIA; others known to have been members included his friend from Elam days, the designer and artist James Boswell and the radical filmmaker and kinetic artist Len Lye.

Eric A Johnson's packaging design for Alfred Imhof & Sons Ltd, about 1937
Lee-Johnson’s activities as an industrial designer remain obscure: as with his photography, he evidently felt that knowledge of his work as a designer would compromise his reputation as a painter. The only known example of his work in this field was the design of the packaging of long-playing gramophone needles that he undertook for the record shop Alfred Imhof & Sons Ltd of 110 New Oxford Street while he was at Arks Publicity Ltd. The packaging design Johnson developed for Imhof was typical of the work undertaken by his London contemporaries such as Gray and Ashley Havinden. Influenced by German modernist designers, it was suited for mass display, employed new font types - usually sans serif, employed high contrast tonal fields and, characteristic of the work of many of the London designers, was slightly whimsical. 

Milner Gray's packaging design for Ilford Ltd, about 1937
The formation of the SIA came at a critical time in the emergence of design as a clearly identifiable practice during the first half of the twentieth century. While the ‘industrial arts’ had been a part of the state’s teaching curricula since the 1830s, it had been regarded as a ‘minor art’, a ‘decorative art’, an ‘applied art’. Industrial artists were regarded as little more than ornamentalists and decorators, who, on the odd occasion they were employed by manufacturers, were required to produce superficial designs that could be adapted to the dominant requirements of mass production. Other designers, such as Johnson, were identified, more often than not equally pejoratively, as commercial artists and typographers and they were often employed as technicians in printing offices and, from the 1890s, in advertising agencies.

But from the first decade of the twentieth century attitudes towards design in Britain – and to a lesser extent in the ‘colonies’ –­ began to change as the decadence of Britain’s manufacturing sector became increasingly apparent. Officials at the British Board of Trade, somewhat optimistically, identified design as a missing ingredient in the production process by as early as 1908. But it wasn’t until after the First World War that the first hesitant steps were taken in an attempt to address design deficiencies of the manufacturing sector.

The most notable of these measures resulted from the indefatigable endeavours of one of the most unlikely design promoters, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, permanent secretary of the Board of Trade from 1908 to 1919 and subsequently Chief Economic Adviser to the Government until 1927. In 1919 Llewellyn Smith wrote - anonymously - a short pamphlet, Art and industry, for the Ministry for Reconstruction that argued a greater role for design in the British industrial environment. Shortly afterwards he managed to extract seed funding from the Treasury for the establishment of a prototype design promotion organisation, the pompously named British Institute of Industrial Art, which functioned, anaemically, until 1933. He also published a theoretical text, The economic laws of art production (London: Oxford University Press, 1924) and the following year taught a course on industrial art to students enrolled for the London School of Economics’ new commerce degree; it was not popular and William Pember Reeves, president of the LSE and a former High Commissioner for New Zealand, had the embarrassing task of informing Llewellyn Smith that his services were no longer required.

Llewellyn Smith was also the major driving force behind the next two measures implemented by the British state in what was an, at times, contradictory design promotion strategy: the formation of the Council for Art and Industry (1934) and the introduction of a National Register of Industrial Art Designers (1936), a state-funded registration formwork for designers, which while not offering the same level of professional protection that had been afforded to architects by the 1931 Architects (Registration) Act, at least provided a level of official recognition for the nascent practice: registered designers were able to employ the post-nominal NRIAD.

It wasn’t only officialdom that was interested in design in Britain. While the formation in 1916 of the Design & Industries Association - modelled on the Deutsche Werkbund (1907) - was probably the result of yet another Llewellyn Smith initiative, the private sector, notably the advertising industry, was beginning to understand how design could radically alter consumer preferences. Probably the most innovative advertising agency in London was W S Crawford Ltd. In 1925 its chairman, Sir William Crawford, who had attended the University of Tübingen prior to the First World War, invited members of the Bundes Deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker, the highly influential professional association of German graphic designers to London, a seemingly fugitive event that not only acted as a catalyst for modernism in Britain but also provided British designers with a template of how to organise design practice. The SIA can be viewed as one of the more tangible results of this visit.
Lee-Johnson returned to New Zealand in 1938 and his career as a practicing industrial designer came to an abrupt close. Lacking any significant manufacturing sector and with a consumer market inured to the traditional, there was no recognisable demand for the well-designed products of modernism, even in the advertising industry where he was employed. Surprisingly, given his involvement with the SIA during his years in London, Lee-Johnson does not appear to have been involved with Milner Gray’s 1949 visit to New Zealand and there is no evidence that he retained his membership of the practitioner body following his return to the country.
Instead of practising industrial design, Lee-Johnson began to write about it. His first article ‘Industry and the Artist’ was published in Art in New Zealand in March 1943. In it he lamented the poor standard of design prevailing across the country, arguing that ‘The bad designing in the past of most things produced in New Zealand […] was the artist’s personal responsibility, although noting that ‘this position exists because of the shortsightedness of the majority of our industrialists.’ (Art in New Zealand, no. 3 (1943), p. 3).
Page from 'New Zealand postage stamp design' from the Arts Year Book, no 7,
edited by Eric Lee-Johnson (1951)
It was not a sophisticated analysis of the situation and took little account either of the realities of New Zealand’s trading position as a captive market for British manufacturers or, indeed, the realpolitik of a wartime economy. Lee-Johnson’s views on design shifted; in his last published essay on design matters, ‘New Zealand postage stamp design’, he recognised that his simplistic analysis of the design process was a more complex process and that good design was not just an issue for designers and manufacturers but also other involved parties such as consumers and, critically, the state. (Arts Year Book, no. 7 (1951), pp. 91-96).
Like that other Elam-trained designer, Jo Sinel, Eric Lee-Johnson can be counted among the first New Zealanders to be regarded as industrial designers yet, due primarily to limited opportunity, neither practiced in the country. Lee-Johnson’s impact on New Zealand design comes through his informed writing about the subject at a time few New Zealanders were even aware of the practice.

Friday, 27 September 2013

29 steps to modernity: the [New Zealand] Design Review

In April 1948, the Architectural Centre Inc, a Wellington-based, voluntary organisation of architects, architectural students and others, which had been formed two years previously, launched an eight-page pamphlet entitled the New Zealand Design Review. 450 copies were printed and distributed, free, ‘to all known architects and town-planners in New Zealand’. The second issue, published four months later, invited subscriptions and – additionally – was retailed ‘through selected Wellington bookshops’. And copies of the third issue, produced in September 1948, were sent to ‘Art societies, manufacturers, etc’. 

It was a move that was, at one, both radical and revealing. Radical because the Review sought to engender a broad, nationally-focussed, design discourse where none had hitherto existed. Revealing because it made absolutely clear how few New Zealanders were interested in the subject. The scale of this disinterest can put into perspective by contrasting the circulation of the Review against what was arguably the country’s only national publication, that right-wing scandal sheet the New Zealand Truth. New Zealand’s population in 1948 was estimated at 1,854,000 persons and the Truth’s circulation was around 140,000 copies. By contrast, at its launch, the Review’s circulation was .32% of the Truth’s. Even at the height of its success, some two years later, the Review’s circulation figures only approached 2000 copies, or half a percentage of those of the Truth.

Comparing the first issue of the Review with other journals addressing architecture and design issues published around the same date is equally instructive. Locally there was Home & Building, an illustrated, semi-populist magazine, which circulated both here and in Australia. Its front cover for April 1948 spotlighted Horace Massey’s conversion of a tennis court into an herbaceous-bordered lawn at the Remuera Road mansion of Mr and Mrs Norman Spencer . 

The journal most highly regarded by the architectural profession in New Zealand was the English Architectural Review. New Zealand's most convincingly indigenous modernist architect Bill Toomath, is recorded as describing it as the ‘bible’ of his generation of architects, a comment that was equally germane to his professional antecedents. Confusingly, the cover of its April issue – which wouldn’t have been seen in New Zealand until, at the earliest, late May – reproduced an eighteenth century print of the university buildings at Oxford. The rationale for the apparent antiquarianism of the cover was found in an editorial comment on the lead article which concerned Thomas Sharp’s proposals for the re-planning of Oxford. 

Meanwhile, in California, the avant-garde journal Arts & Architecture was championing a different sort of modernism, with, among other things, an essay by the emigré modernist architect Erich Mendelsohn and a photoessay on a service station designed by that quintessentially Californian - but Austrian-trained - modernist, Richard Neutra. Arts & Architecture had a number of New Zealand subscribers, yet looking at the first issue of the Design Review one gets the impression that never had New Zealand seemed so distant, so provincial, so fundamentally British in its outlook although, perhaps, not so ‘British’ as Home & Building.

As a designed commodity, the first five issues of the Review, which sold for 9d (about $25 in 2012 terms) a copy, were rather underwhelming in respect of their appearance; the content was primarily architectural and conveyed the distinct impression that it had been edited by a committee of well-meaning amateurs. However, a year after its launch, the Review was completely revamped with the appointment of an editor, the critic Ted Simpson, and an art editor, the engraver Mervyn Taylor. They were contracted by the Architectural Centre to provide six issues a year for a set fee of £100, the equivalent of $7000 in today’s terms. The Centre was able to pay the fee and production costs due to a small grant of £250 provided by the Department of Internal Affairs, along with any advertising income that the editorial staff could chivvy out of the private sector.

Mervyn Taylor’s revamped cover design and contents listing for
the New Zealand Design Review vol. 1, no. 6 (April-May, 1949).
The whimsical typography of the Architectural Review, but with a local accent
Simpson and Taylor shifted both the appearance and the editorial tone of the Review. Most visibly, it was wrapped in a mono-coloured cover; new typefaces were introduced and the number of pages doubled. Coverage of design issues was expanded beyond architecture to include industrial and graphic design. At least one woman - Beatrice Ashton - was recruited as a columnist. Gramophone records, concerts and books were reviewed and articles commissioned covering architectural and design history. The move was a deliberate attempt to broaden the journal’s audience and to popularise its subject matter.

The Design Review – its title was contracted after the fifth issue – was one of a number of publications that emerged in New Zealand during the 1930s and in the aftermath of the Second World War, which focussed on modernist architecture and design. Pre-eminent among these was Home & Building, which, under the title Building Today, began publication at the end of 1936. Like the Design Review, Home & Building had institutional affiliations, being issued under the auspices of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. Unlike many of the monographs and pamphlets on art and architecture published at the time, which tended to assert progressive views, Home & Building, while not averse to a formal take on modernism, manifested a fundamentally conventional stance in its tastes and opinions. Other publications, such as Cedric Firth's extended essay'Problems of working-class housing', published in the radical magazine Tomorrow in 1936, espoused more ideological views of modernism, identifying it as a scientific solution to the problems brought about by rentier capitalism.

What differentiated the Design Review from most of these earlier publications – both progressive and conservative – was its ambition to locate modernism within a site-specific context: in the cultural vacuum that was New Zealand. As its first, anonymous, editorial declared: 'Too little of [the current literature upon design] finds its way into this country and much of that which does so is couched in terms familiar only to its own European or American audience. New Zealand, self-consciously perhaps, is emerging from the restricted pioneering stage and may be both over-suspicious and over-eager where imported cultural statements are concerned.' 

However, the Design Review itself was an exegesis of an imported cultural statement. Its title replicated the ‘Design Review’ section of the Architectural Review, which had been introduced in 1944 with the aim of addressing ‘industrial art, new materials and manufacturing processes’; of ‘keeping people up to the modernist mark’.

The ‘Design Review’ section of the Architectural Review (June 1944)    
In some respects, it almost seems that those involved in launching the New Zealand Design Review conceived of it as a local insert for the Architectural Review. But, the colonial context of its formation, the prevailing economic and, indeed, social circumstances were completely different in Britain and New Zealand; this situation was recognised by those involved in the journal’s formation, albeit obliquely. The Review's opening article asserted in what would be a rare moment of radicalism that ‘Tradition cannot help us for the stream has dried up’. Nonetheless, and in spite of this implied sense of nationalism, there remains an underlying sense that this was an attempt by those at the frontier to conform to the standards of the metropolis.

Even if we perceive the Design Review as a local exposition of the Architectural Review’s interest in design matters, it would have been hard for it to live up to the English journal’s aim of addressing ‘industrial art, new materials and manufacturing processes’. There was scant recognition of what comprised ‘industrial art’ – even then a somewhat archaic term for design; new materials were not in evidence; and local manufacturing was - to be generous – in its infancy. New Zealand’s wealth derived from the export of the by-products of grass to Britain, a situation primary-producers were keen to sustain. The first Labour government’s attempts to establish a manufacturing sector in the late 1930s had been effectively sabotaged by vested interests. The idea that the country might begin manufacturing was anathema to the primary producers who feared – and it transpired, rightly so – that it would upset British authorities, who regarded New Zealand as a captive market for British goods.
Explaining the Architectural Centre:
New Zealand Design Review
 vol. 1, no. 6 (April-May, 1949), p. 17
But there were other European influences behind the Review. If its journal radiated a profound Britishness, the Architectural Centre itself was anything but British in its organisational model, its membership and its aims and objectives. From its foundation in 1946, those involved with the Centre asserted the need ‘to promote their ideas through exhibitions, a publication and “by telling the world”’. At its heart, the Centre was intended to ‘unite in setting up an organisation for the purpose of striving for the creation of a more suitable environment for living’. And while the immediate, pragmatic, intention seems to have been to establish a school of architecture, in contraposition to that in Auckland, it had a wider remit. It wasn’t just about dealing with the practicalities of educating architects but, rather, it sought to establish a discourse on and about design that addressed topical and local issues from both pragmatic and, initially at least, theoretical perspectives.

The Centre’s early protagonists can be classified into three, often overlapping, groups. The first was made up of architects, principally those working in the public service, like Gordon Wilson and Cedric Firth. The second group comprised emigré architects and engineers like Ernst Plischke, Helmut Einhorn and Fritz Farrar. And the third encompassed, architectural students and draughtsmen such as Bob Fantl  and Geoffrey Nees. As the Centre’s influence and activities grew, this architectural clique was complemented by an influx of artists like Mervyn Taylor and Russell Clark, educationalists like Doreen Blumhardt and intellectuals like Bill Sutch and Ted Simpson.

Walter Gropius, New model factory at Die Deutsche Werkbund Ausstellung, Köln (1914)

While organisations with an overt focus on progressive art and design issues were distinctly innovative in the New Zealand context, there were a number of European precedents, most notably the Deutsche Werkbund. As its name suggests, the Werkbund was established in Munich in 1907 as a loose alliance of architects, artists, critics, businessmen, politicians, manufacturers and design reformers who sought ‘to prove that an organization dedicated to raising the standard of German work in the applied arts through cooperation with progressive elements in industry could restore dignity to labour and at the same time produce an harmonious national style in tune with the spirit of the modern age.’The reform process embarked on by the Werkbund encompassed general propaganda, consumer education and the improvement of product design. It was manifest through a number of mechanisms: publications, which included a series of yearbooks, exhibitions and meetings, all organised through a permanent executive and supported by a network of forty five branches and, by 1914, a membership of some 1,870 persons. And while driven by theoretical concerns, it was also intentionally populist, organising boat trips, dances and picnics. Its success at achieving its aims was such that within a decade it had been emulated by the formation of similar organisations in Austria (the Österreichischer Werkbund, in 1912), and in Britain (the Design and Industries Association, in 1915). 

Ernst Plischke,  Veitingergasse 107 and 109,
Werkbundseidlung, Vienna (1930-32)
This voluntary model of art and design organisation was brought to New Zealand by the second of the Architectural Centre’s founding groups, the émigrés, a number of whom had been involved with Werkbund organisations in Germany and Austria. The most notable of these was Ernst Plischke, who, had been a member of the Österreichischer Werkbund and, in 1930, a participant in its radical experimental housing research project, the Werkbundsiedlung. Moreover, during the 1920s, he – like those better known monsters of architectural modernism, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier – had worked in the atelier of the German modernist architect/designer Peter Behrens. Plischke’s experiences were impressive but in the context of those refugees who made it to New Zealand, not unique. Of New Zealand’s total intake of refugees from Nazism prior to the Second World War – a mere 1,100 persons (inclusive of women and children) – an extraordinarily high proportion were architects and engineers. But when these refugees from the metropolis arrived in provincial New Zealand they were disconcerted to find that their professional qualifications were not recognized, which meant that technically they were unable to practice their professions. Moreover, there was no substantial body of would-be patrons, and nothing that could pass for intellectual society. So, they sought to recreate in New Zealand what they had lost in Europe.
Furniture designed by Ernst Plischke 
displayed in Helen Hitchings Gallery in Wellington 
Photographed by Michael Hitchings (c. 1950)
The Michael Hitchings Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

The Centre’s focus on the media – its mission of ‘telling the world’ – was neither accidental nor incidental; to the contrary it can be argued that, from the 1890s, the modernist experience had been predicated and defined by the growth of mass-communication. The American cultural historian Dan LeMahieu has argued that the movement we now identify as modernism can, at its core, be posited as a reaction by what he identifies as ‘traditional cultural elites’ to a subversion of their roles brought about by the rise of the mass media. Le Mahieu’s definition of the ‘traditional cultural elites’ is fluid:  he nominates ‘writers, artists, musicians, academics, and a variety of other educated individuals’ including architects. He argues that the rise of the commercialised mass media had the effect of circumventing the social and cultural authority of this ‘cultural elite’ ‘by making the market place the most important arbiter of success’. Noting that ‘the ubiquity of mechanically reproduced images in the early twentieth century marked an important transformation in British culture’, Le Mahieu asserts that the cultural elites responded to the market’s exertions by deploying newly developed technologies to spawn novel techniques and strategies and to form new, mediated, practices, such as display advertising and industrial design. Traditional fields of activity, such as art and architecture, were also subjected to significant, formal changes as they were adapted to suit the new requirements of the cultural elite.

It was the maturation of this response by the British ‘cultural elite’ that provides a further key element in the formation of the Design Review. From the mid-1920s onwards, books on the subject of industrial design were published in increasing numbers in Britain, although few of these seem to have reached New Zealand. Indeed, from 1934, when the Architectural Review published its somewhat breathless account of modernism, until the end of the Second World War, local interest in design matters seems to have been restricted to architects, advertisers and commercial artists. Notable among the latter group was Eric Lee-Johnson, an art director at the Wellington-based advertising agency J Ilott Ltd, who, between 1930 and 1938, worked in Britain for a leading advertising agency S H Benson. Shortly after his arrival in Britain, Lee-Johnson became a member of the Society of Industrial Artists - at the invitation of its principal founder Milner Gray - although he took 'no active part beyond attending lectures'. At Benson’s Lee-Johnson was involved in the Guinness campaign, probably the most representative visual embodiment of British commercial modernism.
John Gilroy (artist) for S H Benson (advertising agency),
‘Guinness for strength’ poster (1934)
In the aftermath of the war, this general indifference toward design changed in New Zealand. It became a public issue, not only because design emerged as a key factor in British attempts to revive their post-war economy, but also because it became, rightly or wrongly, identified with the Labour administration’s post-war economic strategies.

The first factor is significant in the sense that the recruitment of the state to the cause of design saw it accord its practitioners a significance in the industrial cycle that had hitherto eluded them. In Britain, designers were no longer the ‘added extra’ in the production process but were now viewed, by the state, if not by manufacturers, as a key factor in the way consumables were conceived of, manufactured and marketed – even in New Zealand.  In Britain the state’s interest was expressed through the creation of the Council of Industrial Design, effectively an enormous, state-funded, propaganda machine. 
Milner Gray and Design Research Unit for the Royal Society of Arts
and the Council of Industrial Design, cover for Design at work (1947)
Even at the end of the supply chain, in New Zealand, the Council’s impact was evident: Home & Building published photographs of ‘designed’ objects, supplied by its Photographic Service. Articles originating from the Council were republished in local magazines, not only in specialist publications like Home & Building and the Design Review, but also in less predictable organs such as the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture and the New Zealand National Review. New Zealand importers and retailers of manufactured commodities became embroiled in arcane arguments between traditionalist manufacturers and the state-funded proselytisers of modernism – in Britain.The second factor that made design visible in New Zealand was perhaps more pernicious. An import licensing programme, a fiscal tool restricting the quantity of manufactured commodities that could be imported into New Zealand, had been introduced in 1939 in response to a run on the country’s overseas assets. It was subsequently adopted as part of wartime command economy and maintained after the war on the grounds that it was a requirement of New Zealand’s membership of the Sterling bloc. For a government committed to full-employment it also served the social purpose of protecting and expanding New Zealand’s nascent industrial employment base.

This measure was stigmatised by the National party opposition as an example of the state denying consumers the right to choose. In fact, choice had little to do with the matter: quantity had nothing to do with quality. The specifics of what was imported into the country were determined by the agents of British manufacturers working in collaboration with local import houses, not socialist apparatchiks intent on denying New Zealanders access to the sort of designed commodities they were gradually becoming aware of through imported books and magazines.

The idea of what constituted design was something that the Design Review visited on a number of occasions and yet managed to avoid defining. However, it was not until the sixth issue that it addressed the issue editorially. Under the title ‘What is design’, Simpson suggested that design might be an inherent quality and that the Review ‘will leave the making of formulas and rules to those who like that sort of thing […] to the pedant’. This stance provoked furious responses from pedantic readers, most notably the educationalist Brian Sutton-Smith, who, in a full-page letter to the editor, accused the Review’s contributors of ‘relativism’. In the following issue, this supposedly intractable matter was again addressed by an editorial drawing on an explanation provided by the Council of Industrial Design. This argued that design should be seen in simple functionalist terms: ‘“Design” is what makes a thing (a) easy to make; (b) easy to use (c) easy to look at’.

The idea that design was simply a matter of individual preference was as strong an ideological position that the Design Review ever took. And it was at odds with the progressive stance exhibited by the journal’s founders. It also suggests that, unlike, the situation at the Werkbund, the Review’s contributors were uncomfortable with theoretical concerns. In his response to Sutton-Smith’s argument, Ted Simpson declared he was ‘coldly unconvinced’ by his dialectic and ‘that words, words, and more words get us nowhere. What matters is things – not rules, arguments, and theories’. 

 In fact, it’s difficult to know what post war New Zealand consumers knew or understood about design, let alone theory. An indication of sorts can be gleaned from a bibliography of design-related publications, compiled by a secondary school science teacher, Richard Sharrell probably around 1949, although the article it appeared in wasn’t published until 1960.

Sharrell’s list includes three books by the novelist, design writer and broadcaster Anthony Bertram, three by the art critic Herbert Read and one each by the advertising executive John Gloag, the architect Clough Williams-Ellis (who had recently visited New Zealand), the publisher Noel Carrington and the poet John Betjeman. All the foregoing were British – none of whom practiced as designers – and their cited works were all written in the 1930s.

In what seems to have been added as belated recognition that there were also designers in the United States whose work might have bearing on the situation in New Zealand, Sharrell mentions one American publication: What is modern design?, Edgar Kaufmann Jr’s 1950 pamphlet for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

While its publication post-dates the launch of the Review, Kaufmann’s take on design is indicative of the way in which the understanding of design in the post-war United States was radically different from that promoted by the pre-war British writers. Rather than exhibiting a rigid concern with functionality, the examples of modern design Kaufmann illustrated reflected not only the technological advances brought about by wartime developments but also the impact of other design traditions such as those of Scandinavia and Italy. Kauffmann’s text also reflected the expanding market for designed commodities in the United States, a situation that was in marked contrast to what was available in New Zealand. In Kaufmann’s view, design was an accepted fact, it was ‘the planning and making of objects, suited to our way of life, our abilities, our ideals’.

Sharrell’s bibliography is equally interesting for what it omitted. He notably failed to include any New Zealand references: neither the Design Review nor Home & Building were mentioned. But the most notable omissions were two key texts: Ernst Plishcke’s book Design and living, published by the Department of Internal Affairs in 1947; and Howard Wadman’s essay ‘The shape of things in New Zealand’, published in the 1948 Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand, which Wadman edited. 

Both texts were written by outsiders – Wadman was an English advertising art director brought to New Zealand by the advertising agency J Illot Ltd to replace Eric Lee-Johnson; and Plischke was, as we’ve already observed, an Austrian. Both texts acknowledged the absence of a design sensibility in New Zealand but advocated its necessity. Wadman was notably critical, observing that: 'It is in the visual arts that New Zealand has failed and continues to fail […] our architecture, our towns and teacups, our labels and lamp-posts, our stamps and public displays are all without character, and the shops ­– those accurate mirrors of the general ambition – are stuffed from Whangarei to Invercargill with fabrics, pottery, and furnishings which seem to reflect a deliberate effort on the part of overseas exporters to send us their most tasteless wares.'

A matter of months after the publication of Wadman’s essay, the local design debate was galvanised by a British Council lecture tour undertaken by the industrial designer Milner Gray, then president of the British Society of Industrial Artists. The tour seems to have been prompted by a number of factors, not least a concern by the British High Commission in Wellington that action was needed ‘to counteract United States influence’. The choice of design as the subject may well have been a response both to Wadman’s essay and an awareness of the nascent design zeitgeist, embodied by the Architectural Centre and the Design Review. Above all, Gray’s presence in New Zealand can be seen as part of a concerted effort by British authorities to reassert their cultural and trading hegemony in the aftermath of war. It also signified a hesitant recognition of local efforts to raise the profile of design as a matter of public interest in the face of public ignorance.

R D Fairburn, ‘Art and Industry’, New Zealand Listener 
vol. 20, no. 513 (22 April 1949), p. 8
What is remarkable was the popularity of the lectures. Despite limited advertising, Gray attracted audiences of up to 200 in Auckland and 150 in Wellington. He was interviewed for the Auckland Star and by the poet, university lecturer and fabric printer A R D Fairburn for the New Zealand Listener; his comments were broadcast on radio and his lectures were published, not only in the Design Review, but also in the New Zealand Manufacturer and the recently established trade journal Modern Manufacturing.

While Gray’s visit provided a fillip to the Review’s efforts at promoting the idea of design, it came at an inauspicious time politically and this brings us back to the second reason as to why design became a prominent issue in New Zealand in the post war period. 1949 was an election year and while the Design Review attempted to remain apolitical, others were not so temperate. A trope emerged amongst those interested in design matters that linked the issue of import restrictions and thus the Labour party to an antipathy towards modern design. In an article published in Modern Manufacturing under the corporate authorship of the Auckland design group Brenner Associates, the culprit was clearly identified: 'All too frequently the [New Zealand] manufacturer and his executives are vaguely aware of the fact that their products are not all that they could be, but they are lulled into silence by the comforting assurance that foreign products are excluded from this market by a benevolent government hell-bent on mothering the country out of existence.' This was a mistaken allocation of blame, but it was effective electioneering.

The November 1949 election saw the National party returned to office with a twelve seat majority in Parliament. But, despite all the political rhetoric, nothing changed following National’s victory. While certain import licenses were abolished there was no sudden ingress of well-designed objects into the country; to the contrary, it was more of the same. Government support for the fledgling manufacturing sector diminished, which had the flow-on effect of stymying the emergence of local design practitioners. The first post-election issue of the Review unwittingly flagged a return to the colonial condition with an article ironically titled ‘Art in Industry’; it promoted the sponsorship of a local calendar competition by Imperial Chemical Industries, the ‘largest industrial concern in the British empire’. The pre-war status quo had resumed. ICI’s sponsorship wasn’t about promoting design; it was old fashioned patronage of the traditional arts.

The Design Review continued to be published bi-monthly until October 1953 although there was an interruption between September 1951 and May 1952 when Simpson and Taylor relinquished their contract as a consequence of a decision by the National party administration to terminate the Department of Internal Affairs grant that had enabled the journal to survive. Unwilling to surrender in the face of official indifference, the Architectural Centre’s committee appointed George Gabites as editor and sought alternative funding sources from its members. But the energy that had driven the publication’s early years had dissipated and, in early 1954, the committee decided to cease publication; the final issue appeared in April that year. Writing to the committee secretary, one of the journal’s financial backers lamented that ‘It seems a great pity that the magazine had to cease but it was only because of hard & unselfish work by various people at various times that it survived as long as it did. During the time it was produced I am satisfied that its influence was considerable & that the effort that went into it was well worth while.’

The last gasp: the final issue of the Design Review, vol. 5, no. 5 (April 1954)
In fact, it was some years before the magazine’s influence became apparent. In January 1957, the economist Dr W B Sutch, an assistant secretary at the Department of Industries and Commerce, delivered a paper ‘The next two decades of manufacturing’ to the Dunedin conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. In it he sought to delineate a future for New Zealand manufacturing, ‘to deduce, very broadly, the likely results if existing trends as we know them continue’. In seeking to redress what he perceived as the country’s over-reliance on imports, he advocated the export of manufactured commodities, rather than a continued reliance on the export of unconverted primary produce. Sutch asserted that one of the ways in which New Zealand could develop such a manufacturing base was by ‘producing goods which have as their main ingredient not raw materials but brains and skills.’ And one of the ways in which brains and skills could be implemented was through design. To this purpose, in 1958, soon after he was appointed head of the Department of Industries and Commerce by an incoming Labour party administration, he established a design research group. The group’s remit was to explore not only the possibility of setting up a design promotion organisation comparable to the British Council of Industrial Design but also how design education could be implemented in New Zealand at a tertiary level.

Cover of the catalogue for the Industrial Design Exhibition, 
National Art Gallery, Wellington, 1961
Sutch’s commitment to design was remarkable for someone in his position. Not only did he activate design as a policy of state, but he was personally involved in the activities of the Architectural Centre. He was the presiding figure behind the first substantial exhibition of design held in this country, the Industrial Design Exhibition shown at the National Art Gallery in 1961 as part of the Festival of Wellington and he and his wife, the lawyer Shirley Smith, commissioned Ernst Plischke to design their home in Brooklyn. Sutch both embodied and articulated the Review’s stance that design should not only have a national profile but also become part of the country’s vernacular culture.

Sutch’s proposals – ultimately – came to fruition, although perhaps not as he’d envisaged them. A School of Design was launched at Wellington Polytechnic in 1962. And, four years later, legislation was introduced into Parliament establishing the New Zealand Industrial Design Council, which began operations in 1968. The following year the Council launched a publication, Designscape, edited and designed by its director, Geoffrey Nees. Twenty years previously, Nees had been a member of the Architectural Centre’s committee behind the launch of the New Zealand Design Review.

Cover of Designscape, no. 1 (February 1969). 
Designed by the New Zealand Industrial 
Design Council’s first director, Geoffrey Nees
Designscape may well have been the posthumously-born love child of the Design Review, but, ultimately, it fared no better than its putative parent. Nees was retired from the Council in 1982 and Designscape folded two years later despite having achieved an unaudited readership in its heyday of some 30,000 persons; the Council was abolished in 1988.

The Design Review’s legacy is mixed. From one perspective, it can be seen as a rare manifestation in the Anglo-Saxon world of the Werkbund’s commitment to popularising the idea of art in industry; but it was manifest in a part of the world then largely devoid of industry and implemented by those who rejected the Werkbund’s core commitment to theory. From another point of view, it might be seen as an attempt by an aspiring cultural elite to respond to the pressures of the mass media by creating new practices and forms; but the views of these aspirants in New Zealand were largely ignored by both public and policy makers. Another assessment suggests that the Review was an attempt by those located in the provinces to mirror the activities and achievements of those at the metropolitan centre; but that, due to the absence of resources – intellectual, financial and so on, is inevitably condemned to failure. The formation of the Design Review might be seen as a bold attempt to reinvent in New Zealand a design culture that emphasised the unique qualities of life in this country – qualities not dissimilar to those found in California; but that foundered in a sea of indifference and from the lingering effects of the country’s colonial formation.

The Design Review’s greatest achievement was to activate a design debate in New Zealand; to lay the grounds for a society that, in Bill Sutch’s phrase, could ‘develop the skill, experience and intelligence of [its] people’. It would seem that inheritance is yet to be claimed.

This post is an edited version of a lecture delivered at the Auckland Art Gallery/Toi o Tāmaki, as part of its public programme associated with the travelling exhibition California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, in September 2013.