Sunday, 30 June 2013

Hilsen fra Danmark/Greetings from Denmark

Souvenir cards from Denmark, 1960. The image
shown depicts Frederiksborg Slot in Hillerød

The Auckland auction house Art+Object is currently promoting its forthcoming modern design auction. The sale – to be held on 4 July 2013 – includes a selection of Scandinavian-designed furniture, including chairs by Hans Wegner, Børge Mogensen, Orla Mølgaard-Nielsen and Peter Hvidt and a FA 66 sideboard (lot 463) designed by Ib Kofod-Larsen (mistakenly identified in the catalogue as Kofed Larsen) for Faarup Møbelfabrik I/S (not identified in the catalogue). It’s all good quality stuff, although you regret the absence of any reference to provenance in the lot descriptions: were these pieces imported into New Zealand contemporaneously; or do they have a more recent acquaintance with the country; were they a manifestation of New Zealand's earlier fascination with Scandinavia, or a more recent iteration of that phenomenon?

New Zealand House, Haymarket, London
seen from Trafalgar Square
In the period following the second world war, the export success of Scandinavian design was the envy of manufacturing interests around the world. Even in New Zealand, Scandinavian design garnered recognition, sometimes from the most unlikely of quarters. In an effort to add a sophisticated gloss to the soon to be completed New Zealand House (Robert Matthew, Johnson Marshall & Partners, 1963) in London, the New Zealand government specified Scandinavian-designed objects for its fit out. Writing about the building in 2005, Harriet Atkinson records that: ‘Furniture, crockery and glass were part of the architect’s planning, the majority bought from Scandinavian manufactures. The furniture was designed by Kjærholm, Ekselius, Wegner, Matheson and Finn Juhl; the crockery by Rörstrand; and the glass by Orrefors.’ Sadly, none of this cornucopia of designed objects remains in the parts of the building still occupied by the New Zealand High Commission in London.

One of the earliest New Zealand references to Scandinavian design occurred in the New Zealand Design Review in its October-November 1952 issue. Beatrice Ashton (1920-1999), a regular contributor on design matters, recalled a rumour she had heard that ‘a Swedish craftsman was working in wood in Havelock North.’ Commenting that it ‘seemed an unlikely idea and an unlikely place to find such a man’, she visited him: ‘Right in the centre of Havelock North we found an enchanting shop. We felt suddenly that we were in San Francisco again (she'd passed through California in February 1944) except that the goods in the window were unmistakeably Swedish.’
The interior of Karl Axel de Flon's Swedish design shop in 
Havelock North, 1952. New Zealand Design Review vol. 4, no. 5 
(October-November 1952). Photographed by John Ashton

The shop stocked a range of Swedish crafted wood, ceramic and textile items and had been established by Swedish furniture designer Karl Axel de Flon who recounted he had ‘met a furniture manufacturer from Hawkes Bay in Auckland when I first arrived and he asked me to be his designer. But it didn’t work out. No one here bothers to carry out designs carefully, so I opened my shop instead.’
De Flon’s enterprise failed when, in 1952, a new licensing schedule introduced by the New Zealand Board of Trade ‘had dried up his supply of Swedish glass and pottery’; the schedules were allocated in part on the basis of an applicant’s import history; de Flon had no such history and he appears to have closed the shop and returned to Sweden. 
Covered bowl from the Blå Eld (Blue Fire) range, 
designed by Hertha Bengston for Rörstrand in 1950, 
retailed in Auckland by Patrick Pierce
More experienced retailers such as Dan Pierce, who sold ceramics and glass as Patrick Pierce in central Auckland and suburban Takapuna, did have a history and managed to circumvent import restrictions favouring British suppliers and was selling Rörstrand ceramics and Orrefors glass to discerning Aucklanders in the mid 1950s.

A more viable translation of Scandinavian design to New Zealand occurred in the mid 1950s when Ken and Bente Winter from Århus in Denmark set up as manufacturers of economically-priced furniture in Auckland, eventually opening a retail outlet in Symonds Street in 1962. Two years later they launched the brand ‘Danske Møbler’ (Danish for Danish furniture) in 246 (Rigby Mullan, 1964), a multi-storey vertical shopping mall with up-market aspirations located at 246 Queen Street, Auckland’s main retail strip, that had been developed by the theatrical entrepreneur Robert Kerridge. While its current output gives no indication of its Danish origins – other than its name – the company still survives as a local manufacturer.

Interior view of the Smith-Sutch house designed by Ernst Plischke.
Unidentified photographer, published in the Architectural Review
October 1959
Probably the greatest advocate of Scandinavian design in New Zealand during the 1950s and early 1960s was Dr William Ball Sutch, an economist, historian, collector and a noted patron of good design; his house in Brooklyn was designed by Ernst Plischke (1953-56). But as assistant secretary in the Department of Industries and Commerce, Sutch’s concern with Scandinavian design wasn’t about aesthetics but rather about the way it could be seen as an exemplar for New Zealand as it sought to maintain its then enviable material living standards. In a wide ranging speech delivered to the January 1957 Dunedin conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Sutch declared that:
As the country grows, New Zealand’s main assets can only be the skill, experience and intelligence of her people Small countries like Finland, Denmark or Switzerland have even fewer natural resources than we have. Yet because of the skill of their people hey are important manufacturing countires […] New Zealand’s preoccupation with the tariff may be too negative an approach. Should we not be concerned with producing goods which have as their main ingredient not raw materials but brains and skills. (W B Sutch, The next two decades of manufacturing in New Zealand, 1957, p. 21)
Sutch’s pleas fell, for the moment, on deaf ears: the National party government was panicking to ensure that in the face of Britain’s effective abandonment of its economic empire ‘there were secure and remunerative outlets for the nation’s agricultural surplus.’

The re-election of a Labour administration in November 1957 gave Sutch, who was shortly after appointed secretary of the Department of Industries and Commerce, an opportunity to pursue his interest in seeing how Scandinavian we could be. Soon after his elevation Sutch established a design study group within the department charged with researching the possibility of establishing a design promotion body, that he anticipated would be loosely modelled either on the British Council of Industrial Design or the recently established Industrial Design Council of Australia. Following the study group’s work, Sutch realised that neither the British nor the Australian templates were appropriate to the New Zealand situation and turned to Denmark for inspiration. Writing in 1963 to the departing Danish chargé d’affaires, Thorkild Wegener-Clausen, Sutch opined that ‘Denmark  must be one of the examples which New Zealand must follow if it is to develop as a mature nation with a continuing good living standard.’ In practical terms, Sutch concluded that the model offered by Den Permanente, a retailing display centre of Danish craft and design in Copenhagen, would be the best way of encouraging and promoting design in New Zealand.

Two wooden mice, designed by Theodore Skjøde Knudsen, made by Skjøde Skern I/S,
retailed by Den Permanente and bought by an Auckland tourist in Copenhagen in August 1961

Formed in 1931 by the Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthåndværk (the Danish Society of Craft), Den Permanente ‘was an association, not a business. The exhibitors were members who elected the board […] It arranged special exhibitions, and during the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s Den Permanente became well known as far away as Japan and the US. Approximately 75 per cent of the sales went abroad, primarily to the US’ (Per H Hansen, The construction of a brand: the case of Danish design, 1930-1970). Sutch speculatively felt that this combination of craft and industrial production was more appropriately suited to the situation prevailing in New Zealand. This contention was driven by the idea that the local recreation of something like Den Permanente might start making New Zealand producers and consumers more conscious of design.

Sadly, it was not to be. The National party administration elected in November 1960 forced Sutch into retirement in March 1963 - his politics were deemed to be too radical and the minister, John Marshall, loathed and feared him. The design promotion body that eventually emerged in 1966, The New Zealand Industrial Design Council, was an anaemic replica of the British model. Despite early successes under its first director, Geoffrey Nees, it was invariably under-resourced and its existence was always under threat. It was abolished in 1988; never was Scandinavia so distant from New Zealand. It would take the Nokia success story of the 1990s for New Zealand to start, hopelessly and unthinkingly, aspiring once again to be the Scandinavia of the south.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Sound progressive views?

Some of the most ubiquitous examples of New Zealand design – light switches – have been produced by the Christchurch-based electrical products manufacturer Plastic and Diecasting Ltd, known after 1957 as PDL Industries Ltd. Founded in 1938 to manufacture components for a plumbing and heating concern, the company was reinvented in 1948 when it engaged Robertson Stewart, a Christchurch-born electrician who, in 1935, had been sent by his former employer to train in England as a plastics technician. Soon after joining PDL, Stewart was made general manager; he later bought the company. Taking advantage of an expanding market for plastic wares and the ready availability of casein, a dairy by-product, Stewart revolutionised PDL’s output by introducing an extensive range of well-designed electrical fittings and architectural hardware.

Stewart was the only manufacturer profiled by the New Zealand Design Review in its five-year existence. Published in August 1949, the anonymous two-page article was titled ‘New Zealand Manufacturer has sound progressive views’ and it was supported by not only expensive photographs but also an editorial by the Wellington teacher and critic Edward Simpson, the review’s editor. 

E Mervyn Taylor, cover for the New Zealand Design Review
August 1949 depicting a bottle designed by Milner Gray
Inspired by a series of lectures delivered by the British industrial designer Milner Gray during a British Council-organised visit to New Zealand, the editorial railed against the conservatism of the majority of New Zealand manufacturers who had no interest in design and, certainly, no interest in the modernism espoused by the Design Review. The editorial asserted that even when faced with an avalanche of modern, well-designed objects from Britain, ‘the New Zealand manufacturer […] is not likely to re-design his wares while he cannot produce enough to satisfy the market and is short of staff. He is going to need much persuasion even then.’

In the article, Stewart was portrayed as embodying the antithesis of this philistine, not to say troglodytic, stance: ‘It is hard to express what a joyful kick we derived from an interview with Mr R H Stewart […] who supplied us with his views on design for the manufacturer of goods in New Zealand’. The article approvingly observed that ‘as the services of industrial designers are not available’, the company’s products were designed by Stewart who, sensibly, submitted them ‘step by step to an architect conversant with modern design and with an active interest in the improvement of design in New Zealand manufactures.’ Stewart’s innovative take on manufacturing and the Design Review’s enthusiastic support of his enterprise raises a number of points respecting the nature of design in post-war New Zealand. In fact, the timing of the article is critical as it occurred months before the November 1949 general election, one in which the roles of the producers and consumers of manufactured commodities were never more widely debated.

In response to adverse economic circumstances during the Great Depression and, later the Second World War, the Labour party administration had imposed restrictions on the availability of manufactured commodities in New Zealand through an import licensing regime. While fiscally responsible it was unpopular and the conservative National party opposition was quick to exploit this antipathy. National went into the election declaring that one of its planks was to ‘allow the people, not the State, to decide what they shall buy, and how they will spend their money. We will abolish restrictions on goods from Britain that cannot be economically produced in our own factories.’ It was evidently a political irrelevance that Britain wasn’t exactly keen on exporting to New Zealand, as its membership of the Sterling Area did nothing to reduce Britain’s catastrophic overseas debt. As was the fact that import restrictions provided New Zealand manufacturers, such as PDL and Ambrico – the makers of Crown Lynn pottery, with a protected market, enabling them to flourish, notwithstanding the deficient quality of their production. Ironically, the direction of both companies supported National. Notwithstanding his support for modernist design but contrary to the Design Review’s headline, Stewart’s views were far from progressive; to the contrary, he later opined that 'It has been my observation in life that many Labour Party supporters are non-achievers.'

The final issue of the New Zealand Design Review,
April 1954. Among the houses under review was one 
by the Auckland design group Brenner Associates

A trope emerged amongst those interested in design matters locally that linked the issue of import restrictions and, ipso facto, the Labour party to an antipathy towards modern design. Another article published that same August in the short-lived journal Modern Manufacturing and under the corporate authorship of the Auckland design group Brenner Associates, clearly identified the culprit, explaining that '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.' It was a mistaken allocation of blame; what the critics of this de facto protection failed to understand was the fact that neither government nor the few manufacturers of commodities operating in the country were in a position to dictate what was imported. That responsibility lay in the hands of what operated as a cabal of the local agents of British manufacturers and the members of  bodies such as the New Zealand Importers' Federation. It was their conservative, commercial interests that were the drivers in determining what was available to the New Zealand consumer, not the government or the manufacturers.

 The National party won the 1949 election, but the victorious politicians had no interest in design and they ultimately withdrew the small Department of Internal Affairs grant that enabled the Design Review to survive. The promotion of modernist design by conservative interests continued as a odd feature of the nascent design discourse in New Zealand for some years. If in Britain, modernism was ineluctably associated with a controlled economy and rampant socialism, the same cannot be said for New Zealand. The National prime minister Sidney Holland fought tooth and nail, in the face of vehement British Conservative party antipathy, for the construction of a modernist New Zealand House in London’s West End, designed by the socialist architect Robert Matthew. Holland wanted - and obtained - a building exhibiting sophistication and culture in the hope that it would attract the right sort of British immigrant. 

As late as 1958, attempts were made by conservative Christchurch interests to promote a local version of the Council of Industrial Design, the wartime creation of the British Labour politician Hugh Dalton. To their consternation they discovered that they had been trumped by the left when it emerged that the second Labour administration, elected in November 1957, was planning its own design council, one that rather being an inappropriately scaled replica of the British model would respond to local needs. In doing so, Labour was finally exhibiting those ‘sound progressive views’ that the Design Review had once, mistakenly, attributed to Stewart.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Mediating the modern in New Zealand

Come July, the Auckland Art Gallery/Toi o Tāmaki will be hosting what is probably the largest travelling design exhibition ever seen in New Zealand. Living in a modern way: California design 1930-1965 was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) response to the John Paul Getty Museum’s 2011 ‘Pacific Standard Time’ initiative, which saw over sixty venues showing over 130 exhibitions focussing on the importance of the North American Pacific Coast to twentieth century art and design.
Cover of LACMA's Living in a modern way
California design 1930-1965

Living in a modern way, curated by the always impressive Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman, was the focus of the five exhibitions held by LACMA. It was intended not only to assert a counter narrative to the view that saw what happened in California marginalised in the history of art and design in the United States, but also it sought to ‘expand the museum’s permanent collection significantly by making it the ‘preeminent assemblage of mid-century California furniture, ceramics, textiles, and industrial design’. From a New Zealand perspective, this curatorial stance is quite radical because it asserts the centrality of design to an understanding of a specific cultural space. The fact that the Auckland Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition outside of its current collecting parameters tantalisingly suggests that it too might be rethinking the way it approaches New Zealand’s art and design history.

Modernism had a rickety emergence in New Zealand; it made its earliest appearance amongst the professional readers of the British periodical Architectural Review. In terms of domestic architecture it was adapted to local conditions by architects such as Vernon Brown, from 1942 a studio instructor in architecture at Auckland University College. But it was most impressively manifest in the work of a small band of architectural refugees from Nazi Europe, people who were not only conversant with the theory and practice of modernism but also amongst its earliest exponents. Among them were Ernst Plischke, Ernst Gerson, Fritz Farrar, Richard Fuchs and Friedrich Neumann; none were able to practice as architects in New Zealand as their qualifications weren’t recognised. Unlike the situation prevailing in California where émigrés found ready acceptance, it took some time for the work of these extraordinary practitioners to be acceptable, both institutionally and culturally. Plischke's impressive polemic Design and living (1947) was probably New Zealand's most significant contribution to an understanding of modernism in the post-war period; as important as his design of the curtain-walled Massey House (1951-1957), Wellington's first modern high rise building.

Ernst Plischke, cover design for Design and living
As with the institutions, popular understanding of modernism was also a mediated exercise, although through film rather than publications. Hollywood’s influence on popular taste cannot be underrated: it gave the public a sort of superficial modernism; more streamlined packaging and gloss than the ‘real’ thing, which was concerned ostensibly with issues such as function and utility. The tastes of New Zealander consumers were, however, primarily subject to decisions made elsewhere, but what consumers saw in local shops had very little to do with what they might have seen at the cinema or in magazines. Until the mid 1950s, imported commodities emanated primarily from Britain and were determined by the conservative tastes of importers who, almost without exception, toed the line determined by British manufacturers.

Things changed following the Second World War: design found a small voice in public discourse through periodicals such as Home & Building and, from 1948 to 1954, the New Zealand Design Review. Manufacturing, which had arisen out of necessity during the war, also prompted an interest in design related matters with articles on design being carried in industry publications such as Modern Manufacturing and the New Zealand Manufacturer. Most significantly, design began to be taught in schools; but if students were hoping to be instructed in the wonders of the modern world – like their peers across the Pacific in California – they would be disappointed. In a 1949 article ‘Perpetuation of ugliness’ on the teaching of design published in the teachers’ journal Education, Richard Sharrell listed only one American publication, J Edgar Kaufmann’s What is modern design? Sharrell’s eleven other references were to British publications: Herbert Read’s Art and Industry (1934), Noel Carrington’s Design (1935, revised in 1947) and Anthony Bertram’s Design in daily life (1937) along with his Pelican Special Design (1938), among them; Plischke's local text was bizarrely ignored. A colonial reading list; all very worthy, but hardly contemporary stuff.

The one area where American influence was dominant in post war New Zealand was transport. Despite the fact that nearly half the country's GDP was expended on imported oil, politicians and engineers around the country were only too eager to eviscerate the landscape with an American version of the German autobahn; and the public appears to have been equally keen to collaborate in their cupidity by attempting to acquire American automobiles. But even though New Zealanders consumed American petroleum products with a rare avidity, economic reality ensured that New Zealanders ended up with two-laned motorways and Morris Minors instead of multi-lane freeways and Cadillacs. Never had California seemed so distant to New Zealanders than in the post-war environment. 

Inevitably, just as California begins to demolish its freeways and emphasise public transit initiatives, New Zealand embarks on yet another motorway madness exercise with the government’s egregious Roads of National Significance programme. It seems that not only is New Zealand keen to be the last of the first but also its appetite for colonial subservience is unabated, even in the way it approaches the design of its infrastructure.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The gardens of academe

One of the undoubted joys of the University of Oxford is the gardens of its various constituent colleges. Some, such as that at Balliol, comprising a series of well-tended lawns, are pretty basic; others like the ones that grace the grounds of Magdalen and New Colleges are spectacular: the Meadow at Magdalen, with its wild drifts of Fritillaria meleagris (snakeshead fritillary), offers one of the most entrancing spring landscapes to be found anywhere in the world.

Algernon Thomas, Oxford 1883, shortly after he was 
appointed professor of natural history at Auckland
Of the four professors appointed to the Auckland University College in 1883, two had Oxford connections, the others came from the equally gardened University of Cambridge. Of these it was Algernon Thomas (Balliol, 1878), the professor of natural history, who did the most to translate the idea that one of the adornments of a university was found in its surroundings; and from a more practical perspective, plantings of indigenous flora were useful teaching and research resources.

It took time though for the gardens to evolve; and notwithstanding early suggestions that the college would take over the spectacularly sited grounds of Government House, it was only with the opening of its Arts building (Roy Lippincott, 1926), that the college's garden could be described as respectable. By then Thomas was long retired from the college faculty, but he was there at the opening and, from the evidence of the building's surrounding plantings, was an abiding influence on the college’s approach to its environs.

From the time of his arrival in New Zealand on 1 May 1883, Thomas had been impressed by the country’s indigenous flora; he not only taught and researched the subject, but was also an active environmental preservationist. In 1891 he moved a resolution at the Christchurch meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science encouraging the preservation of the native fauna and flora of New Zealand and he was a staunch advocate for the preservation of the Waitakeres; after his death in 1937, his family gave 100 acres of bush and, later, purchased and gifted Lion Rock at Piha in his memory to ensure its continued preservation. But the most obvious exegesis of his interest in indigenous flora came in 1890 when he acquired ten acres in Epsom, somewhat cheaply because it was a remnant of the Maungawhau lava field and thus difficult to ‘break in’.

Withiel Thomas reserve in 2012
Rather than making a conventional ‘European’ garden, Thomas focussed on the cultivation of indigenous species, albeit not exclusively; he also bred daffodils, to the later derision of the writer of the university’s centennial history. Fragmentary remains of Thomas’ garden survive off Mountain Road as the Withiel Thomas Reserve and as part of various private properties. The reserve is one of the city’s few designed sublime spaces, despite the invasive roar of motor vehicles from the nearby Newmarket Viaduct (Ministry of Works, 1966/NZTA, 2012). Its continued preservation is due largely to the efforts of anonymous volunteers in keeping down pest plant infestations and removing litter.

Thomas' design for a garden at the front entrance of Auckland Grammar School,
c. 1915
This focus on indigenous flora characterised the other educational landscapes Thomas had a hand in making. As chairman of the Auckland Grammar Schools Board (1916-1937), he designed the grounds of the new Auckland Grammar School (Richard Abbott, 1916), also in Mountain Road, as well as those of the Mt Albert, Epsom Girls and Takapuna Grammar Schools. His authorship of these gardens has been forgotten; as, indeed, has his role as one of the first garden designers in the country to focus on and promote the cultivation of indigenous flora in a rapidly urbanising environment.