Saturday, 10 January 2015

Social design

Post-war British design propaganda: Richard Guyatt (1914-2007), cover for
Alan Jarvis, The things we see: indoors and out (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947)
Forming an organisation dedicated to the promotion of an idea, a cause or an interest, is one of the hallmarks of modern society. In one sense, these modern social bodies have, in our most recent history, shaped the way we perceive and understand how we order the world by creating a concept of human, educational, cultural and intellectual capital in lieu of one based almost entirely upon the control of land. Ranging from learned bodies such as the Royal Society of London (1660) to ‘professional’ bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (1880) and, closer to home, the Designers’ Institute of New Zealand (1991) they are, in effect, one of the more tenuous manifestations of service capitalism.

In a 2012 lecture to the Friends of the Hocken Collections – another sort of social body – the photographer Gary Blackman referred to the Dunedin-based Visual Arts Association, an organisation established in 1951 ‘to encourage the appreciation of good design’, that he had chaired for a time (G Blackman, Aspiring to art; the William Mathew Hodgkins memorial lecture (Dunedin: Friends of the Hocken Collections, 2014), p. 26). The association's formation is telling evidence of the collective way many New Zealanders came to appreciate and understand design, a process that had been either marginalised or ignored in New Zealand's short history of Pākehā culture. Like much else in post-war New Zealand, the design debate was predominantly a British cultural import and it arrived in New Zealand through a variety of media including journals, books, lectures, newsreels and, not least, designed commodities.

The Visual Arts Association was not the the first locally organised body established in the face of national indifference to design matters. The earliest – and the sole survivor of the phenomenon – was the Wellington-domiciled Architectural Centre. Formed in 1946 with the utilitarian purpose of providing a support framework for Wellington-based students of the Auckland School of Architecture, the centre, almost incidentally, expanded its remit to promote and encourage a debate about how larger issues of design could be encouraged to flourish in a local context. Between 1948 and 1952 it sponsored the publication of Design Review, the first journal in the country to explore the concept of design in a critical fashion. With its focus on regional modernism and embrace of theory, the centre espoused a progressive ideology; a number of its key figures – Ernst Plischke springs to mind – were refugees from Nazism and they understood that design was political.
New Zealand Design Review, vol 1, no 1 (April 1948)., p 1
New Zealand Electronic Text Collection/Te Puhikōtuhi o Aotearoa
In Auckland, such concerns were regarded with a degree of distrust. In 1949, in the wake of a visit by the British industrial designer Milner Gray, a group of interested individuals with an interest in design issues associated with Cyril Knight (1891-1972), professor of architecture at the Auckland University College School of Architecture, formed the Auckland Design Guild, ‘an association providing for the exchange of ideas on the arts and sciences connected with design’ (‘Pledge to combat shoddiness’, New Zealand Free Lance (27 July 1949), p. 9). Knight, an Australian who had been appointed to the school in 1924, had conservative rather than modernist inclinations, a tendency reflected in the archaic designation of the body as a ‘guild’. The guild’s existence was fleeting; it failed to survive the year. One former, architectural, member later recalled it as ‘too theoretical’, explaining that ‘considerable time was devoted to ruling out any commercial exhibition of members’ work’ (P Parsons, ‘The postwar development of industrial design in New Zealand’, New Zealand Manufacturer, 18:1 (October 1965), p. 68). In fact, a surfeit of theory was probably the least cause of the guild's failure. It was more probable that, like many of his academic contemporaries in Britain, that Knight - no theoretician – objected to the guild being used to provide commercial enterprise with a veneer of objective respectability; it was too difficult to reconcile arts and crafts romanticism with the pragmatics of growing a business.
Unidentified photographer, 'Modern room setting at Dunedin Public Library, 1953'.
From G Blackman,  Aspiring to art: the William Mathew Hodgkins memorial lecture 2012
(Dunedin: Friends of the Hocken Collections, 2012)
The Visual Arts Association was formed as a consequence of two meetings convened by the Adult Education Department of the University of Otago and its first chair was Dr Edward Murphy, lecturer in design at the School of Home Science. Its first pamphlet declared aspirationally that ‘the terms of reference of the Visual Arts Association are very similar to those of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) of Great Britain, even though the association is a voluntary body’. However, where the CoID was charged by Parliament ‘to promote by all practical means the improvement of design in the products of British industry’, the Dunedin association was restricted to embellishing the Lecture Hall of the Dunedin Public Library with, as Newman recalls, ‘a room setting furnished with a range of [imported] objects selected from local shops’.  The furniture, though, was New Zealand made although, looking at the photographic evidence, much of it it was based on designs pirated from Australian and United Kingdom prototypes (T Esplin, ‘Visual Arts Society’, The Press (15 May 1962), Supplement on design in industry, p. 4). As Blackman relates, the association's ambitions were not matched by the reality of it being a small, university-based, organisation and it 'soon broadened its concerns to include current visual arts and crafts and undertook a wide-ranging programme of lectures, panel discussions exhibitions and films. The association was wound up in 1968. 
Unidentified photographer, 'Exterior of the Design Centre, Haymarket, [London], 1958'.
Probably the most ambitious of the mid-twentieth century New Zealand design promotion bodies was the Christchurch-based Design Association of New Zealand (DANZ). In July 1957 Roger Lascelles (1928-), a self-described Christchurch ‘foreign and intercolonial buying agent’ – recently returned from Britain and impressed by the CoID's recently opened London 'shop front', the Design Centre – had a letter published in Design, the house magazine of the CoID:
By December 1959, Lascelles – who was well-connected in Christchurch social circles – had begun organising for the creation of a similar facility in New Zealand, albeit on a smaller ­scale. Alerted to these moves and responding to enquiries received from the CoID concerning Lascelles’ status, the Department of Industries and Commerce (DoIC) interviewed him, reporting that:
Mr Lascelles is very keen about the subject of industrial design and appears to be well informed. He is full of enthusiasm and could, I think, do some useful work in making the subject more generally known in New Zealand, provided his group consists of responsible and more mature people who could guide him; perhaps they might even have to restrain him (Archives New Zealand IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 1 box 1797, Memorandum from H Larsen to W Sutch, 25 January 1960). 
Seemingly unaware that the DoIC had been investigating the idea of a local design council since the election of the second Labour administration in 1957, Lascelles, as ‘honorary secretary pro tem’ of the association began soliciting national interest in the setting up ‘a Design Organisation similar to, but on a more modest scale than the Council of Industrial Design in London’. The association claimed twenty 'founders': seven architects (including Peter Beaven, Miles Warren and Paul Pascoe); four 'designers' (including John Simpson, a British craft silversmith); three solicitors; two engineers and one printer (Leo Bensemann), an importer (Lascelles) and a journalist. By June 1960, although Lascelles had subsequently returned to London, a small committee under the guidance of Simpson, who was professor of fine art at the University of Canterbury, had developed the text for a pamphlet explaining the aspirational aims and ambitions of the society.
Title page of the prospectus for the Design Association of New Zealand (1960)
National Library of New Zealand/Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
The association’s main object, it asserted, was ‘the encouragement of Good Design in every sphere of life’, positing that ‘Good Design is a matter of national importance and that it is imperative for New Zealand to have, now, its own properly constituted Design Association supported by public funds though independent of government direction’ (Archives New Zealand IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 1 box 1797, Letter from A Hearn to W Sutch, 24 June 1960). There was an undoubted spirit of enterprise driving the members of the association and by the end of 1961 they had contacted a number of like-minded individuals and organisations throughout the country and were in the throes of organising one of the earlier design exhibitions to be held in the country. Opening on 15 May 1962 and displayed in the less than salubrious Canterbury Society of Arts premises in Durham Street, Christchurch, the exhibition was launched with a speech from the associate minister of trade and industry and accompanied by a gracious address from the governor general who was not present (both texts were drafted by the DoIC). While no catalogue was produced, the Press printed a six page supplement, paid for by advertisers: the PDL Industries Ltd advertisement occupied the entirety of page one (‘The Press supplement on design in industry’, Press (15 May 1962). The exhibition attracted 8,700 visitors, a number that exceeded even the Association's best hopes, but it was a unique event and by 1965 it seems to have effectively dissolved, albeit after some of its office holders had led rancorous attacks on the DoIC in respect of its proposals to establish a design promotion body in New Zealand.
How to press the buttons of the electorate: 'A greater range and variety in consumer goods' and 'Board of Trade to advise on imports and industrial matters'.
Consumerism at the heart of National party 'non-design' advertising for the 1949 general election in the Otago Daily Times.
New Zealand Election Ads
The DANZ's vision of a private organisation undertaking similar design promotional activities as the CoID, funded by the taxpayer but ‘independent of government direction’, was a somewhat ingenuous reading of the situation, one that misunderstood not only the nature and function of the ostensible prototype and its relationship with government but also the changing economic order as Britain shifted its trade from its former empire to Europe. It’s tempting to think that the primarily aesthetic understanding of design espoused by the DANZ was more a consequence of residual Anglophilia in establishment Christchurch – a concern with the awfulness of popular taste was one of the hallmarks of the British modernist debate – but there seems to have been something more to the argument. Since its introduction in 1938, the import licensing regime adopted by the 1935-49 Labour administration had been subjected to prolonged attack from not only the opposition National party but also from retailers and architects who argued that it denied consumers access to well-designed British commodities. In fact the problem of restrictions on choice lay more with the cosy arrangements entered into between British manufacturers and those responsible for selecting what was imported into New Zealand under the licensing regime as well as with New Zealand's membership of the Sterling Area. Lascelles’ occupation as an indent agent - albeit one working primarily with sports equipment - and the argumentative 'government interference' tone adopted by the DANZ, which would become increasingly evident, suggests that one of the association's more tacit purposes was ideological. Moreover, its understanding of design seems to have been inclined toward the superficial with a focus on aesthetics and 'taste', rather than seeing it as a process encompassing production, mediation and consumption.
Unidentified designer, poster for a series of lectures by Colin Barrie, director of the Industrial Design Council of Australia (1962).
Archives New Zealand/Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, Wellington (IC W1926 Box 67 57/1/6 pt 2)
Lascelles wasn't the only individual to contact the CoID 'expressing enthusiasm for its aims and interest in establishing something similar in New Zealand.' (Archives New Zealand IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 1 box 1797, Letter from M Browne to W Sutch, 11 January 1960). Jolyon Saunders, a newly appointed lecturer in design at the Elam School of Fine Arts – which had come under the control of the Auckland University College in 1950 – had also been in touch with the CoID in his capacity as secretary of a new design group, the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (NZSID), being set up in Auckland. A colleague of Saunders at Elam, Robert Ellis, in his capacity as chair of the new society, had also contacted the DoIC indicating that the new body was in the process of obtaining legal status (Archives New Zealand IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 1 box 1797, Letter from R Ellis to W Sutch, 23 November 1959). The NZSID differed from the other design societies in being intended as a 'professional institute safeguarding design, designers and the public and compiling registers, etc.' Notwithstanding these ambitions, the new society foundered, only to be revived two years later when the British arts educator Paul Beadle (1917-1992) was appointed head of Elam in 1961 and, on his arrival in 1962, elected as the re-titled president of the hitherto quiescent NZSID. Prior to taking up his appointment in Auckland, Beadle had been head of art schools in Newcastle (NSW) and Adelaide (SA) in Australia and appears to have had dealings with the Industrial Design Council of Australia. In Auckland, Beadle - who had been admitted to membership of the British Society of Industrial Artists in 1947 – placed the revived NZSID – which had around twenty members – onto a war footing with a programme of lectures, an exhibition, 'Designed in New Zealand' (May 1963), talks with manufacturers including the New Zealand Manufacturers' Federation, and consumer organisations such as the Auckland District Consumer Committee. He also approached DANZ seeking not only financial support for his agenda of professionalising the practice of design but also backing for a forthcoming battle: Beadle had identified the DoIC generally and its permanent secretary Dr W B Sutch specifically as the enemy.
Rod Harvey, Setting designed by John Crichton for the NZSID's May 1963 exhibition 'Designed in New Zealand'.
From Home and Building (June 1963)
It's unclear what activated Beadle's animus, but it was uncharacteristic; Reynold Macpherson describes him as a 'gentle liberal humanist'. As has been observed previously on this blog, as early as 1958 the DoIC had formed a study team to investigate the workings of design councils around the world, with a focus on those that had been established in Britain, Australia, Canada and Denmark. Although the National party won the 1960 election and its ministers of trade and industry despised Sutch and sought his removal, they also sanctioned the DoIC's design council proposals to the point that subsequently they claimed credit for its invention. All this notwithstanding, in September 1963, in an effort to avoid departmental scrutiny of the exchange, the executive committee of the NZSID instructed Saunders, still its honorary secretary, to write privately to the parliamentary undersecretary for industries and commerce on behalf of 'the the only professional organisation of practicing designers in this country'. Saunders reiterated the society's vehement objections to 'a proposal to establish a Council of Industrial Design under direct departmental control'. Although there had been in fact no such proposal from the DoIC, Saunders asserted that while the society, along with the DANZ, supported the establishment of a design council, it must be 'autonomous', alleging, without supporting proof, that 'An autonomous Industrial Design Council was established in Australia recently on a very small budget, and has had a tremendous impact on Australian industry'. He then asserted a series of mistruths that 'no informed design organisation in the country supports the existing proposals for a Council of Industrial Design and the manufacturers themselves want nothing to do with them in their present form' (Archives New Zealand IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 3, Letter from J Saunders to L Adams-Schneider, 13 September 1963). Notwithstanding the heated rhetoric, support for the NZSID's position was far from the unanimity it claimed, even within the DANZ; its then president, Paul Pascoe, for example, seems to have considerable misgivings about the association's backing of the NZSID and contacted Sutch expressing his support for the DoIC proposals.

In fact both the NZSID and elements of the DANZ appear to have been confused as to the function of a design promotion body - such as the CoID or the IDCA, both of which had been developed within the appropriate ministries of trade: they were not formed to impose state regulation on design or designers or to determine an approved standard or type of design. In a briefing note to the minister, Sutch opined:
The successful operation of a design council would lead to a developing understanding of good design, but basically the objectives of establishing a design council are to ensure ways by which the best design practices may be encouraged in industry, and educational facilities improved as necessary, to provide industry with adequate numbers of suitably trained designers. In other words, the main justification for the work of a design council is economic, leading to a better use of the country's resources, a decreasing pressure for imported manufactured goods, and greater opportunities for export trade in such products 
As Sutch observed to the minister, design councils were not just about aesthetics. (Archives New Zealand IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 3, Memorandum from W Sutch to Minister of Industries and Commerce, 20 September 1963). As it was, Saunder's letter was the last shot in Beadle's war. In March 1964 Sutch briefed the parliamentary undersecretary for trade and industry noting that the DoIC had been in contact with 'Professor Beadle of Auckland who on various occasions expressed publicly his strong disagreement  with the [proposed council]. He has since privately told the department that he will not obstruct the establishment of the Institute (sic). Both Beadle and Saunders resigned from the executive of the NZSID, being replaced by Keith Mosheim and D J Haynes respectively, both practitioners working in the private sector. Mosheim wrote to the minister requesting that it should be represented on the proposed council but when the council was, finally, brought into being in 1968 no members of either the NZSID or the DANZ were appointed. The NZSID survived as a practitioner body until 1988 when its members voted on a change of constitution and name. In 1991 the re-jigged organisation merged with the New Zealand Association of Interior Designers, emerging as the Designers Institute of New Zealand.

New Zealand first became a part of the world economic system at some point near the end of the eighteenth century. Like most colonial constructs, it exported products that would be transformed elsewhere, usually in Britain and, employing Keith Sinclair's memorable expression, 'imported its standards of living'. Peter Gibbons, noting the endurance of this long-standing colonial relationship, has elaborated that 'Even when local production of goods has been promoted and encouraged, at times subsidized, such goods, based upon designs and technologies developed elsewhere in the world system, are seen as substitutes for the 'real thing'. [...] People want goods from elsewhere, preferably with designer labels, not what is homegrown' (P Gibbons, 'The far side of the search for identity: reconsidering New Zealand history', New Zealand Journal of History, 37:1 (2003), 38-47, p. 42). The post war design societies were a collective response in an attempt to deal with what can, in retrospect, be identified as a cultural concept imported from Britain. The way that the societies processed this newly translated notion of design varied: by adapting it to the local condition, as the Architectural Centre was to do; by ignoring it, as the short-lived Auckland Design Guild did; by using it to define a newly 'professionalised' occupation as the NZSID sought to do; or as the DANZ aspired to do, by using it in an attempt to reinforce a colonial status quo.