Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The familiar unknown

by Jonty Valentine
David Bateman, 143 pp., August 2014, $60.00, 978 1 869 53869 9

Writing to a would-be British migrant to New Zealand in January 1961, Henry Holden, an economist at the Department of Industries and Commerce, observed that while 'New Zealand manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware of the merits of industrial design [...] it would seem that this interest has not yet developed to the point where full-time consultants have been established [...] Normal design services are rendered by Advertising Agencies and in some instances architects and publishers.' <Archives New Zealand, IC W1926 57/1/6 vol 1, letter from H C Holden to G King, 25 January 1961>. Holden was in a position to know about how design functioned and was perceived in New Zealand; he was a member of the industrial design study team established in May 1959 by Dr W B Sutch, permanent secretary of the Department of Industries and Commerce, to investigate the role of industrial design in New Zealand manufacturing with a view to establishing a design promotion body modelled on the British Council of Industrial Design (CoID).

In January 1961 Mark Cleverley was working as a draughtsman in the architectural department of the New Zealand Dairy Company Ltd in Hamilton; it was, as he recalls in the series of interviews with Jonty Valentine that form the core of this book, 'all a great buzz'. Like Sutch, Cleverley had ambitions for design in New Zealand and shortly after, as Sherry Blankenship recounts in her introductory biographical essay, moved with his wife and family to Christchurch where, as a recipient of one of the first Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Scholarships, he enrolled as a student at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury.  Cleverley was precisely the sort of person Sutch saw as a lynchpin of his vision of an intelligence-led economy, one characterised by 'brains and skills' not the production of raw material for conversion elsewhere.

In many respects, Cleverley's choice of Ilam, rather than, say Elam or the Wellington School of Design – soon to be incorporated into Wellington Polytechnic – was serendipitous notwithstanding the fact that the competing institutions were in the process of establishing industrial design courses. When Cleverly started his studies, the design component of the Ilam diploma course was taught by Florence Akins (1906-2012), who, as he observes 'was quite old-fashioned [...] virtually just craft'; Akins, the first Ilam student to be awarded a Diploma in Fine Art had been appointed to the staff in 1936. Things changed the following year when the new head of school, the English silversmith John Simpson, recruited his fellow countryman the designer Maurice Askew (1921 - ) to teach graphic design. Askew's approach to the subject was rooted in interwar European modernism and marked an abrupt shift in the school's teaching of not only two dimensional design but also three dimensional form.
Unidentified photographer, Queen Street 18 June 1964. The design of Robert Kerridge's 246 Queen Street development (Rigby-Mullan, 1959) embodied an alternative, commercial American-inspired, modernism, to that practiced by Cleverley
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries (7-A918)
As Cleverley studied, so New Zealand attitudes toward design and its role in manufacturing underwent significant shifts. In Christchurch the recently founded Design Association of New Zealand (DANZ) attempted to establish a 'design centre', based on the CoID's eponymous London shopfront. There was a difference though, proposed Christchurch design centre was to be more shop and less front, more a sales outlet than an impartial design promotion agency, even if DANZ anticipated that it would be publicly funded. The Auckland cinema chain entrepreneur Robert Kerridge was more brazen, but equally unsuccessful, in seeking government support for the formation of a similar retail front as part of his 246 Queen Street retail development.

It's evident that the idea of a government-sponsored design promotion body was as misunderstood in New Zealand as it was elsewhere: designer practitioners argued these bodies should be all about their practice; retailers, importers and advertisers saw them as a profit-making opportunities; manufacturers and primary producer organisations identified them as a source of funding that could enable niche market penetration. At various times all three sectors expressed opposition to their formation and all three contributed to the demise of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (NZIDC), the institutional outcome of Sutch's investigation, which was finally realised in November 1967 when an Order in Council brought into force the provisions of the Industrial Design Act 1966.

Confusion as to what design councils were conceived to do carries over in this book with Valentine thanking a practitioner body, the Designers Institute of New Zealand (DINZ) for permission to reproduce articles from Designscape, the influential magazine produced by the NZIDC from 1969 until 1984. In fact DINZ, which was formed in 1991, has no claim to ownership of the magazine. The NZIDC was  a government agency created by an Act of Parliament and the Act abolishing the council in 1988 transferred the Crown's residual ownership of the assets of the NZIDC, including copyright, to Telarc, a Crown Entity involved with quality control that had been established in 1972 by the dairy industry.

This sense of uncertainty about the ownership of design prompts a discussion of Cleverley's 1972 application to join the British design practitioner body, the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. Now called the Chartered Society of Designers it formally coalesced in 1930 as the Society of Industrial Artists; a number of New Zealanders were early members including Len Lye, Eric Lee-Johnston and James Boswell. It had no formal connection with either the Council for Art and Industry, the first British design promotion body that operated from 1934 until 1939, or its successor body the CoID, established in 1944 and now called the Design Council. To the contrary, those responsible for appointing the first CoID deliberately sought industrialists and avoided practising designers. As the design writer John Gloag observed approvingly, it consisted 'almost entirely of specialists, moreover who know what they are talking about. There is not likely to be any "uplift" or "art blah" emitted from the deliberations of this body.' <National Archives BT/64/5173, letter from J Gloat to F Meynell, 21 December 1944>. By 'specialists' Gloag meant manufacturers; the 'art blah' came later.
Milner Gray (1899-1997) for the British Council of Industrial Design, Royal arms of England (c 1946).  Gray redesigned the arms for use as the council's logo. This version emphasised the council's role as a state body while conveying a somewhat whimsical sense of modernity
It's worth remembering that the CoID was established as a grant-aided body primarily 'to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry'. Michael Farr, quoting from the Council's first annual report, defined the CoID's understanding of industrial design as 'not simply the plan of a particular product. It is a unity in the industrial process, a governing idea that owes something to creative design, something to the machine, something to the consumer, and links them all together.' <M Farr, Design in British industry: a mid-century survey (Cambridge: University Press, 1955), p. 209>. Design promotion bodies were primarily intended as policy tools for changing industrial mindsets, not for promoting the practice of design or protecting its practitioners.

The changing perception of design by New Zealand businesses is encapsulated in a letter sent by T E Clark, managing director of Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd, to Sutch in July 1960 inviting him to 'favour us with your presence, and with a short address, at the presentation of prizes in Our Crown Lynn Design Contest for 1960.' Asserting that the design competition was 'second only to the Kelliher Prize' for painting, Clark noted that 'In this way [...] we are taking the first steps towards making the New Zealand pottery industry a 100% New Zealand industry, and opening a new field or the creative abilities of New Zealand designers' <Alexander Turnbull Library, Sutch Papers, 2002-012-22/7, letter from T E Clark to W B Sutch, 19 July 1960>. That the Crown Lynn design competition was viewed as second only to the Kelliher says more about the poverty of artistic patronage in New Zealand than it does about Crown Lynn's competition, which had earlier been criticised as unethical by the Association of New Zealand Art Societies. The competition however, raised the company's public profile and partly expunged its reputation for producing shoddy, ill-designed and dubiously labelled wares.

Cleverley won the first of his Crown Lynn design awards in 1961, but being a prizewinner in such a competition didn't seem to auger a career in New Zealand's under-capitalised and erratically managed ceramics industry. After having subsidised his university study by working at for the architectural practice Warren & Mahoney, Cleverley found employment as a graphic designer in Christchurch, with an advertising agency in Auckland and then, between 1966 and 1968, with the entrepreneurial packaging firm UEB Packaging Ltd.
Unidentified designer/UEB Packaging Ltd, Detail of packaging for British Wax candles (c 1974) showing the UEB logo.
UEB was a New Zealand firm that embraced the concept of good design with an almost evangelical fervour. during the late 1960s and 70s UEB's squared scroll logo was ubiquitous on an extraordinary range of consumer products. UEB had been established in 1947 by James Doig (1913-1984), a former Glaswegian merchant marine officer to manufacture cartons and boxes by the mid 1960s, the company had become one of the largest companies in the country and had expanded into fields such as carpet manufacturing. Aside from his entrepreneurial drive, Doig had a strong interest in design, recognised by his appointment as deputy chairman of the inaugural governing body of the NZIDC in 1966; he retired in 1973.
Mark Cleverley (1934?-)/Crown Lynn Potteries Limited,  Palm Springs styled by Dorothy L Thorpe earthenware plate (1967-1972). One of Cleverley's early challenges at Crown Lynn was to develop the American decorator Dorothy Thorpe's sketches into feasible production designs.
Portage Ceramics Trust (2008.1.626)
Cleverley though is best-known as a designer of Crown Lynn ceramics and he was finally recruited by the company as a development designer in 1967. This is where the informal interview format that forms the heart of the book shines. Valentine introduces a text Cleverley wrote for the NZIDC's magazine that prompts the latter into an extended and informative account of his work for the company <M Cleverley, 'Stacks of crockery', Designscape, no 58 (May 1974), pp. 5-7>. This liberty of expression enables a sense of how design functions; its interactive process as the designer both as a form maker intimately involved in the mechanics of production and as a mediator between the institutional power formations of the enterprise.

Notwithstanding the fact that much of his output for Crown Lynn has hitherto been either ignored or misattributed in the literature, Cleverley's work at Crown Lynn was technically innovative, visually exploratory, intellectually informed and of a quality and sophistication rarely seen in New Zealand manufactured goods. Unfortunately he was sidelined when the company's board initiated a series of what might best be euphemistically described as corporate blunders: it changed its name, acquired unrelated manufacturing interests, restructured its ceramics production while failing to support these changes with associated investment, dropped the design competition and employed a Royal College of the Arts graduate and former technical college lecturer, Tom Arnold, as design director. Arnold stayed less than three years before lasting less than a year running down the NZIDC as its penultimate director. The 1980s were not good years either for design or its promotion.
Mark Cleverley (1934?-) for New Zealand Post Office / Harrison & Sons, 10 cent definitive stamp (1969) with unidentified designer for New Zealand Post Office, commemorative envelope (1970)
But notwithstanding his impressive – if largely unrecognised – career as a designer of ceramics, it was in the esoteric field of stamp design that Cleverly made his most distinctive mark, as one of a small group of designers commissioned by the Post Office to invent a new image for New Zealand stamps between 1969 and 1974. This decision produce some of the best-designed stamps to be found anywhere in the world. Presumably in order to mollify conservative critics, the Post Office continued its tradition of simultaneously producing some of the more conservatively designed stamps to be issued anywhere.
Mark Cleverley (1934?) for New Zealand Post Office/Japanese Government Printing Bureau, Expo'70 stamps (1969) with [Mark Cleverley (1934?-) for New Zealand Post Office] commemorative envelope (1970)
The Post Office's decision to respond to criticism of its low design standards by improving the quality of its definitive stamps prompted the establishment of a design advisory committee in 1968, which included John Simpson of Ilam and Gil Docking of the Auckland City Art Gallery (as it was), along with 'all the old guard from the Post Office'. The committee ultimately invited a number of designers to submit proposals that resulted in a series of commissions for a new definitive range; Cleverley designed the 10c, 15c, 25c, 30c $1 and $2 issues; Maurice Askew, one of his lecturers at Ilam, designed the 28c and 50c stamps.

The resulting designs were the subject of a short, critical, assessment in the NZIDC's Designscape (no. 8 (October 1969), probably written by its director, Geoff Nees, which is reproduced – in all its glorious Letraset layout – in the book. While noting that 'the general standard is far superior to most previously produced [...] the new stamps represent a landmark in the history of the New Zealand Post Office', Nees cautioned that all was not good and compromises had been made. The English-born artist and designer Eileen Mayo's six stamps were derided as 'stodgy and ill-considered', a view that considering her long career as a stamp designer, was both damning and provocative. Cleverley's modernist designs were, however, the 'best of the lot'.
New Zealand Post Office after Mark Cleverley (1934?-)/Harrison & Sons, 1974 Commonwealth Games commemorative issue with PD/Colin Simon (logo) commemorative envelope (1974). Cleverley disclaimed responsibility for the final stamp designs
These reductive, asymmetric designs challenged the Post Office's traditional approach to more than just the design of its stamps. For the 10 cent definitive he attempted to render the New Zealand armorial bearings in a more contemporary idiom, in much the way Milner Gray had updated the British arms for the CoID some two decades earlier. As Cleverley recounts, the proposal was rejected, as was his hopes of embossing the armorial. These designs perturbed the deeply conservative culture at the Post Office and Cleverley's last designs for it were for the 1974 Commonwealth Games.  However, as Blankenship recounts, his design requirements were too much for the then Postmaster General, the Labour party's Roger Douglas – who would later gain notoriety for his neoliberal reforms of the state apparatus, including the abolition of the NZIDC – and subsequent changes imposed by the Post Office prompted Cleverley to disavow his role as designer of the issue.

Blankenship fails to either identify Douglas as the obstructor or recognise that the Postmaster General was a political position – it was a Cabinet post – and thus that his intervention had a political dimension over and beyond the bureaucratic. This avoidance of social and political contexts denies an understanding of the impact Cleverley's designs for both Crown Lynn and the Post Office had on New Zealand in the 1970s. In an economically modest, conservative and homogenous society, suspicious of both the arts and innovation, modernist design – with the notable exception of motor vehicles – seems to have been regarded as a pathway to a sort of material perdition. In his modest way, Cleverley's designs of the nation's crockery and stamps made a significant if subtle contribution to the country's changing perception of the modern during the 1970s.

After leaving Crown Lynn in 1980, Cleverly took to teaching, initially at Ilam then at Wellington Polytechnic, retiring in 1996. Crown Lynn, by then a small part of the Ceramco Corporation Ltd, was shut down in 1989 by the asset-stripping, entrepreneurial businessmen who now controlled the company. The Post Office was split up and privatised and the NZIDC abolished. The society that over the 1970s had against its own inclinations developed a nascent manufacturing sector and a concurrent sense of design was now focussed on unbridled consumerism of products manufactured elsewhere and devoid of local design input.
Detail of the stamped mark on Crown Lynn Potteries Limited's Palm Springs wares. Mark Cleverley is acknowledged as the designer although his name is misspelt as 'Cleverly'
Valentine provides a reflective conclusion that acts as a terminal bookend to his interviews with Cleverley. In it he contextualises and critiques the forgoing conversation, locating it within the surprising normality of the designed product in 1970s New Zealand: the stamps, the Colin Simon logo, the Crown Lynn 'Apollo' dinner service along with the Lego building blocks and other international manifestations of the designed product that were available here. As he notes:
A lot of Mark's work will be familiar to many New Zealanders and will likely provoke similar personal memories and associations. But unlike literature or artworks that are viewed in galleries, hung on walls with labels to name the artist and explain what they are, most of these artefacts have not been attributed to an individual designer and certainly have not been explained, historicised or contextualised as such. The paradox of most designed objects is that while they are familiar and most likely encountered every day in our homes they cease to be consciously 'attended to' soon after purchase. And the result of this is that the makers of the objects, the designers, are completely forgotten. Actually, were most often never known by name.
This perceived need for identity is a problematic that teeters on the brink of a now discredited form of design history that has been identified by Tony Fry as a sort of canonisation: the 'great white men of modernist history' narrative. The suspicion that this text falls into the 'great white men' category of historical exegesis is somewhat reinforced by the series title 'Objectspace Masters of Craft', a designation that ultimately sits uncomfortably with the book's subject and content. A canonic history is one that 'is generative of design heroes and movements as the primary agents of the evolution of design; and a history which takes the canon as given knowledge and the foundation upon which to elaborate or criticise.' <T Fry, Design history Australia (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1988), p. 27>. Fry dismisses the validity of this premise, posing the fundamental query: 'what of all the other designed objects, the vast majority, which evolve and are used but are excluded from such a history?'.

Anonymous history – the phrase was coined by the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion in  his historical account of the industrialisation of commodities, Mechanization takes command: a contribution to anonymous history (1948) – raises another set of problematics. As Fry observes, much that Giedion discussed wasn't anonymous, 'all the objects which populate this history have the stamp of commodities; all have been named in the market-place.' Moreover, he effectively ignored the social relations of production by separating them into discrete economic and cultural spheres rather than seeing mechanisation as 'a function which acts on a specific society'. Fry asserts that 'while there were changes at the industrial point of production, which recast the social relations of production, these changes equally reconfigured the domestic, as re-ordered use and space.' <Fry, pp. 32-33.>. A similar prognosis might well be applied to Valentine's text, but in this case it would be redundant. His specificity is quite deliberate. Recognising the formal modernist demarcations, the 'need to differentiate between spheres of design', Valentine proffers the rationale
that when I play the role of a graphic-design writer I am conscious that my job is always to try to present an authentically design-based narrative, and part of doing that is to constantly question my own discipline's use of language and mythologies.
Imposing parameters on this history of design in New Zealand has not detracted from the power of the text nor the importance of its content. Unlike much of what passes for the written history of design in New Zealand, this is an intelligent, rigorous and perceptive recounting of a practice; a significant and important contribution to the archive. Rather than a 'revised New Zealand history from the perspective of a graphic designer', the entertaining anecdotes of a critic, or the well-rehearsed opinions of a practitioner, this is a key text in the nascent history of design in New Zealand.