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Encounter: New Zealand Design and Decorative Arts

The first major collection-based survey of New Zealand design and decorative arts, Encounter discovers creativity found in extraordinary works made by us, and for us, by makers, manufacturers, designers and craft artists from 1800 to the present day.

Article about the Gallery

Written by Philip Clarke

Encounter: New Zealand Design and Decorative Arts

The Encounter installation celebrates nearly two centuries of decorative and design object making in New Zealand.

Drawn from the Museum'’s New Zealand Applied Arts collection of nearly 7000 objects, Encounter presents around 1100 works, including a number of very recently acquired works.  Most of the works in Encounter have never been displayed before, with only a handful of works likely to be familiar to the most regular Museum visitors.  Encounter for almost all visitors will be a first encounter with the works and the range and strengths of the collection as a whole.

The Museum’'s New Zealand Applied Arts collection has been developed through gift, loan and purchase and for much of its life was considered primarily a reference collection rather than a collection for display.  In line with world-wide traditional Museum-think the applied arts objects that merited permanent exhibition were the European and Oriental collections. It was only in the early 1980s that the collecting of contemporary New Zealand material got under way in a serious fashion, and it was only as recently as the 1990s that the Museum began to collect contemporary New Zealand fashion and furniture.  Around this time the New Zealand collection, for the first time, became the priority for Applied Arts collecting.  Encounter is recognition of the importance and value of the decorative arts and design as aspects of our material culture for us as New Zealanders.  In providing dedicated permanent public access to the collection Encounter is a national - as well as Auckland – milestone, as it is the only permanent New Zealand decorative arts installation in the country which spans the ‘history’ of New Zealand.

So, in part, Encounter tells us about the Museum.  The other question to ask is what does Encounter tell us about ‘us’, New Zealanders, and life in this country? Prominent settler Charles Hursthouse wrote in 1857 “We do not go to New Zealand to live under a tree or eat out of a tub; some little furnishing and adornment of a house is just as essential there as in England.”  The works in Encounter demonstrate that we are like all other people and that we have needs for certain types of objects, needs to make, and needs to process new ideas into objects for our lifestyles. Encounter shows us how we have done this, and in doing so richly portrays aspects of our social history, aspirations and interests, our relationship with the natural environment and the changing world of materials and production technologies.  One of the large themes or constants within Encounter is the handmade.  In pioneer times most production was handmade of a sort.  Twentieth century works frequently fall into the bespoke or studio production categories.  It is only in works from the late twentieth century that mass produced works appear – the handmade dimension being present by their attribution to a named designer.

Irony and ironing?

Encounter is made up of groupings of related objects, most of which focus around a particular moment of time, while a few groupings – vignettes –focus on a specific theme.  Fortunately Encounter doesn’'t aim to present a linear account of the development of New Zealand decorative arts and design, but while drawing on the strengths of the collection, presents objects in such a way that the visitor can encounter and ‘read’ them individually.  For instance, one of the newest works in Encounter is Shane Inder'’s Ironman ironing board, presented with its own brief, individual label, but not cluttered with comparative objects or overburdened with contextual information.  The Ironman might provoke the following questions: why does it have a masculine name and connotations?  What are the changes in our world that transform ironing from an ‘invisible’ occupation to an activity designers are engaged with?  Is this irony and ironing?  The vignettes work a bit differently bringing together a group of objects to illustrate one theme, for instance the use of distinctive New Zealand materials and decoration in personal accessories: a Kiwi feather muff, brooches made of Huia beaks and pipes with Māori carving.

Sailors and Settlers

The first Encounter grouping, Sailors and Settlers, is focused on the time of early European settlement and the themes considered here are ‘cargo culture’, looking at what settlers brought with them to New Zealand in anticipation of a new life and how people made do with what they found here - the whalebone chair is a wonderful example of making do with available materials.  This section is the only section with a significant amount of work that has been produced overseas.  Presenting Ourselves looks at how New Zealander's first started expressing their New Zealandness in object form. Included here are works made for The Great Exhibition and the presentation desk and document box made for Bishop Selwyn by Anton Seuffert.  Since that time New Zealanders have made and have desired countless functional and decorative objects. Later groupings in Encounter traverse styles and moments as various as; post war taste in Sophisticated Style, the Crafts Movement, the Emergence of the Designer, our relationship to royalty through the decorative arts and The New Oceania.

The scope of the Gallery is from the time of European encounter to 2006 and is on work that can easily be categorised into a Western notion of decorative art and design. What isn'’t represented in Encounter is Māori material created within Māori society for Māori society.  A few Māori works are included in Encounter because they were made specifically in a ‘decorative arts’ context.  International decorative arts and design are located in the new dedicated international decorative arts and design gallery, Landmarks although Encounter contains a few international works that sit principally into a local context such as the iconic Wynyard Epergne and the well known Royal Doulton china with kowhaiwhai decoration.

Encounter is a major achievement for Auckland Museum.  More importantly it is a unique reference for the general and specialist visitor as to how New Zealand makers and designers have helped us, as New Zealanders, to furnish and adorn our lives.

About the writer

Philip is director of Objectspace in Auckland.

Related information

Find out more about the Museum's Applied and Decorative Arts collections.