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Landmarks: International Design & Decorative Arts

Citing tradition and innovation, Landmarks features pieces designed and made in Europe over the past four centuries.

Article about the gallery

Written by Grace Cochrane

Landmarks: International Design and Decorative Arts

This collection features works made by significant and well-known makers and ranges from mid 1700s court fashion to the mid 1900s designs of Coco Chanel, from Art Nouveau and Bauhaus to 21st-century design featuring Maarten Baas’ remarkable Clay Chair.

It is a notable event when a major Museum like the Auckland War Memorial Museum invests time, funds, and staff resources towards developing a permanent space for a collection-based exhibition.

These days, external pressures to strive for the popular, the new and the easily accessible in order to increase and broaden audiences often triumph over collection exhibitions that cross time.

However, in recent years a number of Museums with similar origins and histories have done just that. The new Landmarks and Encounter galleries, showcasing the Museum'’s International and New Zealand Applied Arts collections, join a number of significant commitments by other institutions with similar collections.

In 2001 the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, by far the most influential model of its kind, opened its outstanding re-worked British Galleries. This exhibition put together decorative arts and design collections in interpretive displays that provide not only an important reference for local audiences, but also a context for collections that had developed in what had been its far-flung colonies, such as New Zealand and Australia.  In late 2005, Sydney'’s Powerhouse Museum opened Inspired! Design Across Time, which combined international and Australian collections in a framework of case-studies very similar to the exhibitions developed by the Auckland Museum.

Exhibits and cultural histories

Collections of these kinds of objects, known variously over time as arts and industry, applied arts, decorative arts and design, or crafts and design, were often established as educational reference displays, for the training of artisans designing and making for industry that used the raw materials of the new colonies. They drew strongly on the trade exhibits in the influential international exhibitions of the 19th century.  Others developed as social and cultural histories, focusing on the lives and circumstances of the people who acquired, used and adapted the objects collected, or invented regional alternatives. In large Museums, like Auckland Museum, some of these approaches co-exist, with these new galleries sitting beside the social story of Auckland 1866. In some places the decorative or applied arts are placed within fine art collections as adjuncts to an ‘art’ narrative. Even then, values and approaches change over time.  Collections accumulate by both accident and design, reflecting the passions and priorities of staff and trustees, benefactors and donors, as well as the changing tastes of the times in which they worked.

Landmarks and Encounter, at Auckland Museum, bring together the most comprehensive collection of objects in this field, in the country. They provide a most important resource of a particular English/European history of migration and resourceful adaptation, positioned as they are in an institution that also values its comprehensive Māori and Pacific Island collections.

While this collection is similar in its content to others that draw on the same sources, it is nonetheless also a reflection of the circumstances that have shaped it. While decorative and functional objects, made by hand or industry, play such a central role in all our lives, the Applied Arts section of the Museum was formally established only as recently as 1966.

To start with the emphasis was on neither the contemporary nor the local. Significant gifts of European and Oriental objects and collections, reflecting the interests of individual connoisseurs and collectors, had been made to the Museum, and in 1967 The Charles Edgar Disney Art Trust was set up for the Museum to purchase items in these fields. By the early 1980s a strong shift of emphasis saw contemporary collecting begin in earnest to bridge the gap between the late 19th century and the present day, and by the 1990s the Museum also began to collect contemporary New Zealand furniture and fashion.

Reflecting this history, Landmarks draws together an eclectic international historical collection, and highlights key objects that are landmarks of their time. The exhibition narrative takes us through a series of stories from the 1600s to the present, in displays that cross all media. But sitting behind them are stories of real people who have been involved in issues of design and manufacture, social change and migration, education, taste and style. There are examples of imagination and entrepreneurship and tales of influence and appropriation.  Interweaving stories of art, social history, architecture, technology, industry and the marketplace tell the story of our cultural heritage.

Oak, Walnut and Mahogany

Surprisingly, but refreshingly, the early sections are identified as Ages of Oak, Walnut and Mahogany, rather than by the familiar period titles of, for example, Tudor & Stuart, Georgian and Victorian Britain. This materials-based approach reveals stories of social life, technological change, effects of travel and exploration and new markets and tastes.  Notable here is an English walnut jewel cabinet of 1688-1694 and a Chest on Chest, made in mahogany by Elizabeth Bell & Son around 1730.

Stylistic periods, influenced by the past, like Classicism, and by the tastes of the aristocracy, like Regency, are characterised by furniture, silverware and ceramics, and also by fashion.  Robert Adams’s chair of around 1775 and the sideboard by Gillows in his style, made with Classical ornamentation around 1780, reflect the influence of his travels and research in Europe. Meanwhile the sack-back court dress, made in England in the late 1760s-1770s and an embroidered man’s tail-coat represent styles fashionable throughout Europe.

By the 19th century, England had developed as a major manufacturing centre in ceramics, glass, textiles and metal industries. This shift is represented in the section, the Rise of Technology, where examples like Thonet’'s bentwood chairs demonstrate how new technologies and manufacturing systems made goods more accessible to more people. Not everyone appreciated what were seen as the excesses of industry and the art that was applied to it, and various reform styles like Gothic Revival, and movements, such as the Arts & Crafts Movement, sought to re-establish the qualities and values of the handmade. Here AWN Pugin'’s son Edward’s Gothic side chair and William Morris’'s curtains of around 1898-1902 show this change in sensibility.

20th century

The exhibition then launches into the 20th century, through the forward-looking Art Nouveau style, and the influence of the Bauhaus design school, where designers and educators sought a path that united crafts skills and an aesthetic of industry through the possibilities offered by mass production. This was the philosophy behind the design of Mies Van de Rohe'’s Barcelona chair. Meanwhile, in Britain, after considerable study in Japan, potter Bernard Leach promoted a crafts revival that was to influence post World War II generations in the Western world, including New Zealand, to the present day.

The final sections of Landmarks bring visitors through familiar examples of postwar Modernism, with classic fashions from designers like Coco Chanel. These are counterbalanced by the reactions of designers such as Ettore Sottsass whose Carlton room divider, designed in 1981 for Memphis, and the tea and coffee service designed by Robert Graves for Alessi’s Tea and Coffee Piazza series characterises the huge shift in thinking that drew on Pop culture and questioned the accepted tenets of ‘good design’, in what became known as Postmodernism.

The exhibition concludes with a display of current designs that reflect the current global nature of design, communication and technological innovation, and Maarten Baas'’s Clay Furniture: dining chair (yellow), made in 2006, which brings together crafts and industry in a new form.

About the writer

Grace Cochrane is a curator and writer; former Senior curator, Australian decorative arts and design, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney; currently editor, Object magazine.