New Zealanders are often described as having a 'number 8 wire’ mindset: a willingness to 'do it yourself', combined with a robust blend of resourcefulness, creativity, and pragmatism.
This attitude may be to blame for countless unfinished home-improvement projects, but it also contributes to our cultural heritage a range of wonderful, sometimes surprising, objects. Many items of furniture made by New Zealanders over the years embody the D.I.Y. approach, with its focus on improvisation, re-purposing, and use of whatever is ready at hand.
By Rigel Sorzano
Improvisation and repurposing
The earliest European settlers often had little skill or training in furniture-making or other crafts. But when it came to furnishing their simple dwellings they soon learned to improvise – as Richard Wolfe says, ‘it was a case of making one's own, or going without’
"Tables, chairs, benches and stools could be fashioned by mortising legs into slabs of tree-trunk, packing cases became cupboards or were taken apart to provide material for shelves … a barrel which had held provisions … could be transformed into wash-tubs, a comfortable chair or a cradle."
The re-purposing of packing cases and barrels into furniture reflects the 'make-do and mend' approach the European settlers needed to survive in their new and unfamiliar environment, where accustomed resources were scarce. But there was more to improvisation than pragmatic ‘bush carpentry’, and the imaginative use of found objects also played its part.
Made in Northland in the early 1800s, this whalebone chair uses a whale's vertebra as a readymade seat, decorated with nails in the manner of upholstery studs, while this chair made in the 1870s from excavated Manuka tree roots is "a classic found material object for the materials have suggested the form of the chair to the maker".
As skilled craftspeople began to arrive in greater numbers and the furniture industry became established, such improvised furniture became less common, but the inventive knack of creating furniture out of recycled or found materials was far from lost. It was certainly needed in the first part of the 20th century, given the straightened circumstances of two World Wars and the intervening Depression.
This set of drawers made in about 1921 ingeniously puts empty kerosene tins to a new use, although one imagines that some deodorising may have been required. Empty tins from the pantry could likewise be transformed by the thrifty householder: fastened together, and covered with carpet, they made a handy footstool. Homemade furniture like this had the double benefit of providing home comfort at little cost, while conserving resources by giving new life to waste materials or objects that no longer served their original purpose.
Doing it yourself
The resourceful DIY approach, with its unconventional and experimental methods, melded nicely with the self-sufficient, holistic ethos of the studio craft movement that developed in New Zealand after the Second World War. Craft practitioners have made their own tools, dug their own clay, grown their own trees for furniture-making, and even bred sheep especially for the colour and quality of their wool.
This kind of self-sufficiency hasn't always been a matter of choice, since New Zealand's geographical location has sometimes made it difficult to take advantage of materials, technology and expert knowledge available elsewhere. A willingness to have a go at something new or difficult, regardless of formal training or prior expertise, has always been implicit in the DIY attitude.
A DIY vernacular
The studio furniture movement which developed in the 1970s was no exception to this, with many leading craft furniture-makers self-taught rather than professionally trained. Many studio furniture-makers were interested in exploring a New Zealand identity in furniture, and this included references to DIY traditions as part of a local vernacular. Humphrey Ikin’s Red Stave Chair (1997), for example, suggested the improvised forms and processes of settler furniture, while James Pickernell’s Sitting on the Fence armchair and footstool (1994) repurposed fencing materials, including native timber strainer posts and No. 8 wire. Katy Wallace’s Banana Box (1998) and David Thomas’ Magazine (1999) literally incorporate veteran components of DIY furniture – the banana box, and its trusty companion, the concrete block.
In the 21st century, the DIY drive to repurpose and upcycle has as much to do with environmental concerns as thrift, and pays respect to the social and emotional value embedded in objects and materials. Wallace's 'Transmogrifier' project (2008 - 2015) refashioned discarded, broken and used furniture into unique and quirky handcrafted pieces, "using experimentation, design thinking, and craftsmanship as tools". The Rekindle organisation, set up by occupational therapist Juliet Arnott in 2010, sought to address the high level of wood waste created by demolition and construction. The project moved to Christchurch following the 2011 and 2012 earthquakes, salvaging timber from house demolition sites and using it to create a distinctive series of handmade furniture. Rekindle furniture, which was sold to finance ongoing salvage, became a symbol of care, resilience and hope, offering a way of honouring and remembering homes that had been destroyed. 
As these examples of furniture illustrate, DIY is much more than an activity: it's a set of values, and a New Zealand tradition that remains as relevant now as it ever was.
Chair made by Mr Russell, from manuka tree roots. All Rights Reserved, Otago Settlers Museum.