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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’[1]

"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."[2]

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".[3]

Unknown maker, chair made from whale vertebra, Russell, Northland, 19th century

© All Rights ReservedAuckland Museum, 1998.81.1

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.

Unknown maker, chest of drawers, handmade from a crate and kerosene tins

© CCBY Auckland Museum, 1997.83.1

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.

Humphrey Ikin, Red Stave Chair (1997)

© All Rights Reserved Humphrey IkinTe Papa, GH009007

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.

Katy Wallace, Banana Box (1998)

© All Rights Reserved Katy Wallacehttp://katywallace.co.nz/

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"[4]. 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. [5]

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.

The Rekindle organisation 'Offcut Chair'. In 2019, Rekindle has been running for 8 years promoting the vital relevance of resourceful craft in society.

© All Rights ReservedJuliet Arnott / The Rekindle organisation


Header Image: Chair made by Mr Russell, from manuka tree roots. All Rights Reserved, Otago Settlers Museum.

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Citation

Sorzano, Rigel. 'Do It Yourself', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.

Footnotes 

[1] Richard Wolfe, 'All Our Own Work: New Zealand's Folk Art'. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 23.

[2] G. L. Pearce, 'The Pioneer Craftsmen of New Zealand'. Auckland: Collins, 1982, p. 175.

[3] Michael Findlay, Curator Domestic and technical Collections, Otago Early Settlers’ Museum, Dunedin, quoted in Crafts Council of New, Zealand. 'Mau Mahara: Our Stories in Craft'. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 1990, p 100.

[4] Katy Wallace, 'The Transmogrifier Collection', http://archive.objectspace.org.nz/Exhibitions/Detail/The+Transmogrifier+Collection.html

[5] Full details of the Rekindle organisation can be found here. The story of the Furniture and Offcut Series 2012-2015 here