Furniture design during the 20th century shifted between the attraction of international styles and internal desires to find a vernacular or local identity. As New Zealand moved into the new century, how did artists respond to a unique land?
By Justine Olsen
Māori art provided a significant means for artists wanting to identify with New Zealand during the late 19th and early 20th century. Exhibited at international exhibitions, promoted through publications including the British ‘Studio’ journal and collected publically and privately, Māori art supported the search for a regional style within the British based arts and crafts movement.
The carved chair of 1900 by Edith Fenton (1862-1936) and Martha Buchanan (1862-1949) signifies such an alignment (see header image). Both women were practising members of the Auckland Society of Art, and Fenton had exhibited poker work tables at the Auckland Exhibition of 1898 – 99 . The chair, however, was directly informed from her father’s Māori art collection, Pataka or storehouse Te Oha, acquired by Judge Francis Dart Fenton in 1885.
While some artists located their work through British art movements, Chair carved in 1904 by Thomas Aubrey Chappé Hall (1873-1958) was informed through his training through Hori Pukehika, the eminent Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi carver from the Whanganui district. Although Hall was known to have carved domestic objects like this example, he was renowned for his work restoring meeting houses which included Hotunui, at Auckland Museum and Mataatua at Otago Museum. Such was his reputation that on his death in 1958, Pine Taiapa wrote ‘Maori art has lost a great Pakeha, New Zealand also, a valuable member who has contributed to that great part of reconstruction of the story of the Maori, his artistry’ .
International design, however, continued to shape furniture design in New Zealand. The decline of the arts and crafts movement was supplanted by historical revivals of Georgian then Jacobean styles, suggesting the affinity of New Zealand manufacturers to Britain especially during the Depression years. The evolving Art deco style of the 1930s expressed through a tendency for heavy geometric upholstered forms and gleaming steel continued an outward vision defining New Zealand furniture.
A new vernacular
After 1940 however, the availability of New Zealand plywood shaped the way experimental architects and designers considered furniture. Associated with modernism’s progressive and democratic philosophy, plywood’s extensive use in New Zealand suggested that a local vernacular could be possible. Experiments with moulded plywood by Garth Chester (1916-1968), a former pilot with the Royal New Zealand Airforce, led in 1944 to the Curvesse chair . Cut from a single plywood sheet, the chair’s design may have been drawn from international models (including the moulded plywood Chair by Gerald Summer, designed in 1934, manufactured between 1934 and 1940). Chester, however, continued to experiment frequently designing site specific work including barber’s chairs for Kay’s Beauty Salon in Auckland in 1953.
Within architectural circles, wood was increasingly recognised for its national associations. In 1948, the editor of New Zealand Design Review Howard Wadman commented ’there is no reason why our industrially made furniture should not have true New Zealand character. We have a great variety of timber with natural warmth and interesting grain, so long as this is not blotted out by dark stains and heavy lacquers’. . Wadman’s illustrated article included the clean lines of Ernst Plischke’s chest of drawers made from Southland beech. The following year, New Zealand Design Review featured dining chairs of tawa within a panelled room of kahikatea for the experimental Demonstration House by members of the newly formed Architectural Centre of Wellington.
Government gifts also reflected the rising status of wood. A writing table designed by Ernst Plischke on the occasion of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was characterised by the use of local woods, floral inlay and Māori art. The use of New Zealand wood drew parallels with earlier commissions for international purposes including Anton Seuffert’s Secretaire intended for the 1862 International Exhibition and subsequently gifted to Queen Victoria.
While designers and makers continued to use wood, aligning industry with a New Zealand vision continued to be challenging as Secretary of the Department of industries and Commerce, W B Sutch pointed out in 1964 
"We have traditions in our country and these could be reflected in our furniture. We have our own particular climate and weather and our own raw materials, and if we work hard at it, as a furniture trade and as a country, we could evolve furniture with New Zealand character…"
Six years later, Whanganui architect Michael Payne at Expo 70 was to show such potential with swivel dining chairs designed for the New Zealand Pavilion. Made from moulded plywood with tawa veneer and a satin chromed swivel base, they were designed for the Geyser Room Restaurant which incorporated many new commissions from ceramics to glassware and furniture. Payne’s design brought an internationalism to the setting while ensuring the materials were drawn from New Zealand. Nova Interiors of Wellington undertook to mass produce the chair for the local market.
Studio craft movement
It was the studio craft movement of the 1980s and 90s that expressed a vision of New Zealand and its place in the Pacific. While contemporary jewellers conveyed new ideas through shape and materials during the 1980s, in 1991 Carin Wilson of the Auckland- based collective Artiture was recognising a local character in New Zealand furniture design too, ‘asking us to see furniture as another expression of our own place in the Pacific- just as we are reaching for it in music, humour and dance’.  Diana Firth, Carin Wilson, Matthew von Sturmer, Kazu Nakagawa and Humphrey Ikin were especially creative in finding New Zealand. For Humphrey Ikin, a trained architect, his Pacific inspired furniture was followed by minimalist work that echoed the plywood furniture and interiors of the 1940s and 50s, revisiting the vernacular sought in the early days of modernism in this country.
While Humphrey Ikin also sought to create limited production work, the use of computer technologies by David Trubridge for instance, Coral light of 2003, opened wider opportunities for mass production. Finding New Zealand, however, continued to evolve as society diversified, needs changed and the pull between international and this country remained.
Header image: Edith Fenton and Martha Buchanan, Chair (c.1900).
CC BY. Auckland Museum, F183