Prior to European migration to Aotearoa, there were no traditions of constructed furniture. The earliest European settlers built their own furniture; others brought furniture with them, or imported it from Australia or Europe.

By Justine Olsen

For European settlers, furniture was an essential part of the domestic environment, serving to support the daily traditional rituals concerning eating, living and sleeping. Settler culture in the 19th century shifted from adaption and nostalgia for ‘home’ to one with an emergent colonial identity. Furniture reflected these attitudes within a progressive society that grew exponentially from 2000 people in 1840 to 500,000 in 1882. [1].

From the early 19th century, whaling communities offer an insight into the adaptation of furniture for lives that were transient. Edward Jerningham Wakefield (agent for the New Zealand Company) recorded that a typical whaler’s house in 1845 included ‘joints of the whale’s [sic] backbone, which serve as stools’ [2]. The bedside table of 1838 illustrated suggested what was also possible with whale skeletal material [3].

A bedside stand, made of a whale vertebra forming a base and central table. Made by R Coly, 1838

© CCBY Te Papa, GH009004

Home and identity

While whalers were concerned with adapting and using local materials for their seasonal operations, the Church Missionary Society from 1814 sought to establish more permanent communities in New Zealand. Furniture was essential for creating comfortable domestic interiors that gave privacy and helped ritualise traditional notions of living. Arriving at Kerikeri in 1819, Rev. John Butler included a desk with books and four trunks of ‘wearing apparel’. [4] For Francis Hall, also of Kerikeri, the simple English Regency style chairs reflected the important daily ritual of dining according to English tradition. [5]

By 1839, replicating lifestyle for organised settlement meant that pre-fabricated furniture was readily able to be brought to New Zealand. From H. Manning, for instance, future immigrants were able to purchase in London ‘Dressers, Safes, Tables, Chairs, and a variety of economical Colonial Furniture made to pack into each other to save freight’.[6]

Adapting to New Zealand

For settlers in far reaching yet to be settled areas, improvisation was an essential attribute. In the Christchurch environs, Samuel Manson, who arrived in 1843, constructed not only the Deane’s Bush farm buildings but furniture too. Pit sawn and obtained from the surrounding indigenous bush, Manson’s furniture included a simple ladder back arm chair made from hinau and kowhai woods [7].

Improvisation may have led the maker of a Regency styled rimu settee to use the domestic timber of a dwelling for the horizontal stretcher. The final result suggested a settler life enhanced by the desire for relaxation and conversation. [8]

This totara settee was likely made in the mid-1830s, as the gently curved back rest was a popular decorative feature of that era. The straight legs and tight scrolls at each end are typical of the 1820s, and in-keeping with Regency style. The seat of the sofa is covered with a modern cushion pad.

© CCBY Te Papa, GH009004

Maintaining a sense of contemporary style while also harnessing local resources seemed very desirable. The New Zealand Gazette noted in 1843 that European emigre Johann Martin Levien ‘has been industrially employed in proving the value of our forests, by working native timbers into all descriptions of furniture. ...the sitting room of one gentleman in the colony has been completely furnished by Levien….nothing can be more beautiful or attractive’. [9]

Despite Levien’s brief stay in New Zealand of three years, he was to move to London, importing and promoting New Zealand woods for furniture made for international exhibitions and royal commissions. Levien was a useful connection for the London-based New Zealand Company. Following his arrival in 1846 the exhibition of his furniture at the company’s premises, helped to highlight the use of New Zealand woods for prospective immigrants.

National identity - colonial pride

European styles continued to play a part in New Zealand interiors, although by the 1860s, emerging national identity began to shape changes in furniture. While cabinet makers both English and European were in demand, it was the Bohemian born emigre Anton Seuffert whose curiosity in his new land caught the public’s attention.

Seuffert arrived in 1859 and within two years was working on his most significant public commission, Auckland’s entry to the 1862 International Exhibition in London. For the entry, Seufrett built an Austrian Screibschrank or bureau with New Zealand woods and embellished the central door with romantic depictions of New Zealand [10]. The Auckland newspaper, the Daily Southern Cross gave a full description, ‘in the distance is seen the volcanic hills of this country, washed at their base by the waters of the Southern Ocean, while in the foreground the graceful ponga (tree fern) casts a shadow over the solitary kiwi; and around the edge of the water, plants of the native flax (phormium tenax) complete the picture’. [11]

Commissioned within an increasingly turbulent political environment, the Daily Southern Cross in February 1862 announced that the desk was to be ‘ a gift from this province to our gracious sovereign, expressive of our gratitude to the parent country, of which she is the august head, for the timely assistance in the hour of adversity’. [12] In reference to the presence of British troops in New Zealand during the recent armed conflicts, Seuffert’s work provided an important demonstration of the changing role of furniture in colonial New Zealand.

National pride was demonstrated on a local level when in 1865, the New Zealand Exhibition was opened in Dunedin. Promoting natural resources of New Zealand, the organisers set about to document achievements too. Furniture was amongst those products worked from local timbers, the jurors noting ‘nothing can surpass in beauty some of the woods employed in the specimens under examination, and no doubt the Exhibition will result in the more extended use of colonial woods’. [13]

For the new settler, traditional notions of domestic living continued although adapted to suit the resources and the cultural attitudes of colonial New Zealand.

Writing Bureau or bonheur-du-jour in Louis XV style. Marquetry work in inlaid veneers of New Zealand timbers, mainly kauri, puriri & rewarewa. Made by Anton Seuffert, c.1875

© CCBY-NC-ND 4.0 Te Papa, PF000206

Image: A bedside stand, made of a whale vertebra forming a base and central table (detail). Made by R Coly, 1838. Te Papa, GH011337, CCBY. 

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

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Olsen Justine. 'Settling in', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.