We must try and help our generation to overcome its reluctance to think clearly about design; so that at least the younger folk will accept good contemporary furniture, not because it is “the thing” but because it is so good’ .
By Justine Olsen
Within New Zealand, by the mid twentieth century the designer had begun to shape manufacturing as the search for ‘good design’ became paramount. The former dominance of the arts and crafts movement and the hand made was no longer a significant driver; the Bauhaus philosophy of unity of design conveyed through modernism, now international in reach, was beginning to influence local journals, exhibitions and new architecture.
Auckland architect and lecturer at the School of Architecture Vernon Brown was amongst leaders promoting good design within furniture. Defining modern ways of living, free from historical style and ornamentation, the progressive approach was for standardisation, simplicity of form, new materials and techniques. But if the focus was design, how was this evident to the public?
The 1952 Art and Design exhibition, organised by the Adult Education Centre in Auckland, offered some insight into what was happening in New Zealand. According to the catalogue, the exhibition, which brought together art, objects and furniture within domestic settings set out to show what could ‘easily be obtained, to help you to furnish your houses decently, modestly, and beautifully’ . Selected by Vernon Brown, writer and textile designer/printer A.R.D. Fairburn and architect Peter Middleton, the works were presented within four prefabricated rooms. Designed by the newly formed Auckland architectural team Group Architects, the tight relationship between interiors and architects was clear.
Within the exhibition, acclaimed international examples not only gave context to New Zealand furniture but according to selector Peter Middleton they showed ‘what we can now import but also [that we could]… stimulate our own designers’ . A moulded plywood chair LCW (first produced in 1946) by the USA architecture/design team Charles and Ray Eames, a cast and modular aluminium chair BA3 (first produced in 1946) by British designer Ernest Race and an Eastern European bentwood chair promoted different ways of considering materials and modular construction.
Who exhibited – architectural dominance
Auckland architects had a strong presence. Group Architects displayed wooden modular furniture for dining and living rooms. Made by Pioneer Products they were probably designed by Allan Wild who designed the furniture in the Groups experimental First House of 1949 -50 . The furniture demonstrates their commitment to modular and prefabricated designs which were echoed in the architectural design of their buildings, such as Mallitte House of 1953-54 .
Other architects contributed to the 1952 Art and Design exhibition
including Hungarian emigre Imric Porsolt (joint architect of Broadcasting House, Auckland in 1942) designer of a ‘unit of a settee’ and a set of nesting tables, made by W.J. Alford and Howard & Sons. Michael Brett, (Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects) showed a ‘fireside chair’, otherwise described as an Easy chair.
The makers - Rehabilitation League
Amongst the independent makers and manufacturers represented at the exhibition was the Disabled Servicemen’s Rehabilitation League. Cabinet making was amongst the popular trades learnt through the League enabling the servicemen to return to work. Featured in the exhibition were children’s chairs with moulded wooden frames and webbed seats, clearly drawn from international examples available in Auckland including Donald Snelling’s webbed chairs at the modernist store Jon Jansen. While the League sold through their independent shops, they worked for other retailers included the Farmers Trading Company .
Commercial furniture stores - Maple Furnishing Company
Commercial furniture stores were represented too and Maple Furnishing Company, which had recently converted to modernism, showed two sideboards. One of the largest retailers of furniture in New Zealand it had been previously renowned for its traditional approach to style. By 1951 Maple Furnishing was organising independent exhibitions to promote the fashionable modernist movement. The question was whether the trained cabinet makers clearly understood modern design. A review in journal Here and Now suggested ‘it would be a wise plan to make use of a good design consultant or architect with an interest and knowledge of domestic design’. 
Modernist dealer – John Crichton
Auckland interior designer John Crichton, newly established in business in 1951, showed Safari chairs, lamps and dining chairs. British trained, Crichton looked towards the USA, Argentina and Japan as he developed his modernist ideals. Safari Chair with its canvas fabric which stretched across the tubular frame was indeed a version of the renowned Butterfly chair designed by Argentinian architects Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardov in 1938. But Crichton was able to promote his designs beyond New Zealand, featuring chairs and lamps in the British journal Decorative Art: the studio yearbook in 1955 and 1957. The status of the designer shaped his firm and references to the manufacturers in this particular exhibition were not to feature.
At the same time, other Auckland stores emerged including Jon Jansen and Brenner Associates. Both were to design furniture; Edzer Roukema for Jon Jansen and architects Des Mullen and later Vladimir Cacala for Brenner. Small businesses like Garth Chester were to design limited production furniture in plywood producing significant commissions including salon chairs for Kay’s French Beauty Salon in 1954. Modernism through its ideals of standardisation and new techniques had shifted the notion of beauty in furniture until the crafts revival of the 1970s.
The 1952 Art and Design exhibition reflects the emerging separation between designer and maker – the rising status of the designer, their relationship to architecture and the rise too of the small independent small dealer gallery. It suggests too that whether the furniture was produced by small companies or department stores like Maples, designers held a significant place in defining furniture, well advanced from the hand of the craftsman in the arts and crafts movement.
Header image: Children’s furniture by Disabled Servicemen’s Rehabilitation League within the Auckland Carnival Art and Design exhibition, 1952. Photograph by Frank Hofmann. All Rights Reserved. University of Auckland Architectural Library, Group Box. Courtesy of the Hofmann Estate