Stage Door Canteen encounter changes a young navigator’s direction
"Haere mai, Kiwi!” Surprised RAF trainee navigator, Gifford Jackson, turns round and meets New York Stage Door Canteen hostess Virginia Beach who has recognised the New Zealand flashes on his uniform. Next day they meet for lunch in the basement of the Rockefeller Centre — at the Down Under restaurant adorned with a frieze featuring Australasian imagery.
This story involves purpose, curiosity, intuition and serendipity (essential attributes for a professional designer) — and a little uncharacteristic subterfuge.
But first, the backstory …
Alban Gifford Jackson’s pathway to this life-changing moment in New York began with a boyhood in Devonport, Auckland, where messing about with boats down at Torpedo Bay was the recreation of choice.
Gifford soon began making his own model boats — from yachts to three-masted schooners, and dinghies to battleships — the naval base was nearby. His first close encounter with aircraft was at Takapuna beach in January 1933. One guinea (£1.1/-) bought the nine-year-old a 15-minute flight aboard Charles Kingsford Smith’s Fokker tri-motor monoplane Southern Cross.
Having inherited his father’s artistic skills (Gainor Snr won top marks in New Zealand for drawing when he was at Auckland Grammar School) Gifford gained his first professional commission in 1936. His decal design was applied to a dinner service — probably supplied by the family wholesale merchant business F.E. Jackson and Company — for the New Zealand ketch Golden Hind. Also when aged 14, he built his first sailing dinghy. In 1937 he wrote and illustrated his first article, ‘Some Common Rigs for Sailing Vessels’, for The New Zealand Yachtsman, and designed his 18ft Mermerus sailing boat to the M-class rules. He and his father built it under the family home at 1 Jubilee Avenue.
As an A-stream student at Takapuna Grammar, Gifford gained University Entrance a year earlier than normal. After work experience with W.S. Laurie Ltd he began a civil engineering draughting cadetship with the Public Works Department. His father’s enquiries about how to channel his son’s skills and love of boats into a career path led to an offer from the Henry Robb shipyard in Leith, Edinburgh. He would combine learning on the job during spring and summer with studying naval architecture at the University of Glasgow over the autumn and winter months.
Gifford set off for Great Britain aboard MV Rangitata in August 1939. On 3 September New Zealand signed-up to Britain’s war against Hitler’s Germany. Upon reaching Jamaica, MV Rangitata joined a trans-Atlantic merchant ship convoy. Passengers were assigned wartime duties — 17-year-old Gifford stood watch atop a dummy funnel looking out for German U-boats.
When he reached Scotland, Gifford checked in at Henry Robb’s shipyard and enjoyed a tour before moving on to Glasgow where he ‘matriculated’ into the University. The student digs were at Macklay Hall beside Kelvingrove Park. The River Kelvin runs past the university laboratory in which William Thomson determined the correct value of absolute zero — one of the reasons he was made Lord Kelvin in 1892, and the reason for the American ‘Kelvinator’ refrigerator brand name. Gifford was unaware at that time that his future career path would involve that brand, although he did ‘haunt’ the libraries of Glasgow and Edinburgh to learn all he could about the emergent profession of industrial design. He became aware of the work that Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey and Norman Bel Geddes had been doing to boost consumer spending, thus help the USA economy grow out of the Great Depression.
At university Gifford made friends with Sten Gauguin, the Norwegian grandson of Paul Gauguin. He was drawn to optimistic discussions about the ‘brave new world’ that could emerge from the deprivation and destruction of war. The work experience at Henry Robb’s design loft in Leith confronted him with the urgent need to repair damaged vessels and build new ones.
By 1943 Gifford felt the need to enlist despite not having completed the course. The navy was not chosen for two reasons — he was prone to seasickness and he reasoned that being shot down would be a faster death than drowning — so he took night classes in air navigation. The experience of joining the RAF was full of contrasts — assembly line health checks, utilitarian clothing and stodgy food on one hand; accommodation in a luxury St John’s Wood apartment on the other.
Initial training was in Brighton and Torquay. After the troopship Andes — with twenty men per four-person cabin — took them to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, they took a train to Canada under instructions to stay aboard to avoid US immigration requirements. Gifford was treated to tantalising glimpses of Washington’s Capitol and Pentagon, then New York’s busy subway stations and Empire State building. Training continued at Rivers, Manitoba and, in due course, trainee A.G. Jackson took his place at a navigating table aboard an Arvo Anson aeroplane.
It was 1944 by the time Gifford had completed nine months of experiential learning, flying over the Manitoba plains, and had earned his navigator’s brevet. Contemplating their final leave, a group hatched an illicit plan to get themselves to New York City. Rebellious behaviour was atypical of Gifford but the lure of NYC, and the possibility that this may be his one chance in a truncated lifetime, proved the stronger force. Special leave forms were ‘appropriated’ from the orderly room and apparent permission to enter the United States materialised. When a sceptical immigration officer came to check the papers, the train lights happened to black out. Under flashlight examination they were deemed convincing enough. In New York City the lads settled into $2-a-night YMCA rooms and ‘hit the town’.
The immersive Broadway experience included movies at the 3664 seat Paramount Theatre which came with swing band entertainment during the interval. Virtuoso vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and his sextet, with backing singer Dinah Washington, was a highlight. At the Radio City Music Hall — with its famous Art Deco lobby designed by Donald Deskey in 1931 — live broadcasts featured large choirs, famous opera singers and the 36 Rockettes ‘moving as one dancer’. In Times Square Gifford was particularly impressed by the Bond clothing store with a Deskey designed interior evoking the style of modern ocean liners. But it was that visit to the Stage Door Canteen — off Broadway in a West 44th St basement — that created the life-changing connection.
Gifford’s friendship with hostess Virginia Beach seemed closer than her role required … but there were duties to fulfil. From the base in Canada, the trainees were shipped back to the blackouts, bombings and rationing of Britain at war.
From Llandwrog airfield in North Wales the flights over the Irish Sea encountered conditions more turbulent than over the prairies of Manitoba and Gifford suffered some airsickness. Attempts to hide it were unsuccessful so, to his deep disappointment, he was classified ‘not suited to operations’. Relegation to RAF Stores duty did not appeal so he applied for repatriation to New Zealand — a faster route home than the demobilisation. He was issued with civilian clothing, ten pounds (stolen on his last night) and a ticket to board the MV Ruahine. The two-month journey at eight knots included a tantalising pause at New York City to pick up families and war brides. After arriving in Wellington he took the overnight train to Auckland and a ferry to Devonport, then hoisted his kitbag to his shoulder and walked along King Edward Parade to Jubilee Avenue — to the surprise and delight of his family. On 9 May 1945 he joined in the VE Day celebrations.
As the end was in sight for the war in the Pacific, the RNZAF had no need of new recruits. Gifford was released to ‘Civvy Street’ but job opportunities for a budding naval architect were non-existent in Auckland. His father had a chat to Woolf Fisher — the Fisher & Paykel office was in the Gane Building on Anzac Avenue, over the road from F.E. Jackson and Co — and Gifford commenced work as a design draughtsman under Charlie Yockney, an architect/engineer, and Hylton Meikle, head of commercial refrigeration. Drawing talent and naval architectural training gave Gifford confidence to pursue his real passion — industrial design. Seeking ways to develop his skills, he talked to A.J.C. (Archie) Fisher, head of the Elam School of Art, and Vernon Brown at the School of Arcitecture — who advised him to go to America and absorb the culture.
The factory, in Beach Road at the foot of Parnell Rise, was undertaking ‘screw-driver’ assembly of Kelvinator refrigerators and Whiteway washing machines. When the office moved to Campbell House on the corner of Lorne and Rutland Streets, Gifford was able to pursue his love of modern dance music and jazz at the Peter Pan Cabaret on the top floor.
As well as contributing to the development of domestic appliances, he designed refrigerated display cabinets, commercial refrigeration plants and interior layouts for milk bars and appliance showrooms.
Meanwhile Gifford continued corresponding with Virginia Beach who persuaded him to apply for entry to the US and asked her father to sponsor him. GI war brides took priority on New Zealand’s 100-person immigration quota so, while spending a year on the waiting list, he moved on from Fisher & Paykel in early 1949 to work with ex-RNZAF engineer Dennis Davis at D.J. Davis Ltd. They designed enlargers, microfilm readers and cine film processing equipment.
In August 1949 Gifford exhibited work with the newly-formed Design Guild on the first floor of the Edson Building in Queen Street alongside architects, furniture designers, craft makers, commercial artists and photographers. A newspaper article mentioned his Stingray anchor, which ‘will lie flat on a deck, will not foul on its warp and will always bite when lowered’.
When he finally migrated to America, Gifford’s transport choices eloquently reflected his progress from naval architect to industrial designer. The journey began in October 1949 aboard RMS Aorangi — designed c.1923 by Percy Hillhouse, Gifford’s professor in Glasgow. In Honolulu he transfered to a Boeing Stratocruiser — a refitted B36 bomber with a two-deck interior designed by the Walter Dorwin Teague office with a bomb bay converted into an elegant cocktail lounge. A state-of-the-art TWA transcontinental Lockheed Constellation airliner took him from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago.
Hospitably based at the Beach family home in Montclair, New Jersey, Gifford made forays into Manhattan to present his portfolio at any design office willing to meet him. When told that his work was not quite up to the New York standard, he re-worked his drawings and fitted them into a satchel designed for 45rpm records. Despite the economic recession at that time, his innovative approach and persistence paid off — ‘sophisticated New Yorker’ Carl Otto said, “You’re not from just around the corner are you!” and gave him a job.
The rhythm of being hired and ‘let go’ reflected the fluctuating workload at competing studios. Gifford’s employers included International Plainfield Motors, makers of Mack truck engines; Donald Deskey Associates in the Rockefeller Centre (designers of the Radio City Music Hall); Norman Bel Geddes, the ‘P.T. Barnum’ of industrial design, and Peter Schladermundt Associates.
At Donald Deskey Associates Gifford worked with Pete Thomson to design an Emmerson air conditioning unit that was to take centre screen between Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 movie Seven Year Itch.
In 1954 Gifford received a telegram inviting him to attend an interview at the Walter Dorwin Teague office (designers of the Boeing Stratocruiser interior refit). Teague, known as ‘the Dean of American industrial design’, advocated a design philosophy of ‘timeless understatement’ — in contrast to the slick streamlining of the equally large Raymond Loewy office.
Gifford’s many Teague projects, completed over ten years at the Madison Avenue office, incuded an American Standard washbasin and bathtub (presented in a mocked-up bathroom complete with tiles, towels and soap), a Ritter dental x-ray machine and a dental lamp (presented in a fully mocked-up dentist’s room — the product appeared in the 1969 movie Cactus Flower starring Walter Matthau as a dentist and Ingrid Bergman as his assistant), the model 525 Mimeograph for A B Dick , an electric blanket control for Fieldcrest Mills, refrigerators for Servel, and a gas range for Roper.
In 1960 Gifford took a month’s leave to visit his family at home. The comparative quiet was enticing but he could see little prospect of progressing his design career here. He was not aware that the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (NZSID) had just been established and it would be a year or two before industrial design made an explicit appearance in our tertiary education curricula.
A significant legacy of Giford’s 17 years as part of the American industrial design scene was his astute commentary on American styling. In 1954, the year he became a member of the Society of Industrial Designers, he presented a well received slide lecture to the New York chapter showing examples of styling clichés he had observed since arriving in the US. Walter Dorwin Teague descibed it as ‘salutary …’ When his illustrated article ‘Design styles and clichés’ was published in the September 1962 issue of Industrial Design magazine it won an award (for the magazine). An updated version of that article was published in the March 1970 edition of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council magazine Designscape.
Pastel renderings on velum were Gifford’s forte. He put this skill to good use with the ‘Clichés in Industrial Design, Do-it-yourself Schmalz Kit’ he conceptualised for his evolving slide lecture.
By 1964 Gifford felt ready to make the brave move to private practice — from an apartment/office on the 14th floor of a new building at 245 East 63rd Street. Among a range of clients was the General Gilbert Corporation in North Salem, Connecticut for whom he designed housings for manual adding machines and a telephone. One of the Vice-Presidents, Alex Young, was a New Zealander.
On one hand, life in New York City in the mid-1960s was sophisticated, culturally enriching and very design-aware. On the other hand, it was brash, tough, noisy, grimy and dangerous (think West Side Story). The stress had taken its toll on some of Gifford’s friends, so when his parents offered accommodation at the family home with a front room as his studio he succumbed to the tug. NZSID had been growing for six years, tertiary industrial design courses were into their fifth year, and an Industrial Design Act to set up a Design Council had just been passed in parliament. It was time to contribute his experience to his home country.
Doing justice to Gifford Jackson’s 1966 to 2003 consultant design output from his Jubille Avenue studio would require a whole other story. A tantalising glimpse would include products that will seem familiar to many Kiwis. One of his first clients was Fisher & Paykel, who had absorbed H.E. Shacklock by then, and had established a sister company Allied Industries.
The Feltonmix shower was hugely popular — especially for motels — and the Ultimate reflector toaster/griller was great for open toasted sandwiches. For R.L. Bowden, Gifford designed the handle of the Sabre eggbeater, and salt and pepper shakers with slide-off metal caps making them easier than most to fill.
In 1994 a Mr Farrelly, CEO of Biro BiC (NZ) commissioned Gifford to design a flat-pack filing tray, which was tooled and moulded in Auckland. In the spirit of the open market economy that had been operating for nearly a decade, it was aimed at a global market. Strangely, Biro BiC HQ in France were dismissive — the trays only sold in New Zealand and Australia. 25 years later they are still a stock item.
Finally, a ‘what if’ story …
When Mayor Robbie initiated the Auckland Rapid Transit (ART) project advice was sought from ‘overseas expert’ Michael Robbins, managing director of London Transport (Railways) and chairman of its design committee. In 1974, he recommended the inclusion of an industrial designer on the project team and Gifford was selected. His pastel renderings of exterior and interior concepts for the rolling stock enabled the client, the media and the public to clearly envisage what was under consideration — and 45 years on they still feel contemporary. Although funds had been allocated by the Labour government, the project rapidly ground to a halt in 1975 when the newly-elected Muldoon-led National government abandoned the project.
Gifford received the highest recognition from his peers when the Designers Institute of New Zealand (formerly NZSID) gave him the 1998 John Britten Award for Design Leadership. In 2013 The Depot Artspace in Devonport mounted a survey exhibition entitled ‘Gifford Jackson: New Zealand Industrial Design Pathfinder’ curated by Michael Smythe, who also wrote and published a book with the same title. On the 2013 Queen’s Birthday Honours list, Gifford was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to design.
Gifford had thought he and Virginia might marry — but she chose another. The ‘dapper’ bachelor was an uncle to four devoted nieces who have done much to ensure his legacy is preserved. Known fondly by colleagues as ‘the Godfather of New Zealand Industrial Design’, he was 93 when he died on 30 October 2015.
Gifford Jackson Collection
The Documentary Heritage Team is in the process of arranging, cataloguing and rehousing Gifford Jackson’s extensive Industrial Design Archive, comprising documents related to his life and career, including over 1000 design drawings, 900 photographs. The papers, drawings and photographs within the collection cover his entire career, from his time spent in the United States designing for American corporations, to his work back in New Zealand in latter years. Access to this material is currently restricted while it is arranged and appropriately rehoused and catalogued, though it is our hope to make this material available soon.
Smythe Michael. (2013).Gifford Jackson: New Zealand industrial design pathfinder.
Gifford Jackson - Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Gifford Jackson: Cultural Icons.
Michael Smythe, MDM, Dip ID, Life DINZ, first met Gifford Jackson in 1967 at Fisher & Paykel. Michael had joined the staff as a Wellington Polytechnic industrial design graduate and Gifford, recently returned from the US, was consulting to the company. Their robust arguments in the drawing office of the Development Division formed the basis of an enjoyable and enduring competitive/collegial relationship. Alongside his professional practice, Michael has written extensively about New Zealand design in magazines like Designscape and ProDesign. His first book, New Zealand by Design: a history of New Zealand product design (Random House NZ) won Best First Book of Non-Fiction at the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards. His second book, Gifford Jackson: New Zealand industrial design pathfinder (Creationz Consultants) was published in 2013 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at The Depot Artspace, Devonport. His third book, Design Generation: how Peter Haythornthwaite shaped New Zealand’s design-led enterprise (Rim Books) was published in 2018 in conjunction with a major survey exhibition at Objectspace, Auckland.
Thank you to Michael Smythe for writing this article on Gifford Jackson.
Cite this article
Stage Door Canteen encounter changes a young navigator’s direction . Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 28 October 2020. Updated: 30 October 2020.