The Victorian mania for discovery, display and exhibition was benchmarked by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, which attracted exhibits from all over the world, including New Zealand. Dunedin staged its own ‘international exhibition’ in 1865, showcasing New Zealand’s natural resources, arts and industries. The big furnishing warehouses vigorously competed with lavish room displays.
The 1885 Wellington Industrial Exhibition demonstrated the range of fashions for customers. The Auckland firm Winks & Hall exhibited a mottled kauri medieval-style bedroom suite; A. J. White of Christchurch showed a mantel and over-mantel ‘made of bog or black totara richly carved in the Renaissance style, with Corinthian columns and capitals, and carved figures in front.’1 These revivalist styles were in vogue and showcased New Zealand as a modern and outward-looking country. The exhibitions attracted thousands, stimulating market demand for local furniture.
Arts and crafts
The move to mass production of furniture provoked a reaction that was fostered by the arts and crafts movement from the last quarter of the 19th century. Respect for the craftsman left tool marks and exposed joinery, while less sophisticated traditional materials such as oak, copper, leather and lead-light glass became the height of fashion. New Zealand’s leading exponent of the style, architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor, fashioned adzed dressers, refectory tables and seats in exaggerated medieval form for his concrete-plaster and wood-framed houses.
Art deco and moderne
The 1930s saw new forms and designs in art deco and moderne styles. Furniture made of chrome, bakelite (an early plastic) and polished laminated and ply timber became the fashion. Scoullars’ Wellington showrooms displayed upholstered lounge suites with broad, flat show-wood laminated arms open at the sides.
New Zealanders doubted that Garth Chester’s Curvesse chair could support their weight. So he employed the celebrity wrestler Lofty Blomfield to jump up and down on it in a public demonstration to test its strength. The chair held firm.
The spread of the modernist aesthetic from the 1940s was led by the Austrian immigrant architect and furniture designer Ernst Plischke. His bent metal tube chairs showed the modernist preference for simple, functional and graceful forms. Similarly, architect Alan Wild’s blond pinewood chair of three panels assembled on three intersecting planes epitomised the new minimalist approach. Auckland furniture designer Garth Chester made the world’s first cantilevered chair in 1944. Called the Curvesse chair, it was made of a single piece of plywood. Modernism was future-orientated and spurned revivalist styles. Many New Zealanders viewed it as a declaration of international sophistication.
During the early 1950s the Dutch migrants Edzer Roukema and Jan Knoll continued the modernist approach. They worked for the Auckland firm Jon Jansen, whose store in Queen’s Arcade gained a national following. New import restrictions in the late 1950s curtailed furniture imports and boosted the local furniture industry. Firms like Danske Møbler of Auckland and Viking Furniture of Christchurch emerged to produce Scandinavian-influenced designs (called ‘Danish modern’) at affordable prices. Their furniture comprised simple, wooden tables and lounge chairs with rubber foam. Some pieces sported synthetic textiles in the lively colours of 1960s pop culture.
As seen on TV
In 1967 the president of the Furniture Manufacturers Federation, Ces Renwick, said that television was ‘fostering a greater public awareness of design and comfort in home life’ and had led to an unexpected increase in new furniture sales.2
The 1970s saw New Zealand’s first internal revival of furniture fashion: new colonialism. Cottage industries such as woodturning, weaving, pottery and metal-working crafts created earthy products for the home. Native timbers – sometimes complete with nail holes – were recycled to construct colonial-style furniture in kauri and rimu. Auckland firm Rose & Heather, founded on this interest in the colonial past, went further by salvaging 30–40,000-year-old kauri logs from Northland swamps to make high-end French and English period reproductions.
In the 1980s two new furniture styles were introduced:
- high tech, a late modernist style using industrial materials such as alloys, compressed fibre board, vinyl and perspex to create domestic furniture
- Memphis style, which used angular, abstract forms and strident colours.
Furniture designer Michael Draper’s anodised metal and steel shelves drew inspiration from Auckland’s high-tech yachting industry (fostered by the America’s Cup) of the late 1990s.