Kōrero: Industrial design

Whārangi 2. Protectionism, 1938 to 1988

Ngā whakaahua

In 1938 the government introduced import control regulations to allow selection of imports, so that New Zealand manufacturing industries could develop and expand. Before then, many overseas-designed products had been imported. Protectionism allowed them to be made under licence with 50% local content. The output included small electrical appliances with brand names like Speedee, Neeco, Ultimate and Zip. Following the import controls, manufacturers increasingly designed and made their own products. The push for a high standard of original New Zealand design accelerated with the establishment of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council in 1967.

Home appliances

In 1939 Fisher & Paykel changed from being an importer of appliances to a manufacturer. Gifford Jackson, who had trained in Glasgow as a naval architect, was employed as a design draughtsman in 1945, but was keen to become an industrial designer. Product design at Fisher & Paykel was originally engineering-based, with styling following American trends. Industrial design graduates were employed from 1967. Other companies also began employing industrial designers. In the late 1960s the appliance firm Ultimate was among those who contracted Jackson after he returned from 17 years in New York. Zip Industries employed design-school graduate Gerry Luhman.

Putting the jug on

From the 1940s Britons and Americans were mystified by Kiwis saying they would ‘put the jug on’. Just why New Zealand led the world with upright metal electric jugs while other countries electrified the kettle is unclear. The jug shape was more ergonomic and efficient. Harry Urlwin began the trend with his Speedee jugs and the rest of the world finally caught on about 60 years later.

Ceramics and glassware

Other import-substitution industries also employed industrial designers. Auckland’s Amalgamated Brick and Tile Company created the Ambrico brand for domestic tableware after receiving wartime contracts from the US army and the New Zealand Railways Department. By 1948 it was making 6 million pieces per year. Ex-Elam student Dave Jenkin was employed from 1945, and appointed head of a new design department three years later, when the brand became Crown Lynn.

While the firm met mass-market demands by echoing the imports they were replacing, they also introduced fresh trends by appropriating Māori-inspired design and employing immigrant designers. Mirek Smisek’s Bohemia Ware and Frank Carpay’s Handwerk range were slow sellers in the 1950s but later became collectors’ pieces. Annual design competitions generated successful contemporary designs during the 1960s and 1970s. Repeated wins by Mark Cleverley led to his employment in the firm from 1968.

Christchurch’s Crown Crystal Glass factory employed Elam design graduates John Densem in 1967 and Keith Mahy in 1970. Densem excelled with a suite of vessels for the Geyser Room restaurant at Expo 70 in Japan. Mahy’s designs included the Anker and Stacker ranges.

Plastics

Plastic manufacture in New Zealand began in 1932, when Andersons made 5,000 Bakelite telephone earpieces for the Post and Telegraph Department. Local design of both moulding equipment and plastic products began in 1936 after Harry Urlwin’s Christchurch firm, H. C. Urlwin, sent a young employee, Robertson (Bob) Stewart, to Britain to learn plastics design. In 1945 Stewart became a designer at Plastic and Diecasting Limited in Christchurch. Ten years later he bought the business and renamed it PDL Industries. PDL created the world’s first rocker ‘micro-gap’ switch in 1960 and became a major exporter. In 1967 a new PDL factory was built in Malaysia.

Furniture

While most New Zealand factory-made furniture imitated overseas designs, there were some examples of innovation. The dental chair created for the new School Dental Service programme in 1921 was a masterpiece of lightweight, adjustable, structurally sound functionality. Garth Chester’s single plywood moulded Curvesse chair of 1944 is deservedly recognised as a remarkable feat of manufacture.

Made to last

Collecting relics for the Fun Ho! National Toy Museum at Inglewood was not difficult – originals had survived burial, fires and being run over. It was reported that one driver who reversed over a Fun Ho! toy was most unimpressed when his car tyre came off second best.

Toys

Jack Underwood’s Fun Ho! factory moved from Wellington to New Plymouth in 1945. It made aluminium sand-cast toys, such as cars, aircraft, tractors and doll’s-house furniture. After the 1948 easing of import restrictions on toys led to a flood of imports, so Underwood moved his factory to Inglewood to remain competitive.

The Trekka

Designing the body and interior of a motor vehicle is an industrial designer’s dream. The Trekka utility job went to George Taylor, a draughtsman who had worked for UK coach-builder Thrupp & Mayberly. The Trekka reached the market in 1967. Under protectionism it was much cheaper than the imported Land Rover, which could only be bought by customers with overseas funds. Eighteen months later import controls were lifted from off-road vehicles and sales faltered in the face of competition from the UK and Japan. The business closed in 1973.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Michael Smythe, 'Industrial design - Protectionism, 1938 to 1988', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/industrial-design/page-2 (accessed 18 September 2019)

Story by Michael Smythe, published 22 Oct 2014