Kiwi Cool: Design from below the Equator
It will come as news to many—even those steeped in the history of modern design movements—that New Zealander Garth Chester (1916–1968) invented the first cantilevered plywood chair, the Curvesse, in 1944. And yes, before reaching for those reference volumes to debunk this assertion, it’s true: Alvar Aalto molded laminated plywood for his F35 chair as early as 1930. Yet Chester conjured what was, in the words of modern architecture and design scholar Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, “an innovation in furniture design that had at that point yet to be seen anywhere in the world.” Designer and writer Michael Smythe explains why in his book New Zealand by Design: “Where Aalto had molded the cantilever support and armrest separately from the seat and backrest, Chester had done it all in one hit.”
Chester’s mystifying obscurity—along with that of other Kiwi designers and architects such as Edzer (Bob) Roukema, Ernst Plischke, and John Critchton—can be attributed to many factors, only the most obvious of which is the country’s remoteness from concurrent modernist movements. Nevertheless, the market for their work is growing. James Parkinson, who began organizing New Zealand modernist sales while at Webb’s, the Auckland auction house, remembers his first foray into the field twelve years ago, which took place “in front of a crowd of blank faces.” Now, he notes, there are one or two a year at Webb’s, and he mounts three at his own Art and Object auction gallery, also in Auckland. “At the moment I have people lining up to buy Curvesse chairs in good condition.” And, he adds, an expat New Zealander in New York “has bought every Roukema chair I’ve sold.”
Jenkins, author of At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design and director of MTG [Museum, Theatre, Gallery] Hawke’s Bay in Napier—devoted, among other things, to telling the story of Kiwi mid-century modernism—is arguably the leading scholar of a field he calls “a quirky little version of modernism.” If it can be said to have had a golden age, it occurred from about 1948 to 1960, with its most idiosyncratic designs emerging during the 1950s.
The influence of Scandinavian modernism is incontrovertible. Sweden and New Zealand, says Jenkins, “were both small liberal democracies on the fringes of the world, and there was a sense we should align ourselves with the Scandinavian model.” Many did. Some, like Chester and Roukema, tweaked the genre in distinctive ways.
The reason for imitation was not lack of imagination, but importation restrictions imposed by the second Labour government in 1957; reproduction became the only way of filling demand. Nevertheless, these Scandinavian style designs, notes Parkinson, beg the question “Why would you buy a Danske Møbler chair when you can buy a Finn Juhl chair for about the same price,” especially when overseas shipping is taken into account? (Danske Møbler was a New Zealand company started by Danish émigrés Kaj and Bente Vinter, later anglicized to Ken and Bente Winter.)
But New Zealand came by its European influences honestly. Many architects and designers fleeing the approach of Nazism arrived there in the 1930s. Roukema was born in Holland, Plischke in Austria, Tibor Donner in Hungary (he arrived as a twenty-year-old and trained at Auckland University College). Vladimir Cacala was born in Czechoslovakia, Crichton in Britain.
They employed local materials, and many of their designs were well made. Sometimes, however, the design requirements of Scandinavian style furniture did not jibe with New Zealand’s production capabilities, and results could be less felicitous. “Veneers in New Zealand were not very good,” says Emma Eagle, who, with husband Dan, owns the Auckland gallery Mr. Bigglesworthy (about half its offerings are by Kiwi mid-century designers). “Unless it’s solid wood, we don’t touch it.” Craftsmanship, she adds admiringly, was “hard won” because producers had to develop new skills.
Another issue for collectors is availability. About five hundred Curvesse chairs were made, but, says Jenkins, because some of the more interesting designs were crafted on demand by architects for the houses they designed, “many of these designers produced only twenty or thirty pieces. It’s not enough to really excite the market.”
Nevertheless, though prices have not yet breached the five-figure mark, they are escalating. “Five years ago you wouldn’t have even catalogued a Garth Chester chair,” Parkinson says. Now good examples of the Curvesse can easily bring close to $8,000.
NAPIER: TOWARD MODERNISM
At 10:47 on the morning of February 3, 1931, an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale destroyed the city of Napier, on Hawke’s Bay. The death toll reached almost 260; hundreds of others were injured. But after the tragedy, some sixty-five hundred craftsmen rebuilt the city in the modern style of the day: art deco. Today Napier is one of the best-preserved deco cities in the world, filled with little jewels of the genre (the National Tobacco Company, Ltd., the Napier Municipal Theatre, and the Daily Telegraph building are all must-sees). It also includes some early modernist buildings such as the Photographers Gallery Hawke’s Bay, formerly a Red Cross station.
Napier hosts the annual Tremains Art Deco Weekend (this year it was February 19–23), with over two hundred events (artdeconapier.com). Foodies will also enjoy the annual Food and Wine Classic, which kicks off the summer (November in New Zealand). It highlights the superb local cuisine and many excellent Hawke’s Bay wines (Black Barn, Craggy Range, and Trinity Hill are among the best), particularly syrahs (fawc.co.nz).
The town also features the newly revamped MTG Hawke’s Bay, a museum, theater, and gallery at the center of Napier’s cultural life. Its world-class archives make it the perfect place to explore the history of New Zealand modernism (mtghawkesbay.com).
SLEEPING AND EATING
The Dome: Luxurious apartment hotel in the centrally located 1937 T and G building with an updated deco aesthetic, custom linens, and art by local artists. thedome.co.nz
Mr. D: Casual eatery with bright, clean design, Jean Prouvé style chairs, and a menu that features local ingredients. misterd.co.nz
Pacifica: A blue beach-shack exterior conceals low-key but extremely fine (read: expensive) dining that includes highly inventive dishes. pacificarestaurant.co.nz
Terrôir at Craggy Range: Haute cuisine amid rustic modern surroundings at Craggy Range vineyard, which makes some of Hawke’s Bay’s finest wines. craggyrange.com