New Zealand furniture manufacturing/design: a potted history

In discussing the history of New Zealand furniture manufacturing and design, it is worth considering two diametrically opposed periods and policies – import restrictions introduced in the late 1950s, which allowed local production to flourish; and the lifting of regulations in the late 1980s, which exposed domestic producers to aggressive competition from low-cost Asian imports. Garth Chester’s Curvesse chair_sml Garth Chester’s Curvesse chair: an ambitious design realised in moulded plywood. Photo © Art+Object

Regulations introduced by the second Labour Government (1957-60) severely curtailed furniture imports and saw New Zealanders turn to local manufacturers in the search for quality. And as Douglas Lloyd Jenkins notes in his comprehensive and peerless tome, At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design, the “theme that brought every New Zealand house [of the early 1960s] together … was the pursuit of Scandinavian-style furniture”.

Modernism

Minimalist by nature, it was a style that emphasised functionality and clean lines – an extension of the undecorated elegance of modernist furniture. Modernism had begun to influence local tastes in the 1940s … as epitomised by New Zealand designer Garth Chester (1916-68) whose Curvesse chair is regarded by some as the starting point of domestic modernism.

Michael Smythe, designer and author of New Zealand by Design, says “Chester eschewed mainstream trends in favour of exploring new ways of getting more from materials and technology”. Thus the Curvesse (1944) was born, a stylish cantilevered plywood chair and “a masterpiece of intuition, trial and error, and precision production”.

Given the limitations of the available technology and Chester’s ambitious design, the production process was often prone to failure (only 500 Curvesses saw the light of day). But it is now recognised as “a progressive high point in local design” (Lloyd Jenkins).

Chester was a designer whose experimentation inevitably saw him struggle to gain public acceptance. He placed little emphasis on marketing and often struggled financially – but he did have some success in the mid to late 50s with his minimalist Bikini chair (combining steel rods with plywood) … popular in coffee bars around Auckland.

Otto Larsen

Prominent amongst a number of Scandinavian designers and furniture makers who came to New Zealand in the 50s was Otto Larsen, who arrived here from Denmark in 1958. Larsen’s astonishing array of designs – often referencing work from his homeland – included everything from dining suites and coffee tables to lazy Susans and drinks trolleys.

Production of his furniture declined in the 1980s – a victim of changing tastes and the flood of cheap imports. Now in his mid 80s, he works from his home in the Coromandel … while his furniture has been rediscovered and reappraised.

DON Furniture, which came to prominence in the 60s and 70s, was another manufacturer influenced by the Scandinavian style. Often made from sapele mahogany, the company’s product included a classic fold-down sofa daybed and a recliner armchair (now considered to be a sleek alternative to the popular La-Z-Boy).

>Left: Danske Møbler (‘Rock and Rest’ chair + ottoman): “… moderately priced but aesthetically advanced furniture”. Right: “DON brings you the cool, clear line of international design … blending the mellow glow of mahogany with the textures of a hundred fashion fabrics” (60s television advertisement). Photos © Mr.Bigglesworthy Left: Danske Møbler (‘Rock and Rest’ chair): “… moderately priced but aesthetically advanced furniture”. Right: “DON brings you the cool, clear line of international design … blending the mellow glow of mahogany with the textures of a hundred fashion fabrics” (60s television advertisement). Photos © Mr.Bigglesworthy

Danske Møbler

Perhaps the best known company associated with Scandinavian furniture and design was Danske Møbler, founded by Ken and Bente Winter who migrated to New Zealand from Denmark in the mid 1950s.

In 1962 the Winters began retailing their designs from a store in Symonds Street, becoming known as “the country’s leading retailer of moderately priced but aesthetically advanced furniture” (40 Legends of New Zealand Design, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins).

Danske Møbler’s next move was to open a new retail showroom in 246 Queen Street, part of a new concept in New Zealand shopping. 246 was described as “a sophisticated, multi-storey mall that provided an exclusive venue to shop, dine, watch fashion shows and enjoy beauty treatments” (nzfashionmuseum.org.nz). It was an ideal venue to showcase Danske Møbler’s refined modern lines and shapes.

The company continued to expand its range in the 60s, opening a new production and retail facility in Mt Roskill in 1968 … and “even exporting New Zealand-manufactured ‘Danish modern’ furniture to retailers in England” (Smythe).

Danske Møbler was able to survive the end of protectionism in the late 80s, entering a new expansion phase in 1995 by moving into a purpose-built factory/showroom facility and expanding its retail footprint nationwide. The company’s vertical integration has been a salutary lesson to other manufacturers increasingly squeezed and dictated to by the large retailers.

Left: Airest (‘The Furniture with a Future’) sabre leg coffee table: founded by Ces Renwick in 1948, the company would become one of New Zealand’s largest furniture manufacturers by the late 60s. Right: Otto Larsen dining suite: Larsen produced an astonishing array of designs, often referencing work from his homeland. Photos © Mr.Bigglesworthy “Left: Airest (‘The Furniture with a Future’) sabre leg coffee table: founded by Ces Renwick in 1948, the company would become one of New Zealand’s largest furniture manufacturers by the late 60s. Right: Otto Larsen dining suite: Larsen produced an astonishing array of designs, often referencing work from his homeland. Photos © Mr.Bigglesworthy

Colonial revival

The 70s and early 80s witnessed a revival in colonial-style furniture – made from kauri, rimu and the ubiquitous pine – which reached New Zealand “via television shows grounded in all-American domesticity” (Smythe).

But there was also a move to high-tech plastic and metal, admittedly only on a small-scale manufacturing level. Martyn Firth’s glass-reinforced polyester table (Mantis) and Roger Land’s plastic chair (Baby Hippo) both enjoyed some success.

Tubular steel chairs also gained some ground, including Smythe’s Bentube range, designed for Furnware Products of Hastings. The range was inspired by the bentwood style and Art Deco revivalism, and crossed over “from commercial interiors into the home” (Lloyd Jenkins).

On the cusp of the ‘policy reforms’ of the 80s, and the initial wave of imported furniture from Australia and Italy, came two new furniture styles: high-tech (a late-modernist style that made use of industrial materials); and Memphis design (all bold colours and prints, and interesting and sometimes obtuse angles).

This period was also the culmination, in furniture manufacturing terms, of a paucity of design and uptake of trained designers. As Lloyd Jenkins points out, companies “preferred instead to give the position to a leading tradesman” who would work from “images ripped from overseas trade magazines”.

Formway

Bucking the trend – which was being called out by a public increasingly aware of international design trends – was Formway Furniture. Formway set out to design and develop workplace and meeting place furniture valued for its quality and user satisfaction … which would be internationally competitive and profitable.

Despite the approaching difficult economic times, Formway put its increasing ergonomic expertise to good use with the breakthrough Zaf chair (1987) – which included sloping armrests, wide-track castors designed to cope with our office carpets, and the ‘living lumbar link’. It became the ‘go-to’ chair of office fitouts … a fine example of the company’s ability to listen to the concerns of customers.

Formway would continue to release innovative products (notably the Free system and LIFE chair) – focusing especially on design leadership and export development via successful joint-venture partnerships.

By 2009, the Global Financial Crisis compelled the company to increasingly outsource its production with its design and distribution work shared by a number of companies.

… to be continued

Michael Smith


References/further reading:

Lloyd Jenkins, D. At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design, Random House, Auckland, 2004.

Lloyd Jenkins, D. 40 Legends of New Zealand Design, Random House, Auckland, 2006.

nzfashionmuseum.org.nz

Smythe, M. New Zealand by Design: A History of New Zealand Product Design, Godwit, 2011.

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