Kitchen jars, a brown betty teapot and a glass coffee maker on an open shelf? A chair made with metal left over from the war effort? In the 1950s, our nation was emerging from the darkness and austerity of the Great Depression and World War II. It was time for New Zealand to have its own unique and distinctive identity, appropriate to our climate and conditions.

In 1952, an Arts and Design Exhibition was held in Auckland to show the public that it was possible to have a happier, healthier, more egalitarian way of living, affordable and easily accessible to all. The focus is on the emergence of an exciting new modernist school of thought. Thanks to Frank Hoffman’s excellent photos of that event, the team at Te Papa has been able to carefully recreate ‘rooms’ similar to the original exhibition, each item demonstrating aspects of this ground breaking movement.

Social and academic status were challenged, with collaboration central to this ideology. All those involved in the design process, be they architects, potters or artists, should work without hierarchy together. A fusion of art and design. They recognized the efficiencies of sourcing things locally as well as the advantages of mass production on the home front.

Modern Living Co-curators, Justine Olsen and Lizzie Bisley

Curators Justine Olsen and Lizzie Bisley drew our attention to objects demonstrating aspects of these concepts. A standard lamp, faithfully reproduced using Hoffman’s photos, shows how industrial design could work in the home. Timelessly sleek, the lamp’s light construction makes it functional and easily relocated.

Heavily upholstered furniture has been replaced with fresh, stylized designs. A chair gifted to Te Papa from the original exhibition is a good example of this. The flowing lines of its wooden framework have been left exposed. Just the cushions are upholstered. These have been restored to their original colour with great care, harmonising beautifully with the warm tones of the wood.

In the ceramic world, two distinctly different developments were taking place. Handcrafted pottery was gaining popularity with potters who could source their clay locally, reinforcing the concept of sustainability. Len Castle and Pat Perrin’s curvy pots rub shoulders. On the other hand, industrialisation and mass production saw renowned companies like Crown Lynn thriving.

A group of young Auckland architects were critically aware of the lack of cohesion and beauty in the New Zealand way of life.  It’s fascinating to see how well the Group Architect’s affordable house plan has stood the test of time. With its simple practical design, using local materials, it could be constructed quickly in response to the housing shortage. Letting in the light and air plus having good flow and easy access to the outside was critical. Despite the drive for a unique New Zealand style, the modernist group looked keenly to the outside world for inspiration too. Immigrants who had left their battered homelands certainly provided an exoticism for young kiwi designers.

Families needed room to grow with child friendly space to play indoors as well as out. The objective was a more informal, simple, healthy and happy way of life. For the 1952 exhibition organizers, it was fundamental to show that children as well as adults enjoy easy access to art. New Zealand artists’ work was turned into prints for children to enjoy at school. There’s a delightful huia woodblock print by E. Mervyn Taylor on display. 

It has made me appreciate where the seeds of our present interior and exterior design were planted. Thanks to Justine and Lizzie for making it such a rich experience. Our familiarity with many of the items shows how well these ideas have become integrated into our current Kiwi everyday lifestyle. Baby boomers keep an eye out for the Tri-ang tricycle!

Dana Jackson
Friends of Te Papa