The man who tried to design New Zealand

by William McAloon / 15 May, 2004

Exhibition: CROWN LYNN AND BEYOND, by Frank Carpay, the Dowse, Lower Hutt, (to June 13).

You can barely turn around at the moment without hearing some fresh good news about the cultural and economic significance of the creative industries in New Zealand. Pass the statistics: Trade & Enterprise report that such pursuits employ more than 50,000 people, and contribute 3.1 percent to our GDP. But long before any of this warmth and crowing, Frank Carpay was blazing the trail, a prolific and brilliant designer who has been posthumously recognised by the Hawke's Bay Museum's touring exhibition.

Carpay was a one-man creative industry. Actually, he was several industries: ceramicist, graphic designer, textile producer, fashionista and painter. An émigré from Holland, Carpay arrived in Auckland in 1953 and took up a position at Crown Lynn, then at the high point of its most innovative period. He trained as a designer before the war and it was a 1946 meeting with Picasso on the Riviera (as well as the influence of Matisse) that confirmed Carpay's artistic direction.

Crown Lynn didn't really know what to do with him, but Carpay quickly turned out a series of elegant, linear hand-painted ceramic designs - 175 in six months. The exhibition includes several examples of his works from Holland, showing the origins of his style; whether it was a material pragmatism or a response to his new environment, Carpay's New Zealand works were bolder and more robust. The same motifs remained in play - fruit, flowers, figures, abstract forms in both geometric and organic modes - and, 50 years on, they remain utterly fresh and delightful: his surrealist-tinged "Lips" and "Harlequin" decorations ought to be regarded as icons of New Zealand design.

Realising what they had, Crown Lynn established the Handwerk label for

Carpay's output. He designed his own ceramics as well as decorating the pottery's standard ware, and his decorations were to be put into production after being road-tested in a series of exhibitions around the country. Influential architect Vernon Brown waxed lyrical and long at the opening of one such exhibition in Auckland, and Carpay's works were favourably reviewed.

Despite this, and the designer's extra-ordinary productivity, Handwerk was pitifully short-lived. As the exhibition's curator Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins observes in the informative catalogue, it wasn't just that Carpay's pieces didn't sell well, but that they were caught between prejudices against the local and the foreign. "The foreign," writes Lloyd-Jenkins, "was suspicious, while the local had to be inferior." Carpay's work seemed local and foreign. It's also apparent that Carpay misread his market: a plate from 1954, intended to commemorate the Royal Visit, has a decidedly erotic treatment of the new Queen, visible nipple and all. Handwerk was closed in 1956 and Carpay was out of a job.

A precarious existence as a freelancer followed and, at his lowest ebb, Carpay found himself teaching at Howick District High School. By 1961, he was back in the game, establishing himself as a printer of fabrics. The exhibition includes numerous examples of his screen-printed towelling, used in a range of beachwear designed in collaboration with fellow Dutchman Robert Leek. But although the exuberant designs appealed to a burgeoning youth market, Carpay's printing business was financially shaky. A faulty shipment of imported fabric in the early 1970s led to its downfall. Carpay returned to design jobbing, no longer having the energy or resources to set up a new enterprise. He died in 1984.

The irony, of course, is that Carpay's Handwerk pieces are now highly sought-after and sell for serious money. It's an irony that casts a slight pall over the exhibition, and not just in the usual neglected-artist-ahead-of-his-time manner. Carpay's story is a sad one (it makes the exuberance of his work that much more remarkable), but you can't help wondering how different our current creative industries might be these days if New Zealand had been more receptive to Carpay and other pioneers of modern design.

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