The great Kiwiana icons: Our most recognisable designs

by Donna Chisholm / 19 May, 2018

A bach on Rangitoto Island. Photo/Ken Downie.

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A look at New Zealand's most iconic designs and images.

The Beloved and Endangered Bach

It’s a bach in the north and a crib in the south, but the traditional Kiwi holiday retreat remains a much-loved – if endangered – feature of the country’s cultural landscape.

In a 1995 essay in New Zealand Geographic, architect Nigel Cook described the bach as “the only truly indigenous building type the second wave of immigrants to these islands have thus far produced”. But he told North & South that its typical appearance – cobbled together from fibrolite and corrugated iron, surrounded by kikuyu grass with a long-drop down the back – is only a small part of its essence. What makes it important, he says, is what it says about us.

“After our newness, our safeness is the most characteristic thing about New Zealand. No wild animals, no dangerous insects, our borders are 1200 miles away from our neighbour, and they say they’re friendly. It’s a unique situation to be in and we don’t recognise it intellectually often enough. This is what the bach was doing, unconsciously. What did you have there between you and your neighbour? Very often a bit of mānuka, some long grass and a flax bush.

“It was a place where all the suburban rules and regulations were loosened, so you could slop around in old clothes and didn’t have to pay too much attention to the housework and all those things. It was a place that was as close as you could get to total relaxation.”

Museums Wellington deputy director Paul Thompson, who wrote a book on baches in 1985, warns the iconic makeshift homes of early-to-mid last century are an endangered species. “They were originally built at beaches because they weren’t really desirable places to live and people tended to live in suburbs. Since then, beach properties have become more upmarket, luxurious and valuable.”

Although some people retain a humble bach on a million dollar property because they enjoy the lifestyle, many have been demolished or have fallen down. A simple dwelling built in a special spot near a beach, stream or river isn’t unique to New Zealand, he says, but “baches in the way we use them, and the word, may be unique. We have indigenous Māori architecture with the wharenui, and I also think the knocked-together nature of many of those older baches was a sort of New Zealand architecture.” 

He agrees some baches should be protected, saying the Department of Conservation needs to look after our cultural as well as our ecological landscape.

Some of the Swanndri shirt range.

The Enduring Swanni

Of all the New Zealand fashion labels that have endured – think Karen Walker, WORLD, Zambesi and NOM*D for starters – one name has outlived them all: the Swanndri.

The sturdy bush shirt was launched in 1913 by New Plymouth textile dealer William Henry Broome, who recognised that the clothing often worn by farmers and forestry workers wasn’t protecting them from the extremes of weather in which they often worked, and set about designing something that would keep them warm and dry.

“In product testing, he observed how water beaded on the wool and ran off it like water off a swan’s back – so the spelling of the brand name was quite creative for that time,” says current Swanndri CEO Mark Nevin. More than a century on, the “very basic design – it’s just a big T” has morphed into a range with 200 colours and styles, but the conventional checked bush shirt remains a big, although not top, seller.

Although older New Zealanders readily identify the “Swanni” as archetypal Kiwi bloke-wear, the same can’t be said of younger generations, says Nevin. “When we did research in 2015, 49% of Aucklanders had never heard of it. It tells us that the demographics and psychographics of our consumer base have changed. We would typically have regarded ourselves as well-known, but that’s changed, and that’s to do with immigration; we have a task to tell them about Swanndri.”

Swanndris sold strongly into the 1980s, when sales began to flag under the onslaught of international brands, but Nevin says they’ve recovered since 2005 as the company has sold its message that the brand is bigger than one style.

“Our traditional, provincial market has got smaller, and urban markets have got much larger. If we continued to focus on providing our heritage styles, the business wouldn’t survive, so we’ve been very careful to develop products that are more relevant to urban consumers.”

Although New Zealand wool is still used in the shirts, the garments are now produced in China.

Fashion designer KAren Walker

Fashion designer Karen Walker and her “Runaway Girl” motif , right.

Memorable Gems

In contemporary jewellery, the names Alan Preston, Warwick Freeman and Jens Hansen have long been at the forefront of the design discussion. But two of the most recognisable pieces in recent years have been produced by a trio with no training in the craft: singer Boh Runga and fashion design power pair Karen Walker and Mikhail Gherman.

Gherman drew the “Runaway Girl” in just two hours as the motif for the first collection Walker showed at London Fashion Week in 2001. Now, although memories of the clothes in that collection have faded, the image of the girl and her rucksack has become the label’s most iconic design.

“She emerged fully formed and hasn’t changed since,” Walker told North & South. “She does represent the mood of our brand – one of constant movement forward and a sense of adventure. In some ways, her name’s a misnomer. I think she’s heading towards something, with curiosity, strength and independence, more than running away. But there’s something lyrical about the name ‘Runaway Girl’ that I’ll never change.”

Walker says she makes sure she doesn’t overuse the image. “We’re very careful with her. It would be easy to fall into the trap of putting her to work anywhere and everywhere. She will never be ubiquitous.”

The Feather Kisses design.Runga introduced “Feather Kisses” in her third jewellery collection in 2009. The miromiro cross was an instant success and remains her biggest seller. “I love the idea of the kiss motif, but it’s such a dumb motif – it’s just a cross and you see it everywhere. When you’ve got two feathers doing it, it’s a little bit different – and feather kisses sound like some of the softest kisses you could have.”

When she started designing jewellery in 2007, as part of NZ Mint’s efforts to revitalise their jewellery brand, Runga says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew I didn’t want it to fail. I wanted something that had a little bit of Aotearoa, which wasn’t really there. There was kitschy Kiwiana, but not a lot else.”

She drew the images she wanted and had a jeweller craft them. Her first collection was called Birdlands, and the birds and feathers theme continued in her second, The Messenger Stories. “I’ve never seen my jewellery as a fashion brand – it’s a gifting brand.”

She believes the timelessness of the feather kisses image has helped it endure. “It’s not a fad piece, but it’s instantly recognisable for a lot of people.”

Zespri spife

The Zespri “spife” by industrial designer Peter Haythornthwaite.

Design Legacy

The work of industrial design pioneer Peter Haythornthwaite is being celebrated with an exhibition in Auckland and a new book by Michael Smythe.

The exhibition Design Generation, and the book of the same name, mark Haythornthwaite’s 50 years in the field. His best-known designs include the är’ti-fakt-s card index file (1979-80); his Retro and Major Tom pen sets (1988), Ooh-Ah-Stove (1991), Gone fishin’ fly cabinet (1992); and Zespri’s kiwifruit knife-spoon utensil, the “spife”. But he’s also the brains behind a raft of other designs, including Merlin remote control garage door openers, tamper-proof pill bottles, Crown Lynn’s Air New Zealand crockery and kitchen range, the Mop-a-Matic floor mop, Merryware brushware and the Wella hairbrush.

“Peter’s legacy includes a New Zealand design profession emerging from the back room to enlighten the boardroom,” writes Smythe. “His contribution to design-led enterprise will reverberate for generations to come.”

Design icons

Edmonds Baking Powder, left, and the Four Square Grocer as adapted by Dick Frizzell.

Other icons of note

The Edmonds Baking Powder label

Established in 1879, the trademark is one of New Zealand’s best-known brands. Thomas Edmonds told a doubting customer her baking was “sure to rise” if she used the product.

Ches and Dale

The rural cartoon characters – the shorter one illustrated by Dick Frizzell – appeared in television ads for Chesdale cheese in the late 1960s, singing the jingle: “We are the boys from down on the farm, we really know our cheese...”

The black singlet

Popularised by Fred Dagg (John Clarke) in the 1970s, the singlet was worn by shearers and farmers from the early 1900s.

The Buzzy Bee

The pull-along children’s toy was made by Auckland brothers Hec and John Ramsey in the 1940s, but in his book Crikey! Talk about Kiwiana, Richard Wolfe says the idea actually came from a toy made by Fisher-Price in New York.

Corrugated iron animals

Artist and sculptor Jeff Thomson’s creations are in public and private collections around the world. Thomson-inspired corrugated iron signage and animals are among the main attractions of Tirau.

Footrot Flats’ Dog

Murray Ball’s cartoon sheepdog, along with other characters including Wal and Cooch, were born in 1975 and have outlived their creator, who died last year. The original newspaper cartoon strip spawned books, a movie, a musical and even a theme park.

The Four Square grocer

Wolfe says the image was based on an actual grocer, George Allan, who opened a store in Auckland after returning from World War II. When Dick Frizzell included his own version of the image in a 1982 artwork, it became so popular it ended up being reproduced on prints, posters and tea towels.

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.


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