What makes some Kiwi designs last when others fade away?

by Donna Chisholm / 16 May, 2018
Dick Frizzell

Artist Dick Frizzell, pictured here with his iconic artwork 'Mickey to Tiki', says he has three rules: “Nothing’s sacred, everything’s up for grabs and never ask permission.” Photo/Ken Downie.

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They’re instantly recognisable, but what makes some New Zealand images and designs endure when others burn briefly then fade? Donna Chisholm looks at what’s inspired some of our best-known homegrown work and asks the experts to explain the secrets of great design.

November 1992. It’s 5.30pm and on The Strand in Parnell, Auckland, an expectant crowd of around 100 is waiting for the Gow Langsford Gallery’s latest, and arguably most controversial, exhibition to open. The artist has fashioned a big sign outside, deliberately in cheap polystyrene: “Tiki”, it says. Dick Frizzell is nothing if not a stirrer, but if a portrait of the artist as a young(er) man were painted tonight, he would look uncharacteristically anxious.

“I was shitting myself,” he says. “My knees were trembling. I felt like the matador waiting for the bull to come out the door. I thought, ‘Oops, what have I done?’”

What he’d done, over and over again, was tinker with the tiki. His exhibition featured dozens of paintings of the image, reworked and reimagined to resemble anything from Casper the Friendly Ghost and Goofy the dog, to Hans Arp and Picasso abstracts.

“I just wanted to open the stable door and let that horse out about whose culture it is. We live in New Zealand – we are all part of this,” he says.

He’d become fascinated by the cultural taboos surrounding the tiki months earlier, when on a “tiki tour” of the country, he discovered commercial replicas of the symbol had been almost completely erased – even the famous Air New Zealand plastic souvenir was no more. Frizzell argued this was a form of cultural cleansing and a dangerous precedent. “I have three rules in my line of work: nothing’s sacred, everything’s up for grabs and never ask permission. You can never get any good without the bad happening as well. If you decide a culture at any one point is perfect, let’s keep it, you ring fence it and cut off the oxygen that comes from the trash, and the culture withers and dies.” Cultural trash, he says, has to be there, seething away – a glorious compost heap of bad and good ideas.

Reaction to the exhibition was swift and, in some quarters, excoriating, with Frizzell dubbed a “spiritual assassin”. “It was a hell of a ride,” he writes in his 2009 book Dick Frizzell – The Painter. But it was a ride that ultimately led to the most famous work of his career when, three years later he produced “Mickey to Tiki” for a child cancer charity auction in Wellington.

The watercolour and gouache on paper, which Frizzell calls the source of the Nile because of everything that flowed from it, fetched $4000 at the auction. In 2013, it sold for more than $100,000. Frizzell turned it into a lithograph – “Mickey to Tiki Tu Meke” – in 1997, then in 2012, launched a new edition, reversing the image and colours.

Today, it’s among the most ubiquitous images in New Zealand popular culture, adorning everything from spectacles cases and wine-cooler bags to posters, T-shirts, belt buckles and skateboards. “We drew the line at stationery for The Warehouse. I’m surprised I baulked at that, but I did,” the former adman laughs. “You spend a period of your life thinking, ‘I’m sick of this one thing defining me’, and then you reach a point where you say, ‘I’m fucking lucky, I’ve got two or three things out there that still hold up culturally.’” Certainly the heat has disappeared from the claims that he’s appropriated and bastardised Māori culture. “The mana of the tiki hasn’t been diminished in the slightest. Quite the opposite.”

Locally and internationally, Māori art and crafts – and, later, Pākehā representations of them – are still the most readily identifiable and enduring examples of New Zealand “design”. They were the starting point for Michael Smythe’s award-winning 2011 book, which aimed to trace its trajectory and define a Kiwi style.

Michael Smythe with the koru flag he designed. Photo/Ken Downie.

“Scandinavian design is clean and wholesome. Italian design may not always work but it has flair and style. Swiss design can be pure to the point of sterility. German design is rational, robust and reliable… What, if any, ingredient is New Zealand product design adding to the global salad?” he asked in the introduction to New Zealand by Design. After concluding that Māori object design “set a standard that has yet to be exceeded in New Zealand”, Smythe offered an aspiration for what contemporary local designers could offer the world.

“I call it the ‘design of delight’. It is neither opulent nor sterile. It is accomplished with a light touch rather than a heavy hand. It delights in what it is, who it’s for and how it’s made. It is direct and to the point, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It offers ‘no bullshit’ honesty with a twinkle in its eye. It reflects the clarity of our light and the freshness of our air. At its best it delivers the tingle up the spine…”

Good examples of “designs of delight”, he says, include David Trubridge’s lights, Peter Haythornthwaite’s flip file, pen holder and fly-fishing cabinet – and, yes, Frizzell’s tiki, too.

“He’s broken a lot of barriers between art and design and Māori and Pākehā,” says Smythe of Frizzell. Originally one of the sternest critics of the tiki exhibition, he wrote a blistering review in which he labelled it offensive, but has since “completely changed my mind. I realised Māori [design] was not only strong enough to withstand that sort of banter but was actually strengthened by it. Dick had studied the thing deeply and he’s done it with conviction. Māori art, which I redefine in my book as Māori design, is purposeful. It’s never just decoration. It’s communication. It always has meaning.”

The same isn’t always true when they’re reworked by Pākehā, for example in artist Gordon Walters’ koru-inspired abstracts which, since December, have been reproduced on umbrellas, scarves, tote bags, placemats, coasters and cushion covers, nearly 40 years after the paintings were first exhibited.

Says Smythe: “I once said to Gordon that his ‘Painting No. 1’ was the best statement of the benefits of a bicultural society I’d ever seen. He said, ‘You’re most welcome to that interpretation, but the point of my painting is that it has no meaning.’ He was engaged in pure abstraction.”

Those images, however, are widely perceived today as something quintessentially Kiwi. Lucy Hammonds is one of three co-curators of the Walters retrospective exhibition New Vision, at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. She says what’s interesting about Walters and his visual legacy is the divergence between what he set out to do and what other people have brought to his work. “It’s a sort of aspirational identity position that many people now attach to the iconography he developed. It’s quite separate to what he was interested in and trying to achieve with his abstraction at the time.”

Gordon Walters

“Painting No.1”, by Gordon Walters, who died in 1995. He described it as “pure abstraction”. Photo courtesy of The Gordon Walters Estate.

She says Walters, who died in 1995, eventually accepted that his abstractions “never quite got away from what he was seeking to get away from, because their meaning in New Zealand culture was inextricably connected.

I think people see them as the marriage of modern New Zealand, of identity, the relationship with Māori art and tradition and the treatment of the works aesthetically.”

Like Frizzell’s tiki, Walters’ abstracts also sparked the appropriation debate. In an essay written for a book on the exhibition (it closed in Dunedin on April 8 and opens at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki on July 7), Auckland University associate professor Deidre Brown, who teaches design and architecture, says the main protagonists eventually moved on to other intellectual concerns and the debate faded from academic art history. She says Walters’ own doubts about whether the koru-derived form in his work was sufficiently removed from its cultural and historical origins and traditions, led him to progressively abandon it.

Brown believes Māori culture has never got the credit it deserves for its contribution to much of New Zealand design. “I guess that appropriating practice comes from a particular age and the thinking is now that most contemporary designers wouldn’t do it unless they were trying to make a point, like Dick Frizzell,” she told North & South. “I don’t think ‘Mickey to Tiki’ is him being ridiculous. It’s him trying to express the story of how things change and raise questions that make us think, which is what good art should do. It lifts that work from graphic design, which we think of as being something highly commercial; it’s not like the koru on the back of the plane.”

Frizzell’s work, and his background in art, advertising and graphic design, has blurred the sometimes fine line between art and design – his “Four Square Man” appeared first in a painting of Kingsland shops in 1982 before being churned out on souvenir-store tea-towels.

North Shore photographer and graphic designer Reuben Price is the man responsible for translating some of the best-known New Zealand art, including Frizzell’s and Walters’ work, into design-store staples. Revenue from sales is shared 50-50 between his company, 100% New Zealand, and the artist, or in Walters’ case, the artist’s estate.

Price says it’s difficult to identify which designs will endure and which will quickly fade. “You put it out to the universe and the universe decides if it’s popular.” In New Zealand today, he says, the universe has decided it likes birds. “You could put a bird on anything, seriously. People love native birds. And baches and caravans – I think they remind them of their childhood.”

He’s surprised the “Mickey to Tiki” range remains such a strong seller – the biggest of the company’s 45 product lines. “I can’t believe everyone doesn’t already have one. When I first saw it, I thought it was the most genius thing I’d ever seen, but we only started producing it [for design stores] two or three years ago. If I see something too often, I’m turned off, because I wouldn’t want something that’s everywhere.”

Price does a lot of work with Te Papa, for the museum’s shop, and says the relationship has taught him about what is and isn’t appropriate in the use of Māori art. “I wouldn’t put a Māori design on dinnerware, for example. When I took Walters on, I thought he wasn’t a Māori designer but was influenced by it, so I’m comfortable with that. We could reproduce Goldies, for example, because there is no copyright, but we choose not to.”

He approached the Walters’ estate for the rights to six to eight of the koru-inspired images last June. “I’ve loved them from the moment I saw them. They’re so timeless you could ask a millennial when they were created and they could have been yesterday.” Reorders came in quickly, although some stores have no idea where the imagery on the products came from. “Some of them don’t get it – they say, ‘You’ve released a range that’s all stripey, haven’t you?’”

Designer David Trubridge. Photo/Michael Schultz.

For designer David Trubridge, famous internationally for his furniture and lighting, art and design are part of the same creative process. “I don’t differentiate them or use those words as nouns. To me, they are verbs, things you do in the creative process. The third one is craft.”

In 2004, Italian design house Cappellini bought the rights to his “Body Raft” lounger, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris bought his “Icarus” light installation in 2012. But his most popular design – by far – is the kitset lampshade, the “Coral” light. He made the first one in 2003 on a teaching stint in Perth and it changed the direction of his career. “I discovered a niche in the market nobody knew existed.”

His company sells about 10,000 of the lights, worth $3.5 million, each year. Trubridge says without it, he’d have two staff; with it, he has 20. The light consists of a single plywood shape repeated 60 times to form a polyhedron.

“As a kid, I used to play around making polyhedra out of cardboard, so I went back to that geometry to find something I could make in an afternoon. I asked my wife what we could do with it and she said, ‘We can put a light bulb in it’, so I did that. There was absolutely no sense this was a new design, it’s just something that happened. What’s really important is that it’s the artistic process coming through, rather than as a designer saying, ‘Well, I need to design a new chair.’ I’d say, ‘What the hell for? We have a million chairs in the world, what’s the point in designing another one?’ I can’t design to order. That way, you’re on the wrong footing from the start because you’re coming at it from a fixed point of view, rather than to create something for the fun of it.”

Trubridge's Coral pendant light.

Good designs are always timeless, says Trubridge. “There has to be something about it you can’t place in a particular era. I think the perfect sphere is such a fundamental form that we all respond to it intuitively.”

Oxford-born Trubridge has lived in New Zealand since 1985, and is based at Whakatū in Hawke’s Bay. New Zealand fauna and flora and Māori craft have heavily influenced his work, with other lights styled on hinaki (fish traps), flax, kina and kōura. Sustainability is a key driver of the work he produces. “In today’s world, it has to be environmentally responsible in terms of choice of materials, processes, packaging and shipment. If it’s not environmentally responsible, it’s irrelevant and it’s bad design.”

He’s tired of what he calls “clever-dick design” that’s based largely on a witty idea. “It’s a one-line joke and in a very crowded competitive market, you can understand people doing it. But once you have the idea, you almost don’t need to make any more. I saw a table in a London design show where they’d used an axe at each corner for the legs and wedged the axe blade into a slot in the top. That’s a gimmick. It’s a table with axes. It’s not good design. Good design comes from the heart.”

Another Kiwi designer with Trubridge-like versatility is San Francisco-based Jamie McLellan, whose portfolio includes everything from beer taps to lights and chairs. Five years ago, he teamed up with former All Whites soccer international Tim Brown and turned his hand to feet – specifically, shoes. The result, in 2016, was Allbirds, environmentally friendly merino sneakers that were immediately critically acclaimed, with Time magazine hailing them as “the world’s most comfortable shoes”. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a fan – she’s been photographed wearing them, and gifted pairs to Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy on a trip across the Tasman in March.

Allbirds designer Jamie McLellan. Photo/Meek Zuiderwyk.

So stratospheric has been the brand’s rise – it’s sold a million pairs of Allbirds in two years and now employs around 100 people, compared to just four when the shoes launched – that McLellan closed his New Zealand studio last year to move to the US to work full-time for Allbirds.

“We wanted to design a shoe that wouldn’t become obsolete, but become a classic for the 21st century,” he told North & South. “It sounds really grandiose, but you have to have those lofty things when you’re trying to design a product.”

For McLellan and Brown, along with company co-founder Joey Zwillinger, the company’s name helped form the vision of the product. “Allbirds was an irreverent name that referred to what New Zealand used to be before people set foot on the islands, and that was what we decided to pursue – this quirky, playful, inclusive territory that was about treading lightly and thoughtfully and wasn’t exclusive and highbrow,” says McLellan, who’s found little difference between designing shoes, chairs, lights and beer taps.

“There are always better ways to produce and consume, and that involves design, not just in terms of styling, but also material science and understanding the impact of not only our products, but of us as a business on the world. Design has to encapsulate those things and if it doesn’t, it’s not design, it’s just whimsy.”

Comfort was key. “If your old man says he’s bought a pair of comfortable shoes, you can generally assume they’ll be pretty ugly. Our shoes look simple, but we’ve worked hard to craft a beautiful silhouette, and they have a small amount of whimsy – we intentionally made rather large eyelets on them: the one little embellishment, I guess. We didn’t want our products to be too austere and this gives them a little bit of personality.”

Designers Institute CEO Cathy Veninga says at design events she attends, “practically everyone is wearing Allbirds”. The design, she says, has “a lightness and beautiful simplicity” that are crucial to its success. “Great designs have to be aesthetically beautiful and they have to function, but they also need to communicate.”

Veninga says although New Zealand designers such as McLellan, Danny Coster (Apple, GoPro), Grant Davidson (Philips) and Matt Holmes (Nike) have garnered global attention and high-powered jobs overseas, the aim is to have Kiwi designers based here and working internationally. “We want to be a design mecca to the world.”

A study last year by DesignCo, a consortium led by Massey University College of Creative Arts Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Claire Robinson, assessed the value of the design industry’s contribution to the New Zealand economy at more than $10 billion.

Veninga says that should entitle the industry to more government support. “The Government hasn’t understood that although global companies need innovation, design is a quintessential tool within that. Nothing will sell unless it’s got attractability. Design has always been considered the pretty picture at the end of the process. Around the boardroom table, they look to the past to learn from their mistakes to plan their future. Designers look to the future and find the solution.”

Design writer and author Douglas Lloyd Jenkins says much of the best New Zealand design is really craft. His 2006 book, 40 Legends of New Zealand Design, includes a number of ceramicists and potters, including Crown Lynn’s Frank Carpay and Mirek Smisek. “There were a lot of big-name artists like Gordon Walters and Milan Mrkisich who had design careers they kind of hid because they moved on to art and didn’t want it sullied by design. But their design work is beautiful and more accessible than their art work and is worthy of being collected.”

 Philippe Starck's lemon squeezer.In Jenkins’ view, design is all about functionality. “It’s got to work. There are some things in the world of design that are quite iconic for the wrong reasons – a classic example is Philippe Starck’s “Juicy Salif” lemon squeezer. You can’t squeeze a lemon with it. It’s the stupidest object. It’s bad design – it’s highly recognisable but it falls short to me.” The glass squeezers found in most kitchens are a much better example of great design, he says. “They’re lovely to look at, highly functional and survive for generations.”

He says when people ask him if there is a New Zealand design style, “they want me to say, ‘Yes, it’s this incredibly glamorous, incredibly sophisticated, very urbane thing.’

“But we’re not a sophisticated people. We’re not a glamorous or urbane people. We’re a pragmatic, relatively dour, relatively joyless society. People want me to show them something they hadn’t noticed and say we could sell it overseas for billions if we tried. The idea of our ‘number 8 fencing wire’ ingenuity is also a myth. I don’t think we’re particularly ingenious.”

Although Jenkins thinks of New Zealand design as earthy, grounded, pragmatic and “not always beautiful”, for fashion designer Dame Denise L’Estrange-Corbet, co-founder of WORLD, beauty is at the heart of great design. “Chances are, if it’s something really beautiful, it’s not going to be something really cheap. Nothing in the $2 Shop stops me in my tracks, and I don’t think it ever will, apart from thinking how ugly it is. Good design, be it a building, a chair, a shoe, a hotel foyer or a cheese grater, stops you dead in your tracks. You should want to admire, desire, aspire and ultimately acquire it. It has you lying in bed at night thinking about it, the pull is so great. It has you questioning everything about it: ‘Who did it?’ ‘How did they do it?’ ‘I have never seen anything like this before’ or even ‘What is it?’ You can love it or hate it, but it has grabbed your attention.”

She says she had just that reaction when she first spotted Starck’s lemon squeezer in a Ponsonby shop in 1990: “I had to have it. I still have it. I don’t use it. I’ve never squeezed a lemon on it, but I didn’t buy it for that. I have four teapots and I don’t drink tea.”

She despairs at cheap knock-offs of design classics. “I hate generic. It makes me want to chuck. It’s an insult to the designer, that their idea has been taken and watered down using the cheapest materials, so someone can make a quick buck. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen – you can’t do it with a song, art or a book, but fashion and furniture design seem to be open slather for the ruthless.”

L’Estrange-Corbet is also critical of local fashion designers who make their clothing offshore. WORLD is one of the few that still manufactures at home [since publication a Spinoff investigation found some of their t-shirts are made in Bangladesh]. “So many have gone offshore that the industry is hanging by a thread. Where are the students coming out of [design] schools going to go? There won’t be anyone making anything here.”

The WORLD label she created with Francis Hooper shot to prominence in 1995, when its “21st Century Origami Dress” won the avant-garde section of the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards. “We’d entered every year since 1988. You fill out the form and send in $70 to enter. One morning, we got a call from [presenter] Maysie Bestall-Cohen, saying, ‘I’ve got your form and your money but I haven’t got your garment. We’d completely forgotten to make one. We had 24 hours to drop it off to her. Francis said, ‘Go to Whitcoulls and get something. So I came back with a roll of raffia, a piece of black card and a piece of white card and made it on a mannequin. So for $10, I got a $5000 prize.” The dress is now held at Auckland Museum. WORLD garments are also in the collections of Te Papa, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

After 30 years in design, L’Estrange-Corbet has lost none of her passion for the art of design. “There is nothing I love more than a design that challenges me. It excites me, it makes me want it, it talks to me, it makes you sit up and take note, it literally screams at you from across the room, the shop or the street.”

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

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