At home with style, Rosemary McLeod

At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design 
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins
Godwit, $69.95,
ISBN 1869621107

How we live surely says as much about us as what we do. To students of style the choice of drapes and the shape of ashtrays are keys to much, much more than meets the eye.

That’s implicitly acknowledged by interior decorating magazines peddling the right looks to the aspirational. In popular culture, too, style itself has become a virtue, and choices of everyday objects can be cultish in their significance. A Philippe Starck lemon squeezer is a quick visual hit that’s now a cliché for high contemporary taste; a vintage Charles and Mary Eames armchair – not a re-make – invites the measured appreciation of the more knowing observer.

The why and how of this is Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ specialty both as a teacher – he’s Associate Professor of Design at Auckland’s Unitec – and as a researcher and writer on design. His gift is being able to weave what might be seen as an arcane interest into wider historical relevance, communicating his own excitement and pleasure at his discoveries and what they reveal about us. I can’t think of any other New Zealand writer who has communicated the importance of “style as it applies to the home” – the subject of his book – as effectively as he does to a general audience.

Lloyd Jenkins’ pioneering book is ambitious in size and scope, ranging with equal expertise over architecture, textile and furniture design, pottery and art glass, and presenting them as an organic entity, part of the evolving cocoon of the consciously decorated home. It’s about how New Zealanders lived in the 20th century, recording familiar housing styles, from dinky colonial cottage to creosote weatherboard and beyond, emphasising homes that stand apart as taste leaders, and the local craftsmen and women who enhanced them. It explains how these homes interpreted and reflected international themes, and deals with our efforts at creating something unique for ourselves. This has never been attempted here before, and this book is instantly a welcome reference source.

These are of course exceptional homes, those that stood out always in their neighbourhoods, setting challenging – and sometimes baffling – benchmarks in creative innovation. Both architects and owners have been exceptional people too, prepared to make a heroic stand in the midst of the mediocrity and conformity that dominated New Zealand well into last century. Lloyd Jenkins clearly delights in those houses which best exemplify a synthesis of architect’s and owner’s creativity and wishes, and some seem as modern today as they did decades ago.

Most of us knew something very different growing up, only details like cushion fabric changing in line with fashion, in houses that never searched for style. I grew up, for example, next to a 1950s house called Tai-Pang which had concrete flamingoes, a concrete bird bath, and a curved miniature bridge – never used – with painted pipe handrails facing the street. Hydrangeas grew under its windows. We had them too. So did everyone else. There’s another book to be written about the history of our gardens.

We never saw behind Tai-Pang’s terylene window drapes, but if we had, it’s a safe bet there would have been floral carpet and a three-piece suite upholstered in uncut moquette in front of a tiled electric fireplace. There would have been a flowering cactus in a striped red-and-white plastic holder, and a plywood tea trolley with circular sides and squeaky wheels. On the sole bookcase would have been copies of From N to Z and A Town Like Alice.  A gleaming radiogram would have displayed on its lid wedding pictures and studio portraits of children. There might well have been a china stallion with a clock in its stomach, a framed picture of ballerinas, and chrome yachts.

Similar details would have rung true for 50 per cent of homes within a 10-mile radius. Houses that differed are etched on my memory as a result: my German cello teacher’s  walls covered with honey-coloured varnished chip-board, her polished wooden floors, and large reproductions of paintings by Brueghel; a Jewish friend’s house with costly textured seaweed paper; the high-50s modernity of my mother’s gay friend Van, a Dutchman who managed the Maple furnishing store in Wellington; the black feature wall with a convex gold-framed mirror, copies of Landfall lined up on a wall-wide bookcase, of a friend’s educated family.

Most of those homes belonged to foreigners. It took courage to seek the new and the consciously designed in a colonial society of “transplanted English”, and few people had it. That’s why many people will find this book a revelation.

Here are familiar declarations of style as the last century progressed: Chapman-Taylor’s dark arts and crafts houses, still coveted when he died in the 1950s; Roger Walker’s “Noddy” houses with their round windows; colonial bungalows jazzed up by fashionable architects with exposed brick chimney, decorated with ethnic rugs and alarming woolly wall hangings. At times it’s an uncomfortable visual journey: taste changes fast; but the examples Lloyd Jenkins has chosen still look strong and convincing in their different ways. The only difficulty with the book is the reproduction quality of some photographs, drawn from contemporary publications and probably never of a high technical standard to begin with. The book’s design compensates for this, however, and is a style statement in itself.

Until now, writing like Lloyd Jenkins’ has been largely confined to the private dialogue of architects and industrial designers, in their own trade publications. But a general audience, increasingly visually sophisticated, can be successfully hooked into the subject, as the success of his book testifies: it’s already into its second printing. Part of that success may well be due to the current popularity of modernism, thoroughly traversed in the book, and the growing interest in Kiwi collectibles, which includes the applied arts.

Here the book is a triumph for its recording of designers previously unknown to the general public, and its explanation of the context of their work, from the crude trough vases of potter Brian Gardner to Ann Robinson’s monumental glass works. While the history of New Zealand pottery has been told in Gail Lambert’s seminal work, it has not been linked, until now, with architectural trends and design philosophies current at the time of its manufacture.

Lloyd Jenkins also details key fabric and furniture designers. The fabrics and wallpapers of William Mason – used as end papers – still look fresh, and the poet A R D Fairburn’s 1940s fabric designs seem especially adventurous in their use of Maori rock drawing imagery. The scope of the quirky furniture produced by Garth Chester’s firm in the 1950s will be another discovery for many; his 1944 “Curvesse” chair is already a desirable collectible. Roger Land’s 1973 fiberglass “Baby Hippo” children’s chair could well be, too, in the future.

Inevitably, in line with current taste, the modernist houses detailed here will be of special interest, among them the author’s own Robin Simpson house, featuring a plate-glass wall and the indoor-outdoor flow so beloved of real estate copywriting today.

Unsurprisingly, key houses have been commissioned by wealthy clients. Economist W B Sutch twice engaged Austrian émigré architect Ernst Plischke, once in a stylish 1930s renovation project and again for his famous Wellington house in the 1950s, previously recorded in books about the architect. The images of this remarkable house may disappoint in the light of its recent restoration, but this could well be because the author preferred to show it in its original state. The 1980s home of multi-millionaire businessman Alan Gibbs and his wife Jenny, designed by David Mitchell, is also presented here as a postmodernist tour de force. That said, the more modest home of potter Doreen Blumhardt gets its due, in part because it shows the rise of houseplants as a major decorative statement.

Amidst all this purity of intention the Greer/Firth house, completed in 1960, stands out for the way its décor softened over time while still retaining its integrity. It is photographed in the 1990s, when, the author observes, it had matured into a multi-layered and complex interior, a real home. Early in his book Lloyd Jenkins quotes a local writer from the 1920s, Jocelyn Brown, on just such a happy outcome. “Character,” she wrote, “is given to the room by the things which were collected or acquired over a period of time, and not by those things that can be bought all at once.”

Those who think they can achieve style with one swoop on an interior decorating store should heed her warning. They’ll never make it into a book like this.

 

Rosemary McLeod is a Wellington journalist whose Thrift to Fantasy: Home Textile Crafts of the 1930s-1950s is reviewed on p13.

 

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