Business Plus review by Gilbert Peterson

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A History of New Zealand Product Design
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    Michael Smythe

    Business Plus Issue 85, September 2011.

    Design history witty, engaging

    New Zealand By Design is much more than a remarkable record of the work of our product designers; it represents as well a far reaching and thoroughly engaging history of New Zealand’s industrial innovation, and invention.

    A joy of the book is you can start anywhere. Dip in at page 267, for example. Related there is an anecdote on Rudi Schwarz, an Austrian cabinet maker who arrived here in 1965 and set up Cube Furniture. Retailer Arthur Radford said in reference to him and New Zealand designers in general: “They do innovate! They read overseas magazines and bring ideas back from overseas trips. This delivers good quality and good design – for the price.” Smythe drily notes: “With this kind of point missing logic Schwarz’s circular table… gained profound metaphoric meaning.”

    Yes there’s plenty of tales like this in the book and heaps of the authors’ wit in evidence, some acrid, some full of laughter, all of it somehow elucidatory and entertaining.

    What about the Landcrab all-terrain utility vehicle, with brushless electric motors in each wheel hub? Or the Hulme Supercar with bodies designed by Tony Parker? Development began in 2003 and production is due later this year. Or the Sealander first built by Terry Roycroft in 1991 to cut the commute time from Waiuku to Auckland?

    Its easy to get caught up and carried along with a great sense of excitement and celebration – of ‘gee whiz’ and ‘how fascinating’. Yet these are tales with practical outcomes, of things we used and still use, every day.

    The thing from a purely educational angle is that in covering the earlier parts of New Zealand’s industrial and design history, the author roots his tales of wonder and imagination firmly in the economic and social context from which they sprang. So many of our unique designs, these examples of technical entrepreneurship from yesterday, of dust pans, jandals, lamps, toys and drench guns, originated as ideas of new migrants newly responding to the challenges of this fresh Kiwi environment. The listing of how, and in what ways, necessity became mother to their invention makes compelling reading.

    But as I say, you don’t have to start at the beginning – this isn’t a novel where you feel you need to know what happens first to make sense of what comes later. Just pick it up and start anywhere, and prepare to find yourself trapped with the extraordinary thoughts and developments of other times and other places, no matter that its all still happening just down the road, in the machine shops and probably in the minds of your own work mates.

    Michael Smythe

    Just a note of clarification – Arthur Radford was speaking “in defence of New Zealand furniture manufacturers”, ie: the great Kiwi culture of DIY design which did not involve using designers like Rudi Schwarz.

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