New Zealand Listener review by John Walsh, August 13, 2011 | Issue 3718

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A History of New Zealand Product Design
Reviews New Zealand Listener review by John Walsh, August 13, 2011 | Issue 3718

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    Michael Smythe

    A design of delight
    Despite its cautionary tales, Michael Smythe’s history of New Zealand product design is an uplifting read.
    Who are we? In New Zealand by Design: A History of New Zealand Product Design, industrial designer Michael Smythe examines the history of this country’s “manufactured artefacts” for evidence of cultural distinctiveness. More specifically, he sets out to answer the question: “Is it yet possible to distinguish the essence of New Zealand product design?”
    Smythe knows his line of inquiry might be regarded as hopelessly passé: why not nominate the quintessential New Zealand novel or defining work of art while you’re at it? Eye-rolling reactions don’t bother him, though; he’s a believer, and his book seeks to both record and amplify New Zealand’s design “voice”. It’s also a call to arms. Confronted by the power of globalisation, which homogenises design as it internationalises manufacture, we should at the very least aim for negotiated settlements, rather than abject surrender.
    Although Smythe is an advocate for New Zealand design, he’s hardly Panglossian in his take on its history. How could he be? The story of design in New Zealand is a chronicle of missed and bungled opportunities, unrecognised and unappreciated genius, corporate short-sightedness, bureaucratic incompetence and governmental vacillation. Well, that’s the glass-half-empty version, but Smythe’s book is full of “what if” and “if only” moments.
    What if Richard Pearse, building and sort-of-flying his plane at Waitohi in 1907, had met up with Bertram Ogilvie, who was designing an aileron system in Napier around the same time? If only Health Ministry bureaucrats had seen the potential of Colin Murdoch’s prototype plastic disposable syringe when he brought it to them in the mid-1950s, instead of showing him the door. (Murdoch was still designing away in the 1970s, when he tested a harpoon that could perform a biopsy on a whale without harming the creature – perhaps the Japanese Government and the Institute of Cetacean Research should be told.)
    If only the Government hadn’t cancelled its orders for the Poly1 educational computer, which in 1981 was ahead of its time and its international competition. (The computer’s developer says National Party Cabinet minister Warren Cooper told him the Government could see no reason to enable teachers to do even less work.)
    These accounts of chances spurned and talent subverted are enough to make you weep. But there’s more to the story of thwarted design than bad luck and stupid decision-making. The real obstacles to the realisation of so many good designs were money (not enough of it) and distance (too much of it). It’s clear from Smythe’s book that New Zealand has never been short of inventive designers; what it has lacked is investors and business managers who can fund development and shepherd products into international markets.
    It all began so well for New Zealand design. Smythe starts his story with the artefacts made by pre-European Maori. In his opinion, “Maori object design set a standard that has yet to be exceeded in New Zealand.” Things went downhill with colonisation. A rather rudimentary society produced rather crude objects, or else just copied British things.
    Smythe doesn’t shy away from the issue of imitation, or what those on the receiving end call plagiarism. New Zealand designers have been and continue to be ripped off by foreign manufacturers, but New Zealanders have done their share of infringing, too. (Remoteness had its advantages.) Some leit-motifs emerge: strong traditions in agricultural product design, for example, and, more surprisingly, in medical equipment design.
    Smythe tracks the evolution of New Zealand design in the 20th century, during which designers were often collateral damage in the long struggle between economic protectionists and ultimately triumphant free traders (welcome to The Warehouse!). Some heroic design-focused companies survived the carnage – Fisher & Paykel is an outstanding example – and others, such as office furniture maker Formway, have emerged in the past couple of decades.
    The pace of Smythe’s narrative picks up as it nears the present, and the last 120 pages of a 480-page text are a gallop through an impressive array of recent products, terminating neatly but perhaps unfortunately with a range of contemporary eco-coffins.
    New Zealand-designed products are increasingly sophisticated, but the question remains: is this country to be a design “nursery school” for small start-ups or a home to grown-up, design-led companies? Smythe believes New Zealand can overcome its disadvantages of scale: “Our secret weapon is our capacity for interdisciplinary teamwork.”
    As for his “are we there yet?” question: yes, he says, New Zealand has a distinct design character. Ours is a “design of delight”, “direct” and “honest”, light of touch and free of solemnity. Goodness – sounds like us, as Radio New Zealand National might say.
    And what of Smythe’s own product? New Zealand by Design is an invaluable source book, copiously illustrated. You might need a magnifying glass to follow the font – bloody graphic designers! – but it is, despite its cautionary tales, an uplifting read, and a timely corrective to the widespread pessimism about what we’re making of our country.
    John Walsh is a former managing editor of architecture and design magazine publisher AGM. His books include Home Work: Leading New Zealand Architects’ Own Homes, one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2010.

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