The Shed review by Terry Snow

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    Michael Smythe

    Michael Smythe says that “the underlying purpose of this book is to establish if it is yet possible to distinguish the essence of New Zealand product design.” But it seems he also tries to embrace almost all known Kiwi inventions and adaptations in something more like a catalogue of ingenuity than design (and it sometimes reads like that). And while international styles can be summed up—Italian design has flair and style, German is rational, robust and reliable, Spanish exuberant—the best for New Zealand is that “isolation has necessitated a continuous process of adopting, adapting and inventing. In spite of advances in transport and technology, isolation remains a major factor in the development of New Zealand product design.”

    That said, there are some terrific stories and the research is detailed. John Britten’s freakish design genius is accorded accolades as is his engineering and artistry (his motorbike was exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum). Design giant Peter Haythornthwaite and artist-in-furniture David Trubridge get deserved space. The expected pioneers are here: Maori flax eel traps, Ernest Hayes and his fence strainer, Gallagher’s, Fisher & Paykel, Formway furniture, Sealegs, the Yike bike, jet boat (Bill Hamilton drew on scraps of paper all around the house) and jet pack.

    The medical innovators are fascinating. Colin Murdoch had his cutting-edge syringes ripped off (“a patent only gives you the right to sue,” he said philosophically), Norma McCulloch’s vacuum pump was wrongly declared ineffective, Paul Martin’s incubator fought the Kiwi clobbering machine, unimaginative conservatism, government hurdles. But the collapse of Kiwi design enterprises most often is down to cold business decisions —Tullen snips, Designline, ProDesign magazine( in May; the book is right up to date). For individuals, tenacity for is always the key to success.

    The book is problematic – tiny type for 500 pages will not be helpful to many readers, full page images, surprisingly for a visual topic, are rare (Riverstone stoneware benefits but is hardly the aesthetic star while the Hulme car is more appropriate). Some authorial self-applause—“Michael, you are the man to write this book” (quoted) and the author’s design class photo—seem diversionary. There’s a dearth of fashion and architecture where our character is clearer. Enlisting artist Len Lye as a designer and the Treaty of Waitangi as “an act of purposeful design” seems omnivorous.

    But the book’s wealth of information goes some way to combating the popular view that the buzzy bee is the greatest local achievement. There are questions over that, the jandal and even the classic re-sealable fitting tin lid as New Zealand inventions (let alone design winners). Here again, the research is rewarding.

    In the end, the spirit is lifted by contemplating a simple piece of elegant design like the Goldfruit plastic kiwifruit scoop for Zespri by Peter Haythornthwaite Design. Stylish, a practical cutter and scoop, sculptural even, this is what design is about—res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself.—TS

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