By Insider – Jock Phillips
A moment of panic as I woke. Was I late? I leant over to flick on the torch. Yes, time to get up. I went to the bathroom and relaxed for a few precious seconds in the warm even flow of the satin-jet shower head while enjoying the Dave Kent poster on the wall. I raced to the kitchen and put some toast in the toaster. Damn! I knocked the tin of muesli on the floor. No worries. The neat dust-pan and broom did the job. Just time for a quick minute to check the e-mails while I sat on my oh-so-comfy Formway chair. Then the taxi was there – I was off again on the REAL New Zealand Festival road trip.
What made this scenario survivable was that all the items I encountered on this early morning journey worked and were well-designed; and all, believe it or not, were creations of graduates from the Massey University College of Creative Arts or its predecessors.
To mark the 125th anniversary of the establishment of Wellington’s first School of Design under Arthur Riley in 1886, Massey and the REAL New Zealand Festival have combined to put together a fascinating exhibition in the main hall of the old museum building at Buckle Street, Wellington.
‘Old School New School’ surveys the work of the school’s graduates. It is surprisingly wide-ranging. In some ways the most intriguing aspect are those pieces of industrial design which surround us every day and make our early morning panics survivable – torches, toasters, chairs. Such things need to work efficiently, shaped to the contours and natural movements of the body; yet they should also be easy on the eye. Although they make a huge difference to the quality of our everyday lives, their designers are relatively unheralded. Not until they appear in an exhibition such as this do you stop to consider the clever design of something as simple as Peter Tasker’s brush and dustpan set. I love the clean lines of the Zip toaster and the sheer comfort of the Formway chairs.
What is interesting is the balance between between beauty and function, between aesthetic considerations and efficiency. Pure industrial design throws the focus on ‘function’. But there is an intriguing spectrum along that continuum in this exhibition. It includes:
- architectural work by Bill Toomath, one of the founders of modernist architecture in New Zealand for whom form very much followed function;
- fashion items such as the dresses of Kate Sylvester, which are both elegant works of beauty yet appear free-flowing and comfortable;
- pottery by an artist such as Manos Nathan where Māori influences add an aesthetic richness to a useful food container;
- book design by people like Mervyn Taylor and John Drawbridge, where the strength of their artistic impulse never overwhelms the content that is being communicated;
- posters by Donna Cross and Dave Kent, where the message is never obscured by the quality of the art;
- animated films such as Fane Flaws’ inventive, but totally appropriate, title sequences for the old TV programme ‘Radio With Pictures’;
- most conspicuously, the work of Sir Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop whose digital work in film has brought the world’s cinema producers rushing to Wellington.
Then there is work where function almost disappears and pure aesthetics takes over – the photos of Peter Black and Christine Webster, the art of Vivian Lynn, Julia Morison, John Drawbridge and Gordon Walters – what an impressive list. And of course our old friend, Len Lye, another graduate of the school, makes his appearance with his film ‘Free Radicals’.
To present the work of such a range of high achievers was a real challenge. A story of design needed to be itself a work of classy design; and the huge roof and classical cornices of the museum’s central court could easily have overwhelmed the pieces as they once used to belittle the Māori objects when the building was the Dominion Museum. So what Luit Bieringa, the curator, has done is complement the building by creating plywood pods with tall fingers which reach up to the high roof of the building. There is also a jazzy timeline which spans the room in plastic and has strands documenting the extraordinary number of name changes of the school, its shifting location, its directors and some of the people who were part of its community as staff or students. This is a name call of the crucial shapers and many of the artists of this country.
There are a few less successful features – there are some labels on the floor which are hard to read, and some videos positioned about a metre high which must have been designed for dwarfs. They are also hard to hear.
Let these few grumbles not take away from a most thought-provoking exhibition. In spanning the world of art and everyday design it offers the suggestion that design was better because there were artists at the school, and the art was the richer because of the presence of industrial designers. There is not that much difference between a comfy chair and a great painting. I challenge anyone to go to ‘Old School New School’ without muttering at some stage, ‘Well, I never knew that’. If you are in Wellington, go take a look; if you are outside the capital at least spend a couple of minutes watching this excellent video introduction. And next time you get up late in the morning, give thanks to the designers who get you through it without too many disasters.