Page 1: Biography
Coe, Herbert James Bowkett
Industrial designer, artist
This biography, written by Michael Smythe, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Industrial designer James Coe was a passionate advocate of applied ergonomics, the design of products to suit human anatomy and activities. Coe developed the secondary school art curriculum after the Second World War, and then shaped New Zealand’s first full-time tertiary design courses. His leadership helped set the professional direction of many New Zealand creative practitioners and, through them, the global success of New Zealand industrial design.
Herbert James Coe was born in Timaru on 26 September 1917 to Drucilla Bowkett and her husband, draper Fredrick Ellis Coe. His parents moved frequently during his childhood, including to Christchurch, Dannevirke and New Plymouth, and he attended New Plymouth Boys’ High School, where he topped his class in physics and drawing. Despite passing the Preliminary Diploma of Fine Arts in 1935 and expressing a desire to become a professional fine artist, he was advised to pursue the more ‘realistic’ career path of architecture.
While training as a secondary school art teacher at Wanganui Technical College, in 1936–37, Coe embraced the classical study of anatomy as a means of understanding the structure of the human figure and also studied architectural draughting. Still drawn to fine arts, he was awarded a fine arts bursary and studied at the School of Art at Canterbury University College from 1938 to 1940, from which he graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts.
Coe and fellow students Owen Lee, John Ritchie, Theo Schoon and Bill Sutton were dismayed at the curriculum’s exclusion of modern art movements, so they began teaching themselves from books. When they were admonished for insubordination, they wore sackcloth to class in a show of mock debasement and repentance.
Coe enjoyed mountaineering and tramping and spent time each year painting and sketching outdoors. During the 1940–41 summer holiday, James, his younger brother Des and two friends spent six weeks camped on the slopes of Mount Taranaki, debating the pros and cons of enlisting to fight in the war. He enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in March 1941.
Coe married Florence Joan Siddells, known as Jemi, in Wellington on 12 May 1941. The couple met when she sat as a portrait model for an art group in Whanganui, and their relationship grew as he introduced her to the delights of tramping. They were to have two children together.
War service and discovering ergonomics
Two weeks after his wedding, Coe was posted to the Pacific Theatre with the Wellington West Coast Regiment, serving in Fiji for just over a year. There he was attached to the divisional engineers, where he developed skills in cartography and surveying. He combined them with his abilities in accurate figure drawing and architectural draughting when assigned to design a 250-bed underground hospital there. As he determined the spatial requirements for tunnels to accommodate stretcher bearers, observant American military personnel informed Coe that he was a ‘human factors engineer’. James Coe had found ergonomics and would become one of its most passionate advocates. Promoted to second lieutenant in 1942, Coe served with the infantry in New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands from late 1942 until April 1944, commanding a platoon at Vella Lavella.
Although not an official war artist, Coe sketched his wartime experiences, along with self-portraits and portraits for soldiers to send home to their families. On his return to New Zealand in 1944 he painted some of his experiences in Solomon Islands and exhibited them at Wellington Public Library in 1946. At the behest of J.C. Beaglehole, who admired their vigorous and experimental nature, two were purchased by the government. They were shown in the National Art Gallery’s major exhibition of war paintings in 1952 and they and preparatory sketches are held in the national collection of war art at Archives New Zealand.
Shaping post-primary art education
After completing his war service, Coe hoped to resume a painting career, but the government directed him to work on the design of a hydroelectric power station under wartime manpower regulations. The Director-General of Education, C.E. Beeby, intervened and appointed Coe as a temporary secondary school arts specialist tasked with creating a post-primary art education scheme to extend the arts and crafts programme Doreen Blumhardt was developing for primary schools. Hutt Valley schools were selected to become a ‘centre of excellence’ for incubating new ideas and methods. Coe’s appointment as head of the art department at Hutt Valley High School, where he worked from 1945 until 1959, enabled him to develop and test his ideas in practice. Jemi and Coe's brother Des also taught at the school's art department.
Jemi and James Coe’s two-part article, ‘Art in Post-Primary Schools’, was published in Education magazine in 1950. They advocated education through art rather than education in art, urging teachers to be ‘more concerned with the self-realization of the child than with what the child’s profession is going to be.’ Many students arrived at secondary school doubting their artistic ability, so the Coes regarded the art teacher’s first job as to ‘renew their confidence and their pleasure in painting.’1
Artist Bill Culbert and architect Gordon Moller were among Coe’s Hutt Valley High School students. Culbert’s successful artistic career path was significantly informed by his time as Coe’s student, and his interest in the camera obscura began with Coe standing outside the art block waving his arms while his students marvelled at the upside-down moving image projected through the keyhole onto the classroom wall. The rapid capture of motion was a feature of Coe’s drawing classes. In 1951–52 Culbert enjoyed Coe’s innovative two-year full-time course for senior students, which integrated arts, design and industry with life. He remembered Coe’s egalitarian, non-competitive approach, and his lack of concern for criticism of his down to earth nature and emphasis on enjoyment. Moller, who became a leading architect, was at Hutt Valley High School from 1956 to 1959. He recalls Coe starting his classes with students using large black crayons to scribble on newsprint, ‘an abstract exercise to free up the body and mind that has never left me’. Moller’s interest in theatre lighting was sparked by Coe’s active involvement in the staging of school productions. ‘It stimulated my interest in things spatial as the modelling of light creates spaces and articulates meaning.’2
James and Jemi Coe, like other members of Wellington’s creative community, welcomed the fresh ideas and intellectual stimulus generated by the arrival of culturally-sophisticated refugees from Europe. James was involved in the arts community and the Architectural Centre, and the couple hosted a weekly Sunday night ‘salon’ at their home on The Terrace. Guests included architect and landscape architect Ernst Plischke and his wife Anna, and arts patrons Hilda and Mario Fleischl. During his schoolteaching years, Coe also designed school furniture and lectured Architectural Centre students on art, design and education.
Developing tertiary design education
James Coe’s ideas on design education were well-developed by 1959, when he was appointed director of the Art School at Wellington Technical College. Along with fine arts and craft skills, the school had previously focused on training commercial artists; Coe insisted on the inclusion of industrial design in the programme.
In the 1960s technical high schools were split into secondary schools and tertiary-level technical institutes. As part of this process, Wellington Polytechnic emerged from Wellington Technical College, opening in 1962 with Coe head of its School of Design. It was the first design school in New Zealand’s tertiary education system to offer a three-year, full-time professional design course. It included industrial, graphic and textile design, with the programmes influenced by educational developments in Europe and the United States, particularly at the Chicago Institute of Design, which has been founded by ex-Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy. The Bauhaus and Moholy-Nagy loomed large in Coe’s discussion of design.
Ergonomics with Harry
As well as being head of the school, Coe taught ergonomics classes. He used Harry, a human skeleton, to teach students about the muscular, circulatory and nervous systems built upon the skeleton, which helped students to design for comfort and efficiency. Coe taught ergonomics as a science – he always wore a white coat – but because of his warm, caring personality, students also received lessons in empathy. Coe also developed an eclectic lecture series about the history and sociology of design.
A 1970 UNESCO Fellowship enabled Coe to study design education in Australia, South East Asia, Japan, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, where he observed the use of photogrammetry (making measurements using photographs) to reveal the contours of the human form. To his surprise, he found very few educational institutes teaching ergonomics, and nowhere with an ergonomics laboratory, let alone a kinetosphere such as the one he had designed and built at Wellington Polytechnic to measure and record human three-dimensional movement.
Coe began delivering part-time lectures for Department of Health occupational therapy and nursing courses in 1971. In 1977 he retired as head of the School of Design and spent a year as senior lecturer in ergonomics assisting the development of new programmes at five technical institutes and a university. He then focused on research, preparing work for publication, and speaking engagements, including some in Australia. In 1982 the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology made him a Visiting Fellow so he could design their ergonomics laboratory. The following year it appointed him director of its Centre for Applied Ergonomics. James and Jemi rented a flat in Carlton, returning to their ‘retirement’ home in Waikanae for the summer breaks.
In his role as a consultant to workplaces and government departments, Coe contributed to the productivity and safety of a wide range of workers, including train drivers, airport workers and computer users.
Graduates from Wellington Polytechnic School of Design who applied their valuable lessons in ergonomics from Coe to globally successful products included Mark Pennington, who led the design of Formway office furniture; Mark Elmore and Phil Brace, who devised the DishDrawer concept for Fisher and Paykel Appliances; and Murray Pilcher who led the Bodyfurn school furniture project for Furnware. By the time Pilcher was needing to undertake the anthropometric measurement of New Zealand schoolchildren, the evolved Coe kinetosphere had moved to Massey University’s Centre for Ergonomics (formed when the Wellington Polytechnic and Massey University merged in 1999).
Professional service, recognition and awards
Coe was elected to the executive of the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers(NZSID) in 1965 and became a Vice President in 1969, then a Fellow in 1970. Coe was appointed to the inaugural board of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council in 1968. The New Zealand Ergonomics Society elected him as its first Honorary Fellow in 1992.
Coe received a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Award in recognition of contributions to industrial design (1978), and was made a member of the Queen’s Service Order for public service in design education and the pioneering of ergonomics (1981). The Designers’ Institute of New Zealand (previously NZSID) bestowed their supreme accolade on Coe in 1997 – the John Britten Award for Design Leadership.
James Coe died in Waikanae on 17 December 2003, aged 86; Jemi died in 2011. His legacy was posthumously acknowledged by the Dowse Art Museum, which named its function rooms the James Coe Centre, and by Massey University’s College of Creative Arts, which renamed a building at its Buckle Street campus the James Coe Industrial Design Centre.