Page 1: Biography
Jackson, Alban Gifford
This biography, written by Michael Smythe, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Gifford Jackson was an important pioneer in the field of industrial design in New Zealand. After training as a naval architect in Glasgow, post-war employment with Fisher & Paykel and 17 years working as a designer in New York City, he returned home to New Zealand in the 1960s to establish his consultancy in Devonport just as New Zealand’s industrial design profession was finding its feet. As a benchmark-setting practitioner Jackson applied his training and overseas experience to a wide range of projects including domestic, office, agricultural, transport, medical and maritime products, and became fondly known as the godfather of New Zealand industrial design.
Alban Gifford Jackson (known as Gifford) was born at his parents’ home in Devonport, Auckland, on 3 April 1922. He was the first of three sons born to Margery Parsons and her husband, Gainor Jackson, the second-generation head of the family importing and wholesaling firm F.E. Jackson & Co. Ltd. Jackson was dux at Devonport Primary School then attended Takapuna Grammar School, where he often won the drawing prize. As a young boy he made wooden models of boats, locomotives and aeroplanes. In 1936, aged 14, he and several friends built a sailing dingy, the Hurricane, which they sailed at Torpedo Bay. That year he also completed his first professional design project – designing an illustrative decal for the dinner service of the New Zealand ketch Golden Hind.
In 1937 he wrote and illustrated his first article for The New Zealand Yachtsman and designed an 18 ft (5.5 m) M-class sailing boat, Mermerus, which he helped his father build. At age 16, he joined the Public Works Department’s civil engineering section as a draughting cadet.
Going for naval architecture
In response to Gainor’s enquiries, Jackson was accepted into the University of Glasgow, which offered training in naval architecture. He set off in August 1939 and was still en route when Britain declared war on Germany. When MV Rangitata reached Kingston, Jamaica, it joined a trans-Atlantic merchant ship convoy and Jackson was among those assigned to stand watch for German U-boats.
With fellow students at the University of Glasgow, and at Henry Robb’s Edinburgh shipyard where the course was based in the summer months, Jackson was inspired by talk of the new world that might evolve after the war. At Robb’s design loft, the work focused on repairs and new vessels. Much of Jackson’s time off was spent in Glasgow and Edinburgh libraries learning about the emerging field of industrial design.
Navigating war service
In 1943, although his course was unfinished, Jackson felt it was time to enlist in the armed forces. He chose the Royal Air Force rather than the navy because he was prone to seasickness and felt that being shot down would be a faster death than drowning. His cohort travelled to Manitoba, Canada, for practical training, and he was among a group who contrived to spend their final leave in New York City by 'appropriating' special leave forms. In midtown Manhattan he took special note of Donald Desky’s art deco store designs and Radio City Music Hall’s foyer. He enjoyed the American music and dance trends. At the Stage Door Canteen he was surprised by a ‘Haere mai, Kiwi!’ greeting from an American hostess, Virginia Beach, who had recognised the flashes on his uniform. It was the beginning of a life-changing friendship.
Back in Britain, Jackson’s unit was posted to North Wales, but the air they encountered was much more turbulent than the air above the Manitoba prairies and Jackson became airsick. He was classified ‘not suited to operations’, grounded and relegated to stores duty. Deeply disappointed, he applied for repatriation and returned to New Zealand.
The path to industrial design
Back in Auckland, Jackson was discharged from military service in early 1945. With no local jobs for a budding naval architect, he found employment with Fisher & Paykel, after Gainor had a word with Woolf Fisher. As a design draughtsman, Jackson worked on washing machine and refrigerator components and graphics as well as refrigerated display cabinets and interior layouts for milk bars and home appliance showrooms. While investigating how to become an industrial designer, he attended Saturday drawing and painting classes at the Elam School of Art, and talked with School of Architecture lecturer Vernon Brown who recommended he travel to America to absorb the culture. Virginia Beach, with whom Jackson had been corresponding, persuaded him to apply for entry to the United States and asked her father to sponsor him.
In 1949, while awaiting approval to enter the US, Jackson left Fisher & Paykel to work for D.J. Davis Ltd, designing photographic enlargers, microfilm readers and cine film processing equipment. They were among the products on show at an exhibition mounted by the newly formed Design Guild in August. He was the first New Zealand designer to join the UK-based Society of Industrial Artists.
New York period
From the Beach family home in New Jersey, Jackson made forays into Manhattan design offices. After a few setbacks he re-worked his portfolio to fit into a compact 45 rpm record satchel – an innovation that impressed industrial designer Carl Otto enough to give him a job. Working with Otto and Jay Doblin, he applied his boat design skills to smooth the surfaces of the award-winning Schick 20 electric shaver. He met many leading practitioners through the Society of Industrial Designers and attended night classes in industrial design at the Pratt Institute and Columbia University to expand his knowledge base.
In 1951 Jackson moved to the much-admired Donald Deskey Associates office, where he enjoyed working on a wide range of consumer products and store displays. Not long after shifting to Norman Bel Geddes’ practice in 1954, he tired of Geddes’ volatile personality and spent a few months in the more relaxed atmosphere of Peter Schladermundt’s studio. Fulfilling a long-held dream, he was invited to an interview at the Walter Dorwin Teague practice on Madison Avenue, joined the team, and remained with them for 10 years, rising to the rank of senior product designer.
While following the Teague philosophy of timeless understatement, Jackson honed his pencil and pastel drawing skills. At the early stages of each project, competing concept sketches had one opportunity to shine before the team leader chose which idea to take to the model-making stage. Jackson also applied this skill to documenting the American styling clichés he had been observing since arriving in the United States. Jackson’s article on the topic was published in the September 1962 issue of Industrial Design magazine.
In 1964 Jackson set up his own consultancy in East 63rd Street. Despite being very busy with a variety of projects, the stress of New York life became less attractive and in 1966 he returned to New Zealand.
Consulting from Devonport
From a front room of the Jackson family’s Devonport home, Jackson established the one-man consultant practice that would last 37 years. Industrial design in New Zealand was finding its professional feet in 1966. The New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (NZSID) was six years old, the New Zealand Industrial Design Council had just been established, and graduates from tertiary design courses were beginning to enter the workforce. His phone began ringing after he was interviewed on the Auckland regional TV show Town and Around.
Jackson undertook refrigerator and stove-styling assignments for Fisher & Paykel and contributed to radio and hi-fi system designs for their associate company, Allied Industries. The structural concept and detailing of the AWA AP81 portable radio was one of his best examples of integrated design. He also designed toasters and an electric skillet for the Ultimate brand.
One of Jackson’s best-known designs was the original 1969 Feltonmix integrated shower rose/mixer, embodying Keith Relf’s innovative technology. He also worked with Relf on Turbostream products. Bathrooms were further enhanced by his Clearlite bath range, and from the mid-1970s he designed window catches and sliding door handles for the L.J. Fisher, Rylock and AJC brands.
Jackson’s first love, boating, found professional expression in 1970 when he designed the GRP (fibreglass) superstructure for the very popular Marksply 22 Overnighter. He also researched and designed the adornments applied to the replica ship in the Roger Donaldson-directed movie The Bounty (1984).
Jackson worked on a diverse range of products as a consultant designer. He developed electronic self-service petrol pumps with Production Engineering Co. Ltd (PEC) in 1970, and created concepts for the exterior and interior form of the Auckland Rapid Transit rolling stock (although the project ground to a halt after the change of government in 1975). He also designed New Zealand’s first television screen electronic games console, the Sportronic, for Bob Kerridge’s Spectrum Group, in 1976. His most enduring product was the Bic filing tray, designed in 1994 for Biro Bic (NZ), initially tooled and manufactured in Auckland.
He also designed energiser housings for electric fences, an industry in which New Zealand became world leaders through continuous innovation and intense rivalry among local manufacturers. Jackson's contributions included one-off assignments for Allied Industries, PEC and Speedrite, and many projects for Precision Electronics Ltd. His last professional commission was the Little Demon energiser for the Texas-based Twin Mountain Fence brand in 2003, when, for the first time, his design was converted to Computer Aided Design. Local toolmakers told him they preferred working from his remarkably detailed and informative hand-drawn specifications.
The quality of Jackson’s working drawings was one reason he found a global market interested in the Marisol skiff he had designed for his own use – the drawings were works of art in themselves. Wooden Boat magazine published the drawings in book form, winning a silver medal in the 2005 ForeWord magazine Book of the Year competition.
Legacy and recognition
Having served on the NZSID executive for several terms, Jackson was elected a Fellow in 1974. Using the high professional standards practised at the Walter Dorwin Teague office as a guide, he wrote a valuable NZSID handbook entitled The industrial designer in practice. NZSID became the Designers Institute of New Zealand in 1991, and in 1998 Jackson received its highest accolade – the John Britten award.
Jackson was appointed to the New Zealand Industrial Design Council in 1974, having often served on its Designmark evaluation panels. He also shared his knowledge and experience by teaching drawing techniques to students at Carrington Technical Institute (now Unitec) and delivering lectures to fellow designers. Jackson researched New Zealander Jo Sinel, a pioneer of industrial design in the US, and wrote his unknown story for Designscape 88, February 1977.
Recognition of Gifford Jackson’s significant contribution to New Zealand’s industrial design professionalism culminated in 2013 when the Depot Artspace in Devonport mounted the exhibition Gifford Jackson: New Zealand Industrial Design Pathfinder, and a book of the same name was published. He was made an ONZM for services to design in the 2013 Queen’s Birthday honours. Jackson, a dapper bachelor, was a much-loved uncle, and his nieces and nephews did much to ensure his life’s work was preserved and recognised. He was 93 when he died at North Shore Hospital on 30 October 2015.
Some products, and most of his drawings, were gifted to the Auckland Museum collection and library. The MOTAT library holds some of his Auckland Rapid Transit concept drawings.