Page 1: Biography
Mason, William James
Artist, interior designer, wallpaper designer
This biography, written by Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
William Mason was a prominent mid-twentieth-century New Zealand artist and designer best known for his riotous, high-style handprinted interior textiles, and for wallpapers that helped radically reform the way New Zealanders approached interior schemes.
William James (Bill) Mason was born in Napier on 9 December 1919, the son of Grace Schaeffer and her husband Hugh Mason, a motor mechanic and inveterate inventor, who was then running a garage in Waipawa. Mason attended Waipawa District High School and Wanganui Technical College before at 19 enrolling in Wellington Teachers Training College, where he was described as ‘a shy boy lacking in confidence.’1 The outbreak of war interrupted Mason’s training and in early 1941 he joined the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy. In May 1941 he travelled to Britain for training in the Fleet Air Arm and was inducted into the Royal Navy. Although he began training as a pilot, he eventually served in the Royal Navy Coastal Forces on a number of coastal torpedo boats and gunboats, based at Gosport, near Portsmouth. In 1942 he was commissioned as an officer and became a temporary acting sub-lieutenant. He returned to New Zealand and from January 1945 until the end of the war served at the naval base at Shelly Bay in Wellington. The war appears to have changed Mason, who evidently decided to live life to the full. He would never again be described as shy.
After the conclusion of his war service, Mason used a war study bursary to study painting at Goldsmiths College of Art in London. In 1948, aware of the precariousness of careers in art, he enrolled in a one-year course in textile design at the Central School of Art taught by Gordon Crook, an English artist who later emigrated to New Zealand. Mason’s surviving textiles from this period, later exhibited in New Zealand, show an interest in the figurative representation of Māori motifs and themes sourced from classical mythology. Through this training Mason learnt the rudiments of textile design and screen printing – but, crucially, not the practicalities of producing commercially-viable quantities of textiles by hand.
On graduation Mason worked in a pub, while continuing to paint and to explore the London art scene. He noticed that it had become fashionable to recreate, albeit theatrically, the richness and prettiness of the Victorian era. In 1948, Mason began a short-lived marriage with English model Joan Keates. In 1949 his work appeared in an exhibition at New Zealand House of work by New Zealand artists studying in London. Participating artists included Austen Deans, Rona Dyer, Patrick Hayman and William Newland. Newland and Hayman went on to have significant careers in England, but Mason returned to New Zealand the following year.
Mason as artist
Back in Wellington, Mason aligned himself with an emerging post-war art scene, exhibiting at the Architectural Centre Gallery and at the newly-established Helen Hitchings Gallery, which also sold works by Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus. Fashionably dressed, of medium height, with brown hair and hazel eyes, Mason was a notable addition to Wellington’s art scene. Like many of his generation, he was strongly influenced by the works of leading European artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Although Mason’s work in this period veered between figurative and abstract, it was his still-life paintings that met with critical and commercial success. Important figures in the arts world, including Charles Brasch and Edith Campion, were among its purchasers.
In 1957 Mason moved to Auckland, where he befriended Tine and Kees Hos and exhibited at their New Vision Gallery. In 1961 three of Mason’s works, ‘Ikaros’, ‘Earthworks’ and ‘City’, were included in Auckland City Art Gallery’s annual exhibition of contemporary painting. This marked something of a high-water mark in Mason’s painting career; he was discouraged when his works displayed in an Architectural Centre exhibition the same year failed to sell. Mason joined the New Zealand Post Office as a tolls operator and exhibited no paintings for more than a decade.
Around this time Mason met Maureen Edith Innes Smith, then working as an assistant to her father, a doctor in Waimauku, west Auckland. They married in Auckland on 9 December 1959 and, after a disastrous stint as the managers of a Waimauku farm, moved to Mason’s previous home in Plimmerton.
Mason held design jobs in the publication section of the Ministry of Works and later for the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture. However it was the decorating and furnishing of his homes, first in Plimmerton and later in Ponsonby, that proved crucial to his development as a designer. Through these projects, Mason developed a highly personal approach to decorating. Combining modern furniture and art with elements of Victorian design, including furniture and ceramics, these rooms took their inspiration from interiors he had witnessed in London. Visitors to his home came away with a strong sense of Mason’s approach to interior design as a component of a sophisticated bohemian life, in which every gathering was a party and every party an event.
Textile and wallpaper design
Back in Wellington, Mason took up a position as an art teacher at Wellington Girls’ College and entered the 1961 Festival of Wellington Wallpaper Design competition sponsored by local manufacturer Ashley wallpapers. Judged by artist Evelyn Page, retailer E. Hurdley and historian J. C. Beaglehole, the competition carried a prize of 150 guineas (equivalent to nearly $8,000 in 2021). The panel awarded Mason first prize for a design described as ‘crisp, lively, and agreeable in colour’, and also awarded him the second prize of 75 guineas for ‘a well-constructed calligraphy design.’2
With the prize money and a mortgage, Bill and Maureen Mason established Mason Handprints, a small business producing handprinted furnishing fabrics at Plimmerton. Although Bill produced the designs, Maureen provided the support, perseverance, even temper and good-humoured patience that gave the business its longevity. At first the couple produced simple striped fabrics from their garage, but when the business began to prosper they moved first to central Wellington and then to Featherston. There they bought a large house attached to a disused Victorian school building which became their design studio. Here Mason introduced a more comprehensive ‘Mason look’ to his interior design, using his own fabrics for curtains, tablecloths, slipcovers and cushions. This look, a modern eclecticism, was expanded in 1964 when the couple produced their first handprinted wallpaper, ‘Mintal’.
‘Mintal’ and the wallpapers that followed, including key designs ‘Corona’ and ‘Minorca’, were distinguished by an unerring sense of pattern and a strong and original use of colour that set them apart from other locally-produced wallpapers. The handmade nature of the papers made them expensive and more than a little exclusive. They allowed New Zealanders to create modern interiors that were less doctrinaire, and less dependent on natural finishes, than the first post-war Modernist interiors had been. The new wallpapers also suited those renovating inner-city villas and bungalows.
Mason’s exuberant and stylish wallpapers found an early supporter in Wellington retailer Gilbert Powrie. In order to expand their sales the Masons took long trips in search of sympathetic retailers around the country. To illustrate his approach to interior design, Mason showed slides of interiors using Mason fabrics and wallpapers. Maureen also sold fabric for dressmaking and other craft projects. Slowly sales grew, along with Mason’s reputation as an interior designer.
In 1965, after vandals broke into the Featherston studio and destroyed his equipment, the Masons settled in Carterton, moving into what had been the house of the town’s founder, which had previously been used as a boys’ home. Mason converted what had been the dormitory wing into a design studio and resumed production. The couple produced up to 33 rolls of wallpaper or 40 yards of fabric a day, with little assistance and using intensive craft techniques. Mason Handprints remained in Carterton for the remainder of Mason’s ownership of the firm.
Once established in Carterton, Mason was able to expand his interior design interests significantly. In 1966 he was commissioned to design the New Zealand suite at the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel, which showcased art and design from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Mason assembled textiles for the suite by artist Louise Henderson, furniture by Milan Mrkusich and sculpture by Paratene Matchitt, and provided his own paintings. The Department of External Affairs then commissioned Mason to redecorate embassies and ambassadors’ residences in Canberra, Singapore and Jakarta.
The purchase of a showroom in Marion Street, Wellington, in 1971 was Mason Handprints’ last major expansion. Encouraged by interior designer Duncan Dempsey, Mason began considering a move into the Australian market and undertook an initial exploratory trip. The response was enthusiastic but despite securing finance, investigating potential factory sites, and convincing his old tutor Gordon Crook to join him in the expanded venture, Mason suddenly and unexpectedly sold Mason Handprints to Resene Paints – to ‘get out of the clutches of commerce’.3
In a move that was in many ways typical of the period, Mason rejected commercial success and turned inward, undertaking a personal search for spiritual and mystical enlightenment through astrology. In 1974, Bill and Maureen Mason moved to Ōpōtiki, where Maureen remained while Bill lived at different times in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Napier. He returned to painting with an exhibition at the Wellington Potters’ Society in 1973 and began exhibiting in earnest in the 1980s. This time Mason produced large-scale, almost exclusively abstract works which failed to sell – in part because of the extremely high prices he expected for them. He returned to Ōpōtiki, and to Maureen, in 1990, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died in Whakatāne on 8 August 1994, aged 74, from complications resulting from a fall. He was survived by Maureen. The couple had had no children.
Resene continued to print Mason wallpapers for a period, using his and other designers’ patterns, but eventually changing fashions saw demand fall and production cease. Mason’s family deposited his design archive in the Hawke’s Bay Museum in Napier, which held a retrospective of his work in 1998. A revival of interest in New Zealand Modernism in the first decade of the twenty-first century saw production of Mason’s wallpapers resume, manufactured by a new company in association with Resene Paints and employing Mason’s original screens.
Bill Mason was part of the generation of post-war Modernist artists who saw painting as the pinnacle of cultural achievement. Although he found niche success as a painter, particularly in the 1950s, Mason is principally remembered as one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent Modernist designers and decorators of the post-war period. However, the tension between his notable achievements in design and his comparative failure as an artist fed feelings of creative failure that left Mason seldom satisfied with his achievements. He nevertheless left a considerable legacy as a designer.