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Story: Crafts and applied arts

Craft work began in New Zealand as both a leisure activity and a necessity. In the late 20th century the boundaries between art and craft began to blur, with craft artists’ work being represented in galleries.

Story by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Lucy Hammonds
Main image: Len Castle, 'Alkaline spring', 2000

Story Summary

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Maritime and settler craft

The first European craftspeople in New Zealand were the sailors who came on voyages of exploration. Later, sealers and whalers also crafted objects as a leisure activity and to make items for household use.

Being able to make and mend things was an essential skill for early missionaries and European settlers. Men tended to make furniture and tools, and women were highly skilled in crafts such as sewing and embroidery.

Early craft education

Crafts in New Zealand were strongly influenced by Britain, especially the ‘arts and crafts’ movement.

The first art and design school teaching craft skills was opened in Dunedin in 1870, with others following in the 1880s and 1890s.

Many women trained in crafts and produced various kinds of work, from furniture to needlework, in the home or professionally. Most work by women was made anonymously.

1900s to 1920s

After the First World War craft, especially basketry and woodwork, was used as a way of rehabilitating wounded soldiers.

Māori designs and subjects became more popular in crafts produced by Pākehā, especially in furniture and metalwork.

Handcrafted jewellery was popular in the 1920s; Reuben Watts and Elsie Reeve were both important jewellers of this period.

1930s and 1940s

During the economic depression of the 1930s, people had to return to the pioneering spirit of making and mending, and craft became an important part of everyday life.

Studio pottery grew in popularity from the 1930s. After the Second World War the more simplified modernist style in crafts made it to New Zealand.

1950s and 1960s

Craft started to be taken more seriously from around 1950, with new shops and galleries displaying craft next to art. New Zealand Potter magazine, started in 1958, was a place for the craft community to discuss ideas.

Weaving became popular in the 1950s and weavers such as Ilse von Randow and Zena Abbott made large wall hangings.

Pottery was particularly influenced by the teachings of Bernard Leach. Major potters who emerged in this period included Mirek Smisek and Len Castle.

Craft becomes mainstream, 1970s

In the 1970s craft experienced a boom, becoming part of mainstream culture. Craft shops and galleries sprang up around the country. Several craft organisations also began around this time.

While many Māori craftspeople worked on traditional crafts, some such as Baye Riddell and Manos Nathan were known for creating contemporary and non-traditional works.

New glass-blowing facilities in Auckland and Taranaki helped glass art expand.

1980s

In the 1980s there was more of a divide between professional craft artists and amateur ‘hobbyists’. The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt became a champion of craft art and several major books examined New Zealand craft.

Many craft artists began to look to the Pacific for inspiration. A change in tastes led potters away from Asian-inspired and rustic pottery towards a sharper, more industrial look. While glass-blowing was still the main method of making glass objects, casting using moulds became more common. Some contemporary jewellers used local materials such as shells and stone in their work.

1990s

In the 1990s craft art was included in some major art exhibitions, including several at City Gallery Wellington.

Two influential schools of craft and design emerged, one at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin and another at Unitec School of Design in Auckland.

2000s

Craft became known in the art world as ‘object art’, and was taken seriously by critics. In 2004 Objectspace in Auckland became New Zealand's first public gallery dedicated to craft and design.

Craft artists continued to push the boundaries of their medium, blurring the line between art and craft.

Meanwhile, there was a re-emergence of amateur crafts as an alternative to mass production, and craft fairs became popular.

How to cite this page:

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Lucy Hammonds, 'Crafts and applied arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/crafts-and-applied-arts (accessed 19 January 2018)

Story by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Lucy Hammonds, published 22 Oct 2014