Story: Crafts and applied arts

Page 4. Old and new aesthetics, 1930s and 1940s

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The economic depression of the 1930s brought a sudden end to arts-and-crafts-movement crafts in New Zealand as the audience for expensive handcrafted items evaporated.

At the same time, there was a revival of many earlier craft practices. Settler skills that had been passed from generation to generation resurfaced in the face of economic adversity. Focused in large part on textile crafts, and supported by skills taught in schools, this generation produced a wealth of tablecloths, aprons, tea cosies and the like. Many of these displayed a strong fantasy element in their decoration, suggesting that such items, while practical, could counteract the experience of hardship.

Bluebird of happiness

A small bluebird – the bluebird of happiness – was a very common motif in embroidery in the 1930s and 1940s. It symbolised perfect domestic happiness at a time when the lives of real women were often rather difficult.

Tentative modernism

Through the 1930s modernism was emerging in Europe and America, yet remained largely absent from New Zealand teaching institutions, and little evidence of pre-war modernist practice survives. Some crafts were able to adapt to a new modernist aesthetic, in particular weaving, textile printing, printmaking and ceramics. New Zealand artist May Smith produced early modernist textile designs while living in Britain. She continued to design and print textiles on her return in 1939, basing herself for a time in Gisborne.

Wartime shortages encouraged a growth of interest in hand-printed textiles and crafts. Auckland fashion designer Nancy Hudson produced rope jewellery designed to simulate pearls and fashionable clothing that drew on innovative craft practice.

New aesthetics and crafts

The period immediately before the Second World War ushered a more obviously 20th-century aesthetic into New Zealand crafts, with elements of homemade art deco and streamlined moderne styles emerging. The popularity of hand-beaten metalwork and woodcarving declined during the 1930s and 1940s. Simpler wood and metalwork projects emerged, increasingly influenced by patterns from periodicals sourced in America and Britain. Woodturning began to grow in popularity, exploiting the aesthetic value of the varied grains of native timbers.

Making do

Briar Gardner first became involved with pottery as a child, when she visited her uncles’ pottery firm, Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company, in Auckland. As an adult she used the firm’s pottery wheel and kiln early in the mornings before the factory opened. She finally got her own kiln at home when she was 59.


Few new studio-based crafts emerged through the 1930s, the exception being studio pottery. Briar Gardner, Olive Jones, Elizabeth Matheson, Elizabeth Lissaman, Robert Nettleton Field and Oswold Stevens all established themselves in ceramics during this period. Some had earlier arts-and-crafts-movement training in other fields, moving into ceramics as the decade progressed. Each sold works through art societies and department stores, and from their studios. The presence of Olive Jones and Elizabeth Matheson at the Centennial Exhibition of 1940 gave modern pottery a high profile and inspired others to take up the craft.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, studio pottery had developed sufficiently to take a leading position in a growing craft movement. This period saw the emergence of a new generation of potters who would dominate the second half of the 20th century, including Len Castle, Peter Stichbury, Patricia Perrin, Helen Mason and Doreen Blumhardt.

How to cite this page:

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Lucy Hammonds, 'Crafts and applied arts - Old and new aesthetics, 1930s and 1940s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

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