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Story: Furniture

The furniture of 19th-century cabinetmaker Anton Seuffert, featuring exquisite marquetry in native woods, was a far cry from the simple items fashioned from whalebone or split timber by early sealers and whalers. After 1860 the New Zealand furniture sector expanded until the 1980s, when import restrictions were removed. Cheap Asian imports threatened the local industry, but it has survived by developing niche markets.

Story by William Cottrell
Main image: Pressed-plywood chair designed by Garth Chester, 1947

Story Summary

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Early furniture

The first European-style New Zealand furniture was simple items made from split timber, recycled crates and whalebone. Furniture was imported from Britain and Australia from the early 19th century.

From the 1840s some cabinetmakers began making furniture from native timber. Notably they included:

  • Johann Levien, who left for London in 1843 after limited demand for his furniture in New Zealand
  • Anton Seuffert, a Viennese immigrant whose work featured intricate scenes in inlaid timber
  • Josephus Hargreaves, an Englishman who made furniture in Nelson.

Early manufacturing and retailing

By the 1870s wood-processing machines were common in furniture factories. They sped up furniture production and lowered costs.

As the number of settlers grew, so did the market for locally made furniture in native timbers, reflecting international styles. Large furnishing warehouses quickly emerged in regional centres following the gold rushes. English and American furniture also continued to be imported.

Furniture was displayed at international exhibitions showcasing New Zealand goods.

Furniture in the home

Styles changed over time, along with international fashions.

  • From the 1870s the arts and crafts movement drew on traditional forms, techniques and materials.
  • From the late 1920s art deco and moderne furniture used new materials such as chrome, bakelite (an early plastic) and ply timber.
  • In the 1940s modernism favoured simpler forms.
  • The space age and pop culture of the 1960s introduced bright plastics, aluminium and futuristic shapes.
  • In the 1970s a mock-colonial style became fashionable and some furniture was made from recycled native timber.

The 2000s

As import tariffs were lifted from the late 1980s, cheap furniture was imported from Asia and local manufacturers produced less. Some New Zealand companies began making furniture offshore.

Some workshops continued to produce custom-made and niche-market furniture.

How to cite this page:

William Cottrell, 'Furniture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/furniture (accessed 21 November 2017)

Story by William Cottrell, published 5 Sep 2013