Furniture has utilitarian functions, but it also conveys diverse social and cultural meanings. An expensive designer lounge chair in the corner of a spacious living room presents a different portrait of the owner than an upturned beer crate used as a chair in a one-room shack.
With plentiful supplies of native wood at hand, furniture making was among New Zealand’s first industries, which grew to cater for a wide range of budgets and tastes.
The first European-style New Zealand-made furniture was built by a sealing gang from the Britannia at Dusky Sound in 1792 for a simple dwelling. At the time, primitive benches and tables were typically of slabs of split wood drilled to receive rough branches as legs. In the early 1800s the timber from crates was recycled and even whalebone was fashioned into chairs.
The first known description of a New Zealand-made object was of a small rewarewa work box made by Henry George Watkins Waru in 1834 as a gift to the rector of St Swithins London Stone church in London. The first attributable colonial piece of furniture was a large rimu chest made by the missionary William White in Grecian-revival style in the late 1830s.
With space at a premium in immigrant ships, it was expensive to ship furniture to New Zealand. In April 1840 one enterprising London merchant advertised ‘dressers, sofas, tables, chairs and other economical Colonial Furniture made to pack into each other, to save freight.’1
Early imported furniture
The first European furniture arrived in New Zealand with missionaries in 1814. Chairs of Australian cedar owned by the Kerikeri mission schoolmaster Francis Hall are among the few surviving pieces. In the 2000s they were in Kerikeri’s historic Kemp House.
William Colenso’s mission house in Hawke’s Bay was furnished with Australian cedar chairs, tables, chests and a sideboard. Colenso also recorded green merino curtains, Holland blinds, black horsehair chair seats, woven cane seats, yellow upholstered chairs and a ‘japanned’ (black-lacquered) chest which contrasted with the rich red–brown cedar wood. As well as Australian-sourced furniture, many settlers shipped out furniture from Britain. An 1841 inventory of Government House in Auckland detailed a house load of fashionable early Victorian furnishings, which were considered necessary for an important building, and were comparable with similar British homes of the period.
Among the first settlers were merchants who sold imported furniture and several cabinetmakers-cum-carpenters who made furniture to order. Wellington’s most gifted early cabinetmaker was the German Johann Levien, who arrived in 1840. His work was described in a newspaper report as ‘beautifully executed and his prices are moderate. The sitting room of one gentleman in the colony has been furnished by Levien, with articles of manufacture by him of native woods; and nothing can be more beautiful or attractive.’2 Demand for Levien’s sophisticated work was limited, and in 1843 he left for London with a load of New Zealand timber, establishing a highly successful workshop.
Seuffert and son
Viennese immigrant Anton Seuffert was arguably Australasia’s finest colonial cabinetmaker, winning national and international awards for his craft. Seuffert’s escritoire, described in a newspaper article as ‘one of the most beautiful specimens of cabinet art we have ever seen,’3 was entered into the 1862 London Exhibition and later presented to Queen Victoria. His son, William, also gained international acclaim; William’s biggest commission was an escritoire featuring marquetry colonial scenes and flora, for Lord Robert Baden-Powell in 1900.
Yorkshireman and cabinetmaker Josephus Hargreaves arrived in Nelson in February 1842 with his family to establish a furniture-making business. Hargreaves brought his tools and Thomas King’s 1835 Modern style of cabinet work exemplified, a pattern book containing mainly neo-Grecian and Gothic designs. Hargreaves used tōtara to build numerous pieces in these ‘modern styles’. However, not all demands or tastes could be catered for. In 1846 Governor George Grey’s wife, Eliza, living in Auckland, complained that she had to send to Sydney for furniture because ‘nothing can be bought here.’4
Furniture industry emerges
Wood-processing machinery to establish up-to-date factories arrived with an increasing surge of new settlers. Within a few years of Hargreaves’s death in 1856, a local furniture industry and furnishing warehouses had emerged in the main population centres.