Story: Furniture

Page 3. Furniture in the home

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The colonial home

Furniture and furnishings in the colonial home reflected the social rank of its inhabitants and nostalgia for ‘Home’ (Britain). The inclination for British taste was reinforced by imports of high-value products by affluent migrants. In 1844 Judge H. S. Chapman’s spacious home in Karori, Wellington, contained a thick Persian carpet, family prints, and personal items on the mahogany table, whatnot (open shelves supported by posts) and sideboard, all shipped out from England. A French-styled four-poster bed and rosewood library drawers were high-fashion, expensive status objects.

In contrast, most workers lived in small cottages in which furniture was sparse and utilitarian. The living and kitchen areas were combined. Furniture usually comprised a plain table, chairs and sideboard or shelves. Sometimes the whole family slept in one bedroom. Walls were sometimes pasted with newspaper lithographs and pictures, while mantelpieces were used for ornaments and mementos.

Different taste

In 1898 the English social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb visited two Dunedin houses: ‘the house of the editor of the Star and of a large importer lacked taste; the ugly bamboo furniture, plush silk drapings, thick common carpets, hideous chromos [colour lithographs], typical of the ordinary lower middle class English household.’1

Middle-class houses comprised at least four rooms, one of which was a sitting room, used for visitors and public display. The Victorian domestic aesthetic was a confusion of styles, with a mix of types of chair, papered walls covered in pictures, floral fabrics and an ample supply of pot plants. Many households also had a piano for family entertainment.

Early-20th-century homes

From the 1910s domestic interiors began to have less furniture and fewer ornaments. The succession of revivals and reinterpretations of styles continued. The reaction against industrialisation fostered arts and crafts styles. Art nouveau made an appearance. The fine lines of English Sheraton and ‘Georgian’ styles sat awkwardly with dark stained Jacobean furniture and the heavy oak of Californian mission styles in the bungalow. The lounge suite – a sofa and two matching chairs – became clumpy, reflecting a focus on comfort for the sitter. Population growth, affluence and state support for new suburban homes meant middle-class families could afford three-bedroom houses, increasing the demand for beds and other furniture. The rise of consumerism saw newspapers and magazines provide up-to-date domestic fashion tips for housewives.

Bedroom beauty

In 1930 Truth advised: ‘Bedrooms can be dignified or gay in appearance. … Sometimes the whole beauty of a bedroom depends on the delightful figured walnut of which bedsteads are made – others, of vellum, are hand-painted in a most delicate style, and are most decorative in a room with Venetian glass mirrors and candlesticks.’2


New electrical appliances and art deco glamour influenced 1930s domestic interiors. The electric heater, standard lamp, American coffee table and cocktail cabinet entered many middle-class living rooms; a touch of Hollywood sophistication came in the form of an ashtray on a chrome stand. Another new piece of furniture was the radio, ornamented with glowing dials and rich variegated veneers.


During the 1940s modernist styles flowing in from Europe furthered the move towards simpler forms and reduced ornamentation. Modernists promoted built-in furniture, abstract-patterned fabrics for furnishings and larger windows to let the sun come in. Man-made materials allowed furniture to be made in shapes previously not possible, pushing the boundaries of style. In the 1950s the emergence of open-plan living and a desire for indoor-outdoor flow encouraged lighter, less bulky furniture that could be more easily moved around to meet changing needs. During the 1960s the television replaced the radio as the focus of family evening entertainment, and living-room furniture was rearranged accordingly.

DIY furniture

In 1953 the periodical Design Review provided tips for furnishing a home on a budget. These included built-in storage units in new homes; getting disassembled (package) furniture and building it oneself; buying simple, sound furniture at auction, stripping off the varnish and oiling it; and sticking new surfaces on old tables and chests of drawers before painting them.

Colonial revival

During the 1970s many young couples spurned outer suburban living and modernism, and began buying old inner-city cottages and villas. They furnished their homes with second-hand colonial furniture, stripping back oak or walnut finishes and revealing the golden glow of kauri or the red tint of tōtara.

New trends

During the late 20th century the post-modern aesthetic encouraged eclecticism: colonial furniture could rub shoulders with the latest high-tech and Memphis styles. The biggest change in the early 21st century was the increase in the floor space of new houses as domestic living became more internal. A desktop computer became a standard fixture in most homes.

  1. Beatrice Webb, Visit to New Zealand in 1898: Beatrice Webb’s diary with entries by Sidney Webb. Wellington: Price, Milburn, by permission of the Passfield Trust, 1959, p. 13. Back
  2. New Zealand Truth, 17 June 1930, p. 20. Back
How to cite this page:

William Cottrell, 'Furniture - Furniture in the home', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by William Cottrell, published 5 Sep 2013