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
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.
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
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.
Between 1830 and 1870 mechanisation revolutionised furniture production. New Zealand was at the forefront of machine wood-processing, which not only sped up manufacture but also reduced costs.
By the 1870s machine use in furniture factories was common. Dunedin firm George Findlay & Son imported from America plant for making doors, windows, mouldings and furniture. ‘The chief work done at the band-saw bench is the cutting of curved and circular work such as sofa scrolls, sofa legs, brackets, chair legs and chair backs … when one considers the work it can be made to do, it calls forth admiration,’ enthused the Otago Witness in 1874.1
From the 1890s electric motors progressively powered overhead line shafts that ran the machinery, replacing oil engines and earlier steam engines. Electric lighting after 1910 further reduced fire risk and assisted production. Mechanisation enabled small cabinetmaking businesses to become large enterprises.
In 1908 a journalist described E. Collie’s Art Furniture Factory showroom in Wellington as ‘a wilderness of many things necessary and many things luxurious. Sideboards in long lines make confusion with wardrobes in big patches; tables, settees, umbrella stands, chesterfields [sofas], whatnots [open shelves supported by posts], elbow one another for place; writing desks peep out from every corner; bookshelves and bookcases claim attention … chairs hang from the ceiling and straggle all over the floor’.2
Population growth and local industrial exhibitions increased the market for New Zealand-made furniture, not least because, as one commentator wrote in 1883, ‘the finest class of goods of the most tasteful designs can be made in the Colony for less than similar goods would cost if imported.’3
Rising demand led to the opening of specialist furnishing warehouses and stores. Businesses usually combined manufacturing and retailing divisions on the one site, with backroom factories producing items for front-of-house showrooms. Alfred White opened his small Christchurch shop in 1863 and by 1885 claimed to have the largest furniture and furnishing enterprise in the colony. The Dunedin firm of Scoullar and Chisholm also began in 1863 and was so successful that a second operation opened in Wellington in 1889. In 1900 Aucklander Jonathan Tonson Garlick’s Queen Street store had 1,400 square metres of showrooms, featuring all kinds of domestic and commercial furniture in New Zealand wood. It had a staff of 148 – including cabinetmakers, upholsterers, polishers and salespeople – and an annual turnover of £50,000 (almost $9 million in 2012 terms).
The rise of local furniture manufacturing did not halt furniture imports, whose annual value fluctuated, from £32,616 in 1870 ($4.1 million in 2012 terms) to £80,085 in 1883 ($13.4 million) and £35,998 in 1887 ($6.4 million). The decline from 1883 was due to the 1880s depression, which saw calls to raise import duties to protect local jobs. This was done, and by the early 1900s the value of imports had reached a plateau of around £44,000. Between 1893 and 1905 the number of people working in the industry rose from 614 to 2,208. In 1905 there were 331 furniture workrooms. Clearly, a high proportion of New Zealanders were buying New Zealand-made furniture. Prosperity and population growth fuelled demand.
New Zealand firms mostly reproduced international styles in native timbers at affordable prices. Buyers were encouraged to keep abreast of fashion through cash discounts and time payment options. All large furnishing warehouses offered plans, guides and estimates to furnish everything from a cottage to a mansion. By 1900 Ballantynes of Christchurch produced their own artistic furniture catering for a spectrum of taste: arts and crafts, art nouveau, Anglo-Asian and Sheraton among a broad range of revival styles. In 1902 the DIC department store chain advertised that it furnished homes in ‘the best style with the least cost.’4 A four-roomed cottage cost £37 10s. (more than $6,000 in 2012) to furnish; a six-roomed cottage would set purchasers back £99 15s. (almost $17,000).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Victorian mania for discovery, display and exhibition was benchmarked by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, which attracted exhibits from all over the world, including New Zealand. Dunedin staged its own ‘international exhibition’ in 1865, showcasing New Zealand’s natural resources, arts and industries. The big furnishing warehouses vigorously competed with lavish room displays.
The 1885 Wellington Industrial Exhibition demonstrated the range of fashions for customers. The Auckland firm Winks & Hall exhibited a mottled kauri medieval-style bedroom suite; A. J. White of Christchurch showed a mantel and over-mantel ‘made of bog or black totara richly carved in the Renaissance style, with Corinthian columns and capitals, and carved figures in front.’1 These revivalist styles were in vogue and showcased New Zealand as a modern and outward-looking country. The exhibitions attracted thousands, stimulating market demand for local furniture.
The move to mass production of furniture provoked a reaction that was fostered by the arts and crafts movement from the last quarter of the 19th century. Respect for the craftsman left tool marks and exposed joinery, while less sophisticated traditional materials such as oak, copper, leather and lead-light glass became the height of fashion. New Zealand’s leading exponent of the style, architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor, fashioned adzed dressers, refectory tables and seats in exaggerated medieval form for his concrete-plaster and wood-framed houses.
The 1930s saw new forms and designs in art deco and moderne styles. Furniture made of chrome, bakelite (an early plastic) and polished laminated and ply timber became the fashion. Scoullars’ Wellington showrooms displayed upholstered lounge suites with broad, flat show-wood laminated arms open at the sides.
New Zealanders doubted that Garth Chester’s Curvesse chair could support their weight. So he employed the celebrity wrestler Lofty Blomfield to jump up and down on it in a public demonstration to test its strength. The chair held firm.
The spread of the modernist aesthetic from the 1940s was led by the Austrian immigrant architect and furniture designer Ernst Plischke. His bent metal tube chairs showed the modernist preference for simple, functional and graceful forms. Similarly, architect Alan Wild’s blond pinewood chair of three panels assembled on three intersecting planes epitomised the new minimalist approach. Auckland furniture designer Garth Chester made the world’s first cantilevered chair in 1944. Called the Curvesse chair, it was made of a single piece of plywood. Modernism was future-orientated and spurned revivalist styles. Many New Zealanders viewed it as a declaration of international sophistication.
During the early 1950s the Dutch migrants Edzer Roukema and Jan Knoll continued the modernist approach. They worked for the Auckland firm Jon Jansen, whose store in Queen’s Arcade gained a national following. New import restrictions in the late 1950s curtailed furniture imports and boosted the local furniture industry. Firms like Danske Møbler of Auckland and Viking Furniture of Christchurch emerged to produce Scandinavian-influenced designs (called ‘Danish modern’) at affordable prices. Their furniture comprised simple, wooden tables and lounge chairs with rubber foam. Some pieces sported synthetic textiles in the lively colours of 1960s pop culture.
In 1967 the president of the Furniture Manufacturers Federation, Ces Renwick, said that television was ‘fostering a greater public awareness of design and comfort in home life’ and had led to an unexpected increase in new furniture sales.2
The 1970s saw New Zealand’s first internal revival of furniture fashion: new colonialism. Cottage industries such as woodturning, weaving, pottery and metal-working crafts created earthy products for the home. Native timbers – sometimes complete with nail holes – were recycled to construct colonial-style furniture in kauri and rimu. Auckland firm Rose & Heather, founded on this interest in the colonial past, went further by salvaging 30–40,000-year-old kauri logs from Northland swamps to make high-end French and English period reproductions.
In the 1980s two new furniture styles were introduced:
Furniture designer Michael Draper’s anodised metal and steel shelves drew inspiration from Auckland’s high-tech yachting industry (fostered by the America’s Cup) of the late 1990s.
The gradual lifting of tariffs from the late 1980s encouraged cheap furniture imports from Asia, which had a detrimental impact on local cabinetmakers. Between 2007 and 2011 the number of people employed in the furniture industry fell from 8,500 to 6,000, while the number of firms dropped from 1,800 to 1,300. The large manufacturing warehouse waned as furniture stores imported products or outsourced production to local contractors. Style became more international than ever, with identical but rebranded furnishings available through large outlets across the western world. Australian chain stores such as Harvey Norman and Freedom Furniture increased competition among local retailers such as Big Save Furniture and The Warehouse.
During the early 2000s the Wellington firm Formway Furniture became an export success story. It designed and manufactured office furniture; its 2002 ergonomic LIFE chair became the seat of choice for US President Bill Clinton and Apple Computer’s founder Steve Jobs. In 2008 Formway employed 200 people and was a $50 million company. In 2009 the global recession forced it to outsource its production and it split into small and separate design and distribution companies.
Some furniture makers survived the upheaval by moving production offshore. In 2007 Morgan Furniture (makers of La-Z-Boy chairs) closed its Auckland factory after 60 years and shifted its operations to Thailand and China. Others, such as New Zealand Comfort Group (makers of Sleepyhead beds), shed staff and consolidated operations at particular sites to develop exports to Australia. Still others grew by developing niche markets, such as Design Mobel, which made beds, mattresses and bedroom furniture using natural and sustainably sourced materials.
Most remaining New Zealand furniture-makers had fewer than 10 employees and, unlike big Asian suppliers, could adjust individual items to customer requests at short notice. The use of cheap, accurately compressed resin and fibre boards replaced much timber, lowering manufacturing costs by reducing machining time. Computer-aided design (CAD), polyvinyl glues and hot-melt resins, along with pneumatic nail guns, high-speed self-tapping screws, fixing brackets, drawer slides and quick-fit hinges, all sped up construction.
Christchurch’s 2010 and 2011 earthquakes were a boon for Auckland furniture-makers. The demolition company Nikau Contractors sent four truckloads of native timber salvaged from quake-damaged buildings north. While it cost $3,500 to transport a load, recycled rimu fetched between $2,500 and $3,500 per cubic metre, making the investment well worthwhile.
The demand for bespoke or custom-made furniture remained relatively small, but workshops serving this market continued to operate throughout the country. Of note was Englishman David Trubridge’s iconic series of slat -imber Raft, Rocking and Nananu chairs, a clear nod to an immigrant view of Polynesian culture. In 2011 some training institutions, such as Nelson’s Centre for Fine Woodworking, offered short and full-time courses in traditional woodworking.
Cottrell, William. Furniture of the New Zealand colonial era: an illustrated history, 1830–1900. Auckland: Reed, 2006.
Lloyd Jenkins, Douglas. At home: a century of New Zealand design. Auckland: Godwit, 2004.
Smythe, Michael. New Zealand by design: a history of New Zealand product design. Auckland: Godwit, 2011.