Story: Graphic design

Page 2. Victorian design to modernism, 1890s to 1940s

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A local dialect

New Zealand graphic design has developed at a distance from the rest of the art world, but not in isolation. The work of commercial illustrators and visual artists has followed international trends since local printed materials were first created. This is even more the case in the electronic age, where increasingly diverse global influences arrive quickly. Nonetheless, there is a distinct, local dialect to New Zealand graphic design that reveals the influence of landscape and climate and a strong indigenous visual culture.

Victorian design and art nouveau, 1890–1910s

The first printed graphics in New Zealand reflected European design styles of the late 19th century: heavy Victorian ornamentation and the flowing floral patterns of art nouveau. Symmetrical layout and use of type on cloth banners were typical of the period. So were decorative borders, curved type and realistic scenes with almost no close-up depictions. By 1900 art nouveau was the dominant art and graphic style. Sources for its style were the arts and crafts movement, Japanese woodblock design and pre-Raphaelite painting.

Making the ordinary distinctive

A funeral tribute for leading designer Stanley Davis noted his passing as ‘a loss to the whole country. He was remarkable for his keen cheerful zest in his tasks … He had an untiring eagerness to put distinctiveness into ordinary things.’1

Pictorial design, 1920s–30s

While modernism (including cubism, futurism and constructivism) swept through European art and design in the 1920s and 1930s, New Zealand graphic design remained largely pictorial. There were some examples of local abstract or symbolic design, but most work was drawn or painted in naturalistic or realistic styles, with lettering set around the image.

Two of the leading exponents were Leonard Mitchell and Stanley Davis, both of whom significantly influenced New Zealand graphic design.

Modernism, 1930s–40s

Most graphic design in 1930s New Zealand was a jumble of typefaces and images that commanded attention with quantity rather than quality. Clifton Firth turned this on its head. A follower of new European typography, he used type dramatically with black and white photography to create distinctive images.

The radical development towards abstraction in European art had some effect in New Zealand, even on Railways Studios posters in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of these clearly reflect the spirit of modernity, well before painters Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston began experimenting with abstraction. However, the dominant style was art deco, which had replaced art nouveau as the major international decorative style. Streamlined, geometric designs expressed the power and scale of modern technology; sleek, towering ships and speeding trains were quintessential art deco images.

  1. G. H. Mackley, ‘Tribute of the general manager.’ New Zealand Railways magazine 12, no. 11 (1 February 1938), p. 15. Back
How to cite this page:

Hamish Thompson, 'Graphic design - Victorian design to modernism, 1890s to 1940s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Hamish Thompson, published 22 Oct 2014