Story: Home décor and furnishings

Page 5. Modernism, 1940s to 1960s

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In the late 1930s international modernism began to influence local architecture. Its advocates included New Zealand-born architects, designers and craftspeople as well as European immigrants who arrived before and after the Second World War. Modernism rejected decoration in favour of functionalism. It aimed to reflect modern ways of living, with increasing emphasis on informality. Among its innovations were open-plan kitchens and living areas instead of segregated social spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows to connect the house with the garden, and terraces and patios for outdoor entertaining and relaxation. These changes were in tune with social shifts, especially post-war, and the increasingly casual New Zealand way of life.

The Helen Hitchings Gallery

The Helen Hitchings Gallery, which opened in 1949 in Bond Street, Wellington, showcased modernist art, ceramics and furniture. The furniture included wooden-framed armchairs, web-backed dining chairs, round occasional tables and nesting tables designed by Ernst Plischke, one of the most influential of the early immigrant modernist architects.

Modernist inside and out

The philosophy of modernism demanded that the interior of a house should be consistent with its simple streamlined exterior. To achieve this, some New Zealand architects either built in furniture such as bookcases, cabinets – and even beds and sofas – or designed their own furniture. The limited availability of modernist furniture in New Zealand during the 1940s and early 1950s fostered the efforts of local manufacturers, who produced such design classics as the cantilevered plywood ‘Curvesse’ chair. Early modernist homes were plain and elegant outside and inside, with restrained colours and discreet patterns. These design elements infiltrated older-style houses too.

Pan-Pacific modernism

During the 1950s and early 1960s Pacific design traditions, including those of Japan, America, Australia and the Pacific Islands, became evident in New Zealand modernist interiors. They influenced local crafts such as pottery and weaving, which grew in popularity. The restraint and austerity of 1940s modernism was now moderated by lively patterns and colours and textural elements such as woven and seagrass mats, lightweight rattan and cane furniture and bamboo screens. Pot plants brought the outdoors inside.

European elegance

European design influences remained strong in locally produced and imported ceramics, textiles and furniture. For a brief period in the 1950s more imported modernist furniture was available, but when import restrictions were imposed New Zealand firms, notably Danske Møbler, began to produce elegant Scandinavian-style furniture.

Writing on interior decoration

Homeowners seeking interior decorating advice increasingly found it in locally produced publications. Home and Building, which began in 1936, continued to provide illustrations of the ideal modernist interior. Design Review was launched in 1948, and New Zealand Modern Homes and Gardens in 1957. Books such as Modern decoration and furnishing (1947) by D. E. Barry Martin and information sheets issued by leading 1950s designer John Crichton explained the finer principles of modernism, such as the use of lighting to create ambience.

By the mid-1960s modernism was mainstream in New Zealand. New subdivisions were filled with modified versions of modernist houses, and were furnished to match.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Home décor and furnishings - Modernism, 1940s to 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 Sep 2013