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Home décor and furnishings

by Nancy Swarbrick

How New Zealanders choose to decorate their homes can reveal a lot about who they are as individuals and what their country’s culture is like. Décor and furnishing styles have been influenced by New Zealand’s colonial past, and also by Māori and Pacific traditions.

The significance of home décor

The ways people decorate and furnish their homes, and the objects they choose to display, can reveal their values, aspirations and tastes. Décor and furnishings can also contribute to their sense of mental and physical wellbeing. For these reasons, many people take great care when decorating the interiors of their homes.

Home and family

Home décor has been influenced by social trends. From the 19th century in the western world, the middle-class home was increasingly seen as a refuge where people could enjoy family life. Ideally, it was a comfortable and convenient place to live and raise children, and also to receive friends and visitors. It therefore had to serve distinct functions, and interior fixtures and décor helped to demarcate public and private areas of the home.

Pride of domicile

In 1904 Malcolm Mason, the head of the Health Department, suggested that an attractive home was morally improving: ‘Pride of domicile is one of the most powerful factors in family life, and absence of it is accompanied by much that is antagonistic to the physical weal of the State.’1

Women and home-making

Also from the 19th century, home was seen as the domain of women, who were expected to create a cosy domestic environment for their families. Interior decorating was, and still is, generally a female interest and is promoted in women’s magazines. Women’s handcrafts, incorporating both ingenuity and creativity, were often a significant aspect of home décor.


Social class was reflected in home décor. People could subtly reveal their status, or the status they aspired to, through the quality of materials used and the types of ornaments displayed. The presence of books suggested the inhabitants were educated, original artworks hinted that they were cultured, and curios and souvenirs showed they were well-travelled.


The presence of expensive items in living rooms indicated that the owners were well-off, or hoping to be. In the 20th century, for example, status symbols such as a gramophone, radio and, later, a television or expensive sound system prominently situated in a living room showed that the inhabitants were upwardly mobile.


Even if the homeowner was not wealthy, home decorating provided an opportunity to exercise judgement in colours and arrangement of furnishings. The success of these efforts could be assisted by awareness of trends, but also depended on innate design sense.

Identity and tradition

The way in which a house was decorated revealed the personality and life experiences of the owner. Objects collected over a lifetime and framed photographs were the record of a person’s or family’s emotional history.

Making decisions about décor is an aspect of self-expression that often begins early in life. From the 19th century children often decorated their bedrooms with collections, toys and ornaments precious to them – part of the process of developing personal taste.

Influences on home décor

Home décor trends often follow architectural styles. But they have also been affected by social and technological changes, such as the advent of television, which have led to alterations in the layout and function of the rooms in a house, and the ways people live in them.

    • Quoted in Margaret Tennant, ‘The decay of home life? The home in early welfare discourses.’ In At home in New Zealand: houses, history, people, edited by Barbara Brookes. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2000, p. 28. Back

Settling in, 1790 to 1860

Whalers and sealers

The first Europeans to inhabit New Zealand, shore-based whalers and sealers, lived in one-roomed huts, often built like Māori whare. The two types of dwelling looked similar externally, but were quite different inside. This was partly because the early European settlers lived, cooked, ate and slept in the one room, while, for cultural reasons, Māori constructed separate buildings for these activities.

Practicality dictated the décor. A typical whaler’s one-roomed cottage had a chimney at one end and was lined with curtained bunks, while furniture consisted of a table, benches, and sometimes stools made of whale vertebrae. There were kegs for flour and water, perhaps a dresser for tin dishes and glasses, and ropes, harpoons and other tools were stored in the rafters. All was neat and clean and, according to one observer, ‘reminds one of a Dutch coaster [coastal vessel]’.1

DIY decorating

Recalling life in Auckland in the 1840s, Lady Mary Ann Martin said ‘furniture was not to be bought, but packing cases and empty boxes were plentiful. These made our dressing-tables, and washstands, and ottomans, and lounges. A little white muslin and pink calico, and chintz cushions stuffed with scraped flax, made a handsome show.’2

Missionaries and morality

Missionaries first arrived in 1814. They were keen to impress on Māori what they believed were the benefits of British civilisation, including well-regulated homes, but at the start had to make do with very simple accommodation. Once missionaries became established, they built cottages with several rooms. Separate bedrooms supported moral standards about parents sleeping separately from children, and boys from girls. Wooden rather than earth floors also made it easier to keep the interior clean – another European concern.

These first European houses were sparsely decorated with mostly Australian-made furniture and household items. Amenities were scarce: cooking was done on an open fireplace, water was fetched from outside and there were no bathrooms or laundries. While most Māori continued to live in traditional style, a few (mainly chiefs) adopted European furniture and furnishings.

Kitchen or parlour?

The tendency of settlers to use the kitchen as a living room was frowned on by some. Kitty, a servant of the prominent Cargill family, visited another Otago house where this was the case and reported back to her employer: ‘I have been to look at this kitchen, and it is nice … but it’s too like a parlour. I like a parlour to be a parlour, and a kitchen to be a kitchen.’3


Settler families, mainly from Britain, arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. They had to content themselves with raupō (bulrush) whare or huts at first, later graduating to small cob (mud mixed with straw) or wooden houses of several rooms, often whitewashed inside to look clean and airy. New Zealand homes were, and continued to be, cold. Fireplaces were used for cooking, and as they provided warmth, the kitchen often served as the living room as well.

Many new arrivals took pride in making their simple dwellings look pretty and cosy with the addition of curtains and cushions, books, ornamental knick-knacks, clocks, prized furniture, pianos and framed prints brought over from Britain. Other furniture was homemade or improvised from boxes. Some could also afford patterned wallpaper and carpets, often in strong colours such as red, but for many sheepskins or simple mats were the only floor coverings.

    • Quoted in Anna K. C. Petersen, New Zealanders at home: a cultural history of domestic interiors 1814–1914. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2001, pp. 20–21. Back
    • Quoted in Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand houses, 18001940. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, pp. 70–71. Back
    • Quoted in New Zealanders at home, p. 38. Back

Higher aspirations, 1860s to 1900s

Home comforts

By the 1860s there was growing anxiety about the influence itinerant men – rural workers and gold miners – and their rough life was having on New Zealand society. A comfortable home symbolised society’s preferred alternative – settled family life presided over by a woman. Often working-class people could only afford to rent substandard houses and had few comforts, putting up with battered second-hand furniture, walls papered with newspaper, and blankets for curtains. However, more people began to aspire to refinements that would make home life more attractive. Middle-class homes became larger, and particular attention was given to decorating the ‘public’ rooms – the parlour, dining room and study.

New Zealand-made

In 1881 Alexander Bathgate observed (and possibly exaggerated) how the rise of New Zealand manufacturing had influenced interior design: ‘We can rise in the morning from beneath the soft kaikorai blankets on a handsome bedstead made of New Zealand wood … in the evening, we light our Dunedin candles; our eyes rest with satisfaction on the New Zealand landscapes which adorn our walls; our ears are gratified by sweet airs played on a New Zealand piano.’1

Local manufacturing

From the 1870s local manufacturing industries provided better-quality, cheaper alternatives to the often shoddy goods that were imported. Timber mills began to turn out components, including interior fittings such as decorative moulded architraves, skirtings, fire surrounds and balustrades, for the villa – the most fashionable architectural style by the 1890s and 1900s. Nevertheless, many furnishings such as wallpapers, carpets and textiles, glass and ceramics continued to be imported from England.

Shaping taste

New Zealanders learned about English decorating trends through magazines and newspapers, but usually months after they were the rage. They often adopted just those elements they liked, resulting in eclectic interiors. In addition, many homeowners were conservative in their tastes. A central Victorian and Edwardian value – status consciousness – was influential in shaping taste. People showed off their rank by acquiring and displaying objects – giving many fashionable interiors of the period a busy look.

Heating and lighting

A grand fireplace was the central feature of the parlour, while the kitchen was dominated by a coal range or gas cooker. As coal became more common as a fuel, fireplaces, especially grates, became smaller and were situated in the dining room and bedrooms as well as the living room. Gas lighting, gradually replaced by electric lighting, brightened rooms.

Wall coverings

Wallpaper pasted onto the hessian ‘scrim’ tacked to the lining boards was an important aspect of décor in Victorian and Edwardian times. A common practice was to divide walls into three horizontal parts: the dado (lower), fill (middle) and frieze (top), with a different patterned wall covering for each.

Decorative finishes

Often each room had its own colour scheme, with elaborately patterned wallpaper in the living rooms and bedrooms, and plaster and paint in the kitchen. Rich or earthy colours were popular. Woodwork was painted or stained to represent oak or walnut, and kauri floors were stained black. Board-and-batten ceilings with decorative central ventilators gave way to patterned pressed-metal panels. From 1903 some homes had decorative plaster ‘Carrara’ ceilings.


‘Revival’ styles – for instance French empire revival, Queen Anne revival and Georgian revival – influenced home décor during the late 19th century. Several other styles were also fashionable.

Aesthetic movement

This movement of the 1880s arose from the idea that exposure to cultural activities could give a person a sense of the beautiful. Those who saw themselves as having cultured taste (namely the middle and upper classes) wanted to demonstrate it in their homes to differentiate themselves from the working classes or the nouveau riche. Principles included subdued lighting and colours. The natural world provided dominant motifs: flowers such as sunflowers and lilies featured in wallpaper, curtains and rugs, and vases were crammed with grasses, dried flowers and ferns. Eastern handicrafts and bamboo furniture jostled for room, and objects such as photographs were arranged in artful groups.

Art nouveau

Art nouveau, originating in France in the 1890s, featured stylised sinuous plant forms. These decorated wallpaper, carpets, fire surrounds, hearth tiles and leadlight windows. Art nouveau remained popular through to the 1920s.

Arts and crafts

The arts and crafts movement was led by English artist William Morris and was based on the mid-19th-century writings of English thinker John Ruskin, who believed that homes served a moral purpose as places of repose and should be decorated in a style that expressed the owners’ character, history and occupation. In England these views influenced the teaching of arts and crafts, and the manufacture of goods characterised by medieval simplicity and a handcrafted look. New Zealand followed this philosophy of teaching arts and crafts, and the style became increasingly apparent in home décor, especially around 1900.

    • Quoted in Anna K. C. Petersen, New Zealanders at home: a cultural history of domestic interiors 1814–1914. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2001, p. 64. Back

Between the wars, 1920s and 1930s

Bungalow style

A new style had been creeping into New Zealand architecture in the early 20th century in response to changing patterns of life – the bungalow. Unlike the formal, highly ornamented villa, the bungalow had a simple, efficient layout. This recognised that most New Zealand households had few if any servants by this time. Large dining rooms were replaced by small breakfast rooms and nooks, the parlour or drawing room became the living room, and floor plans became smaller. By the 1920s, when many returned servicemen were marrying and buying homes in new suburbs, the bungalow style prevailed, and continued to for two decades.

A decorating masterpiece

English immigrant Dorothy Monkman followed colour fashions when decorating the new bungalow that she and husband Frank rented in Mt Albert, Auckland, in 1929. The kitchenette was painted blue to tone with her blue-and-white china, with black and white lino tiles on the floor and grey curtains. The pale green sunroom also had grey curtains, and there was patterned wallpaper in the bedrooms and front room. She wrote to a friend ‘My hall is the masterpiece, I think, in red, black + beige. I have three Tattersfields rugs … and I shall stain + polish the floor around them.’1

Inside the bungalow

Interiors were often influenced by arts and crafts style. Rooms had lower, beam-and-panel ceilings, and might be wood panelled, with rimu a popular choice. The fireplace still dominated the living room, sometimes inset into an inglenook flanked by built-in seats and leadlight windows. Other furniture, such as bay-window seating, was often also built in, as were kitchen cupboards and benches to fit around new electric stoves and other appliances.

Wallpaper was still used by some, but now walls were often panelled with newly available plasterboards and painted. Exposed floorboards in most rooms were covered with Persian and other rugs, but kitchens and bathrooms often featured linoleum or congoleum (the forerunners of modern vinyl floor coverings). The bathroom and toilet, once separate from or tacked onto the back of the house, were now centrally situated and, because of the new stress on health and hygiene, were often white-tiled to suggest cleanliness. Elsewhere, pastel colours were fashionable.

Decorating trends

The classic bungalow interior drew on the simple, elegant arts and crafts style, but Spanish mission-style furniture, with its massive appearance, was also popular. Ballet Russe style, which evoked ‘oriental’ interiors through heavy fringed and tasselled cushions and lampshades, enjoyed a vogue. However, New Zealanders tended to be conservative, so ‘revival’ styles remained common in 1920s interiors.

Art deco

After the devastating Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931, another architectural style became increasingly popular. Known as art deco, it was heavily influenced by the sophisticated, streamlined interiors in American movies. The plain, flat-roofed, stucco exteriors of art deco houses were dominated by large ‘picture’ windows which let sunlight inside, an innovation believed to be health-inducing.

The effect of brightness was increased by the vibrant colours used in interior furnishings. Classic art deco motifs such as the chevron, ziggurat, sunburst and horizontal stripes patterned carpets, curtains, upholstery and cushions. They also decorated or dictated the lines of furniture and ornaments. Modern materials such as chrome, Bakelite and early plastics were used. Some aspects of deco style lasted into the 1940s and 1950s. But house exteriors and interiors did not always match, and often interior trends associated with earlier architectural styles continued.

    • Letter from Dorothy Monkman to friend Win in England, 9 June 1929. MS-Papers-6185-1, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Back

Modernism, 1940s to 1960s

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.

Nostalgia and materialism, 1960s to 2000s

From the 1960s two quite different attitudes affected interior-decoration trends in New Zealand. One was an interest in and valuing of New Zealand’s architectural and design history. The other was growing material expectations, fuelled by rising standards of living.

The generation gap

Social change from the mid-1960s influenced the way people began to think about the decoration of their homes. A new outspoken, optimistic and independent generation of young people was determined to break with the past. Many rejected the values of their parents and the modernist interiors they had grown up with. They created eclectic living spaces that were vibrant and fun, bringing together bright colours, pop art and old furniture and objects, often modified or repainted to fit the decorating scheme.

Changing roles

From the 1970s more women entered the workforce. They had less time for housework, but families had more money to spend on household items. Houses increasingly incorporated new labour-saving appliances such as bathroom heaters, freezers, dishwashers and clothes dryers that were now regarded as essential adjuncts to convenient modern living. Easy-to-clean, comfortable furnishings such as fitted carpets, once considered a luxury, became standard.

‘New colonial’ style

In the 1970s young architects, inspired by New Zealand’s past rather than overseas trends, began to design homes that referenced colonial cottages. The interiors of these houses had small intimate spaces rather than open plan areas, and mixed natural materials and surfaces, particularly wood, with bright colours such as orange and yellow, and chunky, abstract shapes. Household items such as crockery and kitchenware were displayed, creating a cosy, cottagey feel that represented a break with modernist ideas.

‘Doing up’

From this time, too, people began to buy and ‘do up’ old inner-city villas and bungalows, which were relatively cheap to buy. Preserving the character features, both interior and exterior, of these houses was considered important, but most people upgraded the service areas – bathrooms, kitchens and laundries. Kitchens, often fitted out with native-wood joinery and breakfast bars, became open plan in style, emphasising their place at the heart of the home. More antiques and collectibles stores helped meet the demand for furniture and accessories of the appropriate period.


In the 1980s international postmodernism began to influence New Zealand architects and designers. They made a statement through playful references to older styles. Deregulation of the New Zealand economy led to a growing disparity in incomes, and those who did have money could afford to spend on their houses. A new glamour and theatricality was evident in the use of glittering materials such as glass and steel in both exteriors and interiors. Expanses of pastel colours and white added to the effect. Contemporary furniture was constructed in the high-tech style, which incorporated industrial materials, and Memphis style, which used asymmetrical forms and strident colours.


Auckland was the seat of another ground-breaking 1980s design trend, known as Pasifika. It reflected a new view of New Zealand identity, which was a mix of Pākehā, Māori and Pacific cultures. It blended bright colours and Polynesian motifs with elements of postmodernist design. Pasifika was often evident in locally made ornaments and household objects, including ceramics and glassware.

Recycled interior décor

For some, concern for the environment, and the massive popularity of the Trade Me website, made recycling chic in the 2000s. Buying second-hand furnishings and household objects became an important aspect of a sustainable lifestyle.

Looking back

In a reaction to 1980s excess, the 1990s and beyond saw many people look again to the past for interior design inspiration. While fashionable houses and apartments themselves might be modern, they were often decorated with art, objects and furniture from previous eras. Neutral walls and polished wooden floors became the backdrop for collections of Crown Lynn ceramics, locally made ‘mid-century’ furniture, Kiwiana or crafts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Often, old and new styles coexisted happily in homes that now included innovative technology – such as desktop computers, digital televisions and gaming consoles. In the 2000s many New Zealand interiors conveyed an impression of a distinctive place in the world, and a sense of the history of that place.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Home décor and furnishings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 September 2013