Story: Industrial design

Page 1. Teaching industrial design

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Industrial design is the practice of devising the form of products to be made by industry. It integrates manufacturing processes (engineering) with marketing to focus on the experience of the customer. Industrial design has traditionally been taught in art schools because the base skills are drawing and making things. This enables students to ‘think through their hands’ and communicate and evaluate ideas visually.

Imported models

New Zealand art schools applied the British South Kensington model that began in 1837 with the Government School of Design in London. Henry Cole developed it further after leading the creation of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art evolved from those efforts to bring art and design to the new industrial age. The pre-Second World War Bauhaus in Germany also influenced design schools in many countries, including New Zealand.

Art schools

The first school to teach design was the Otago School of Art, which opened in 1870. Its evening classes taught artistic awareness and skills to artisans and professionals. The Canterbury College of Art opened in 1882 to encourage ‘the application of Art to the common uses of life, and to the requirements of Trade and Manufactures.’1 Other schools included:

  • Wellington School of Design (1886)
  • Auckland’s Elam School of Art and Design (1889)
  • Wanganui Technical College (1892).

Wanganui Technical College hosted meetings of its local Arts and Crafts Society, which championed hand-crafted products and saw those who designed products for sale through commerce as ‘tainted by trade’.2 This may be the reason many of the schools eventually sidelined design for industry in favour of painting and sculpture.

Birth of industrial design

Since the rise of industrially manufactured products in the 19th century in Europe and North America, the object of the product developer was to make their wares look acceptably familiar. Ornamentation on engineered products suggested the hand of an artisan.

Joseph Sinel

New Zealander Jo Sinel has been called the ‘father of industrial design’ because in 1920 he was the first to print the words ‘industrial designer’ on his letterhead. Having trained at Seddon Technical College and Elam School of Art he began his career in 1904 as a lithographer with Wilson and Horton. In 1911 he opened a commercial art and design studio in central Auckland, before moving to the United States in 1918.

Attitudes began to change after the First World War. The economic need to simplify mass production processes in the 1920s led to the rise of functionalism. This stressed that if an object’s design was determined by its function, materials and production process, it would have an honest aesthetic – neatly summarised in the phrase 'form follows function'. A growing desire among designers, manufacturers and consumers for articles that were both efficient and visually pleasing culminated in the rise of a ‘machine-age’ art design, also called art deco, which replaced the ‘natural’ forms of art nouveau. These developments, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, led to the birth of a new profession: the industrial designer.

Industrial design schools

In 1945 artist and draughtsman James Coe, who had served with the engineering corps during the Second World War, was asked by the Education Department to develop a ‘design for living’ approach to the secondary school art curriculum. In 1959 Coe accepted the role of director of the art school at Wellington Technical College provided he was allowed to include industrial design. In 1962 the adult education part of the college became Wellington Polytechnic. Its School of Design was the first institution to offer a three-year, full-time professional design programme.

Meanwhile in Auckland, with low enrolments at the Elam School of Fine Arts, teacher Bob Ellis was assigned to find out about design for industry. At the Kent Heating company he found Jolyon Saunders, an Elam graduate who had gone on to gain an English industrial design qualification. Saunders began teaching the subject at Elam in 1962.

From 1992 the Wellington School of Design began offering university degrees in design (rather than polytechnic diplomas) in a conjoint arrangement with Victoria University of Wellington. After Massey University absorbed Wellington Polytechnic in 1999 the design school became part of its College of Creative Arts. Victoria University established its own school of design. From the early 21st century product design degree courses have also been offered by Unitec, Otago Polytechnic and AUT (Auckland University of Technology). Industrial design was no longer taught at Elam.

  1. Quoted in Michael Smythe, New Zealand by design: a history of New Zealand product design. Auckland: Godwit, 2011, p. 52 Back
  2. Quoted in New Zealand by design, p. 53. Back
How to cite this page:

Michael Smythe, 'Industrial design - Teaching industrial design', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Michael Smythe, published 22 Oct 2014