Story: Industrial design

Page 4. Creating competitive advantage

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The neo-liberal changes that followed the 1984 election of the reforming Labour government had a major impact on the design and manufacture of New Zealand products. The accelerated removal of import licensing and tariff protection exposed many local manufacturers to international competition at home. The Crown Crystal Glass factory closed in 1987. Ceramco’s Crown Lynn Pottery brand, and some assets, were sold to a Malaysian company in 1989. Meanwhile, many companies with visionary leaders who had invested in design to improve their export prospects survived.

Kosher kitchen bonus

An unexpected bonus was discovered when a DishDrawer prototype was exhibited at the Cologne Domotechnica trade fair in February 1996. Fisher & Paykel staff politely asked Israeli exhibitors why they were taking such a detailed interest in the inner workings of the DishDrawer. They learned that the two drawers, which operated independently of each other, were ideal for the kosher kitchen, in which utensils and tableware used with milk must be kept separate from those used with meat. Sales to orthodox Jewish households took off.

Smart appliances

Fisher & Paykel’s commitment to innovation increased as they positioned themselves to compete with global brands. The SmartDrive washing machine, launched in 1991, was driven by a world-leading direct-drive motor and clever electronics. The ingenuity of the ActiveSmart refrigerator range was matched by its elegant exterior, but it was the DishDrawer dishwasher that turned heads and positioned the firm as an innovative global leader. The core concept of the DishDrawer came from industrial designers Mark Elmore and Phil Brace rethinking the ergonomics of the kitchen. Chair Maurice Paykel loved the idea but insisted that a two-drawer unit, with each drawer able to take full-size dinner plates, occupy the same space as an existing dishwasher. The user’s needs came first, then the marketing realities, and finally the innovative engineering that was required to make it work.

Better office furniture

In the early 1980s Formway Furniture’s new owners asked the New Zealand Industrial Design Council to help them find a designer. The company chose Mark Pennington, who impressed them with his design vision. While other manufacturers cut costs and quality to remain competitive in a stagnant market, Formway developed new products of higher value, including the Formway Zaf office chair, launched in 1986. Its innovations included the ‘living lumbar link’, bigger castors to cope with thick New Zealand carpet and more comfortable sloping armrests. When the chair won the Prince Philip Award for Industrial Design in 1989, Prince Philip ordered two.

Ten years later the Formway ‘Free’ wrap-around work surface won two gold medals at the NeoCon 99 World Trade Fair in Chicago. The US licence was sold to Bretford, who were established in the office-interior market but needed to add an open-plan system to their range.

arti-fakt-s at MoMA

Among the arti-fakt-s desktop range created by Peter Haythornthwaite Design was the Saturn Disc tape dispenser, which swivelled towards the person pulling the tape. By 1988 it was one of the biggest sellers at the Museum of Modern Art shop in New York.

Design entrepreneurs

Some designers became entrepreneurs out of frustration at clients compromising their detailing. Peter Haythornthwaite’s arti-fakt-s desktop products found an international market through design stores. Other entrepreneurs developed design skills to meet their own needs. Allan Croad was running his own health and fitness business when he became a father. He knew of an American baby buggy aimed at jogging parents but he wanted an off-road version for hilly tracks. When his prototype Mountain Buggy featured on a newspaper’s front page in 1992 the orders began. By 2000 annual production was over 20,000 units.

Plastic innovation

Household products for menial tasks also benefited from the industrial designer’s touch. The Raven brushware designed by Peter Tasker in the early 1990s was still in production in the 2010s. Tasker also applied his skills in the animal health field. The first drench gun (for dosing animals) he designed for Instrument Supplies in 1988 was the Plastics Institute’s ‘Product of the ‘80s’.

Good design in plastic had a significant effect on the rural landscape from 1999, when the Wilson Plastics letterbox began to populate the roadside. Rob Whitfield not only achieved a pleasing form, he also created functionality that was appreciated daily by rural posties. About 50,000 were sold in the first decade and exports to Australia followed.

How to cite this page:

Michael Smythe, 'Industrial design - Creating competitive advantage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Michael Smythe, published 22 Oct 2014