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Industrial design

by Michael Smythe

Industrial design in New Zealand has progressed from import replacement to innovation aimed at global markets. New Zealand-designed products such as the YikeBike – a lightweight electric bicycle – and David Trubridge’s elegant kitset lightshades drew international acclaim in the 2000s. While more New Zealand companies were moving product design and production offshore, investment in design grew.

Teaching industrial design

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.

    • Quoted in Michael Smythe, New Zealand by design: a history of New Zealand product design. Auckland: Godwit, 2011, p. 52 Back
    • Quoted in New Zealand by design, p. 53. Back

Protectionism, 1938 to 1988

In 1938 the government introduced import control regulations to allow selection of imports, so that New Zealand manufacturing industries could develop and expand. Before then, many overseas-designed products had been imported. Protectionism allowed them to be made under licence with 50% local content. The output included small electrical appliances with brand names like Speedee, Neeco, Ultimate and Zip. Following the import controls, manufacturers increasingly designed and made their own products. The push for a high standard of original New Zealand design accelerated with the establishment of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council in 1967.

Home appliances

In 1939 Fisher & Paykel changed from being an importer of appliances to a manufacturer. Gifford Jackson, who had trained in Glasgow as a naval architect, was employed as a design draughtsman in 1945, but was keen to become an industrial designer. Product design at Fisher & Paykel was originally engineering-based, with styling following American trends. Industrial design graduates were employed from 1967. Other companies also began employing industrial designers. In the late 1960s the appliance firm Ultimate was among those who contracted Jackson after he returned from 17 years in New York. Zip Industries employed design-school graduate Gerry Luhman.

Putting the jug on

From the 1940s Britons and Americans were mystified by Kiwis saying they would ‘put the jug on’. Just why New Zealand led the world with upright metal electric jugs while other countries electrified the kettle is unclear. The jug shape was more ergonomic and efficient. Harry Urlwin began the trend with his Speedee jugs and the rest of the world finally caught on about 60 years later.

Ceramics and glassware

Other import-substitution industries also employed industrial designers. Auckland’s Amalgamated Brick and Tile Company created the Ambrico brand for domestic tableware after receiving wartime contracts from the US army and the New Zealand Railways Department. By 1948 it was making 6 million pieces per year. Ex-Elam student Dave Jenkin was employed from 1945, and appointed head of a new design department three years later, when the brand became Crown Lynn.

While the firm met mass-market demands by echoing the imports they were replacing, they also introduced fresh trends by appropriating Māori-inspired design and employing immigrant designers. Mirek Smisek’s Bohemia Ware and Frank Carpay’s Handwerk range were slow sellers in the 1950s but later became collectors’ pieces. Annual design competitions generated successful contemporary designs during the 1960s and 1970s. Repeated wins by Mark Cleverley led to his employment in the firm from 1968.

Christchurch’s Crown Crystal Glass factory employed Elam design graduates John Densem in 1967 and Keith Mahy in 1970. Densem excelled with a suite of vessels for the Geyser Room restaurant at Expo 70 in Japan. Mahy’s designs included the Anker and Stacker ranges.


Plastic manufacture in New Zealand began in 1932, when Andersons made 5,000 Bakelite telephone earpieces for the Post and Telegraph Department. Local design of both moulding equipment and plastic products began in 1936 after Harry Urlwin’s Christchurch firm, H. C. Urlwin, sent a young employee, Robertson (Bob) Stewart, to Britain to learn plastics design. In 1945 Stewart became a designer at Plastic and Diecasting Limited in Christchurch. Ten years later he bought the business and renamed it PDL Industries. PDL created the world’s first rocker ‘micro-gap’ switch in 1960 and became a major exporter. In 1967 a new PDL factory was built in Malaysia.


While most New Zealand factory-made furniture imitated overseas designs, there were some examples of innovation. The dental chair created for the new School Dental Service programme in 1921 was a masterpiece of lightweight, adjustable, structurally sound functionality. Garth Chester’s single plywood moulded Curvesse chair of 1944 is deservedly recognised as a remarkable feat of manufacture.

Made to last

Collecting relics for the Fun Ho! National Toy Museum at Inglewood was not difficult – originals had survived burial, fires and being run over. It was reported that one driver who reversed over a Fun Ho! toy was most unimpressed when his car tyre came off second best.


Jack Underwood’s Fun Ho! factory moved from Wellington to New Plymouth in 1945. It made aluminium sand-cast toys, such as cars, aircraft, tractors and doll’s-house furniture. After the 1948 easing of import restrictions on toys led to a flood of imports, so Underwood moved his factory to Inglewood to remain competitive.

The Trekka

Designing the body and interior of a motor vehicle is an industrial designer’s dream. The Trekka utility job went to George Taylor, a draughtsman who had worked for UK coach-builder Thrupp & Mayberly. The Trekka reached the market in 1967. Under protectionism it was much cheaper than the imported Land Rover, which could only be bought by customers with overseas funds. Eighteen months later import controls were lifted from off-road vehicles and sales faltered in the face of competition from the UK and Japan. The business closed in 1973.

Innovation under protectionism

At worst, import licensing and tariffs encouraged copying and complacency. For many manufacturers, meeting the wide-ranging demands of the domestic market did not align with the need to develop original products for niche export markets. At best, protectionism enabled New Zealand businesses to build a solid foundation of creativity and innovation upon which a product range for export could be built.


Sometimes conservatism stifled innovation. Colin Murdoch’s 1956 plastic pre-filled disposable syringe was his solution to the growing problem of cross-infection, but the Health Department declared his world-leading concept too futuristic. Undeterred, Murdoch produced working prototypes, but after his patent was published in gazettes, overseas copies appeared.

Patent problem

Although Colin Murdoch patented his revolutionary plastic syringe, multi-national drug companies simply copied it without paying him royalties. Murdoch wryly noted that the right to defend a patent did not come with the resources to take offenders to court.

Murdoch went on to build his successful Paxarms business in Timaru, drawing on his experience as a veterinarian, hunter, pharmacist and inventor. He developed a way to deliver tranquilliser darts that avoided frightening the animal; the drug could do its job without the chemical imbalance caused by an adrenalin rush. By the mid-1970s Paxarms was exporting to over 150 countries.

Fisher & Paykel

Fisher & Paykel was among New Zealand’s most innovative companies. One advance was a very cost-effective front-loading tumble dryer, designed to pair up with a top-loading automatic washing machine made under licence to a UK firm. By the late 1960s the dryer was being made by the UK firm under licence to Fisher & Paykel. In 1973 Fisher & Paykel built a world-first refrigeration plant that could make different models on the same assembly line. Cross-disciplinary collaboration delivered a refreshingly simple refrigerator range that won the 1984 Prince Philip Design Award.

The company’s health-care division began after Middlemore Hospital specialist Matt Spence identified a need to safely humidify air being delivered to patients on life-support. Working with Alf Melville at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, a crude working prototype was made using a modified Agee preserving jar. In the late 1960s Fisher & Paykel successfully developed the concept. The humidifier was the first health-care product made by the division, which was to become a separate company in 2001.

Other New Zealand innovations

  • The Feltonmix shower mixer accommodated low water pressure and combined the mixer with the shower head. Keith Relf’s technology, embodied in a form designed by Gifford Jackson, was released in 1969.
  • The Bendon seamless bra used Spanish body fabric moulding technology to create a world-leading garment in 1975.
  • Tullen snips, showcased at a European trade fair in 1972, could cut anything from cling film to metal coins. The show resulted in a huge export order for Tullen Industries.
  • The Merryware Body Brush, designed by Peter Haythornthwaite in 1981, offered a sensuous brush shape that became hugely popular in local and export markets, and was copied by overseas manufacturers.

Design train

During 1968 the Rothmans Design Train travelled the length of the country, carrying the products that were finalists in New Zealand’s awards for industrial design. 14% of the population visited the train. When it reached Auckland, awards ($1,000 and a trophy) were bestowed on the designers of the 10 winning products. One winner, Noel Tritton, also won the public vote for his Optimus pre-finished and packaged modular furniture, which had 100% New Zealand content and needed only a Phillips-head screwdriver for assembly.

Promoting design

In an effort to encourage better industrial design, and promote it to the public, the government set up the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (NZIDC) in 1967. The council’s activities included evaluating products and awarding Designmark labels to those that met the criteria, and instituting the Prince Philip Design Award in 1981. It also published Designscape magazine between 1969 and 1983. From the mid-1980s the government required the NZIDC to pay its own way. It failed, and in 1987 its responsibilities were transferred to the quality accreditation agency Telarc (Testing Laboratory Registration Council), where design-related activity eventually withered.

A renewed commitment to design was signalled by the government in 2003, when the Ministry of Economic Development set up the Design Taskforce. The resulting Better by Design (BBD) programme was initiated to place design thinking at the core of corporate culture through tailored coaching. Annual BBD conferences called CEO Summits have been held since 2005.

Creating competitive advantage

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.

Going global: the 2000s

Increasing globalisation in the early 21st century has required New Zealand businesses to reconsider product positioning in competitive markets, the location of manufacturing plants and levels of investment. While many companies shifted production closer to markets (or to countries with lower labour costs) and increased their overseas shareholding, many still valued New Zealand’s isolation and comparative lack of conservatism as an ideal place to create fresh, clear design thinking.

Products of the 2000s

Fisher & Paykel

Fisher & Paykel’s product development programme has continued. The CookSurface integrated ceramic cleanable surfaces with gas cooking speed and control. The CoolDrawer refrigerator had five settings and saved energy because cold air did not fall out when it was opened.


Plumbing manufacturer Methven’s Satinjet shower technology saved water while replicating a soothing rain-like sensation. Offering guests a pleasant experience while reducing costs, it became very popular in the international hospitality sector.

Gallagher Industries

Gallagher extended its global leadership in the electric fence field through improved design and brand-building. The idea for the SmartFence temporary fence came from the Gallagher team in Switzerland, where outdoor grazing is seasonal.


Furnware launched the Murray Pilcher-designed Bodyfurn classroom chair in 2005. Its ergonomic design has been shown to improve comfort and concentration.

Mini mouse

The SwiftPoint mouse for laptops was among the Popular Science magazine ‘Best of What’s New 2010’ award winners. Software developer Grant Odgers had teamed up with industrial designer David Lovegrove to overcome the frustration of laptop users who dislike the touchpad. The SwiftPoint ergonomics evolved through user-driven research. It is held by the thumb and two fingers and operates on the surface beside the touchpad.

Phil & Teds

Phil & Teds’ baby buggy innovations included a swivelling front wheel and in-line seating for siblings. With manufacturing outsourced to China, sales exceeded $110 million by 2007.

Blunt umbrella

The Blunt umbrella features a perimeter without points. Design engineer Greg Brebner, who is 1.9 metres tall, noticed the need as he dodged umbrellas on congested London pavements.


Globalisation and the need for overseas investment led to some companies disappearing from New Zealand, usually to be closer to markets.

Christchurch technology firm Pulse Data had developed BrailleNote products to help the visually impaired. In 2005 Pulse Data merged with the Canadian firm VisuAide to create the HumanWare Group, with assurances its head office and research-and-development (R&D) facilities would remain in Christchurch. However, following a 2007 buyout of small shareholders by an Australian investor, the whole operation was consolidated in Montreal.

The global financial crisis of 2008 put New Zealand’s best-known design-driven firm, Fisher & Paykel Appliances, under pressure. The sale of 20% to the Chinese whiteware giant Haier eased the cashflow problem and assisted penetration of new Asian markets. After Haier achieved full ownership in 2012 they expanded the R&D resources in Auckland and Dunedin.

Sustainable design

Environmental sustainability became a significant design driver in the early 21st century. Fisher & Paykel, Formway and Furnware are among those who consider sustainable design to be essential to leadership in their fields.

Greg Ryan’s electric ‘mini-farthing’ YikeBike concept evolved as a unicycle with a small wheel for stability. It weighs as little as 11.2 kilograms and folds quickly into a pack not much bigger than the main wheel. It was named one of Time magazine’s 50 best inventions of 2009. Ryan playfully suggested that as well as reducing car use, electric-powered bikes have a lower carbon footprint than pedal-powered bikes because users do not eat – or shower – as much.

David Trubridge has forged an international reputation as a designer of lightshades. Since 2011 much of his lighting range has been available in kitset form, significantly reducing the transport costs and carbon footprint. Customers enjoy the bonus of participating in the making process.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Michael Smythe, 'Industrial design', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Michael Smythe, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014