New Zealand design has no bullshit and a twinkle in its eye: Michael Smythe

The Design of delight? at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a smörgåsbord of New Zealand product design spanning the 1800s through to the modern-day, the sublime and the mundane: Edmond’s “Sure to rise” baking powder, Christchurch ceramist Mark Cleverley’s Crown Lynn designs, David Trubridge’s unique lighting and furniture, the Fisher & Paykel SmartDrive and DishDrawer, the Mountainbuggy, John Britten’s V1000, the Zespri “Cut and Scoop” designed by Peter Haythornthwaite and the undisputed champion of Kiwi design, Buzzy-bee designed by Maurice Scheslinger circa 1940.

The range, for a design ignoramus such as moi, was astonishing but this litany of design achievements was also tinged with nostalgia. The glory days seem to be locked in the “Pavlova Paradise” of the past and the challenges facing modern-day New Zealand product designers operating in the global marketplace are massive. Michael Smythe’s prescription for Kiwi design success was to foster “a self-confidence with minimal self-consciousness” and to remember New Zealand’s secret weapon, our unique capacity for cross-disciplinary team-work.

Smythe identified design personalities unique to their country of origin i.e. clean and wholesome Scandinavia, Italian flair and style , German rationality, robustness and reliability and The Dutch? Dry and wry! But what of New Zealand design? He characterised it thus:

  • Neither opulent nor sterile
  • With a light touch, not a heavy hand
  • Direct and honest
  • No bullshit with a twinkle in the eye
  • With a delight in what it is, who it is for and how it is made

Smythe also linked in the Maori tradition of ihi, wehi and wana; utility, impact and physical thrill or awe. Smythe looked in some detail at early Maori design, identifying a basalt toki as being one of the first Maori design pieces to give him a tingle up his spine.

While Smythe has put much deep thought into how to frame New Zealand’s design persona, as evidenced by his NZ Post Award winning title New Zealand by design, he was clear that he wanted to generate discussion and the question mark attached to the phrase “Design of delight?” leaves room for alternative encapsulating concepts.

This was a lovely, low-key session with a very engaged audience which included high school students, industry professionals (I saw my first hi-vis vest and hard hat of the festival!) and interested lay-people. The Q&As at the end of the session both expanded and rounded off the topic nicely.

Remembrance of festivals past

Christchurch Writers Festival 2012 logoIn the city of memories it’s hard to resist looking back. When was the first Christchurch Writers Festival I attended? I used to have a full collection of programmes so I could have checked, but not any more.

It was certainly held in the Arts Centre in the winter, because I remember the fire burning in the Great Hall. There have been so many great writers over the years; who stands out? In a quietly powerful  New Zealand way Noel Virtue and Beryl Fletcher. In a “hairs standing up on the back of your neck I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” sort of way Tusiata Avia. In a “this guy wrote a book that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg” way Tom Keneally.

Margaret Mahy, mesmerising on the stage and asking the most amazing questions from the floor.  And Don McGlashan with the Seven Sisters in the Town Hall.

Cover: GoldEnough looking back, it’s time for some new memories and not long to wait for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. On my most likely to be memorable list are Emily Perkins, John Lanchester, Chris Cleave, Michael Smythe, Joanne Drayton.

Who am I kidding? I’m looking forward to all the writers. I’ll be at every session humanly possible. I won’t be in a Great or a Town Hall, but in two years’ time I might be blogging about how the Geo Dome was the most memorable of all.

What memories do you have of past writers festivals? And who are you looking forward to this time?