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Pioneering pan-Pacific design

Justine Olsen on modernist designer John Crichton


<P data-associrn="1466631"></P> <P data-associrn="1465696"></P> <P>The interior and industrial designer John Crichton (1917–93) arrived in New Zealand from Malaysia in 1949. He was armed with a qualification in design from the Birmingham School of Art, and already had a series of photography assignments in the tropics and some experiments with cane furniture to his name. In post-war New Zealand, people were beginning to query traditional taste and embrace new ideas. For the young designer, a career in interior design seemed a possibility. </P> <P><STRONG>Wait&#257;kere living</STRONG></P> <P>Crichton had soon converted a one-bedroom doctor’s bach in Titirangi, west of Auckland, into a modern living space for his young family. His daughter, Jeannie van der Putten, describes the bohemian Wait&#257;kere Ranges suburb as ‘the nearest thing to rainforest’.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> Titirangi was populated by artists, architects, and potters. Among them was the young potter Len Castle, whose English and Japanese-inspired pottery Crichton was to acquire. Castle in turn was to teach Crichton about jazz and the greats Bill Evans and Gil Evans. </P> <P>In 1952, Crichton used the conversion of his family home to illustrate the first of several cover articles, ‘Redecorating for permanent living’, for the Auckland-based <EM>Home &amp; Building</EM> magazine – a key advocate for modernist architecture and design in New Zealand.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> ‘Furniture throughout has been kept in the low unit style,’ he wrote, ‘ensuring full sense of lightness and informal ease.’ Positioned within the living area was a hammock chair. This was Crichton’s interpretation of the iconic butterfly chair, designed in Buenos Aires in 1938 and licensed to United States furniture manufacturers Knoll between 1947 and 1950. </P> <P>Crichton’s decision to put his own spin on this icon of modernist design is typical of his self-assurance, which appealed to clients who shared his progressive tastes. The affable 35-year-old would go on to transform New Zealand domestic and commercial interiors, fitting out homes and buildings around the country in the modernist style. He confidently reflected the contemporary design style of the period, drawing on both America and Asia. He was a truly pan-Pacific designer.</P> <P data-associrn="1465694"></P> <P data-associrn="1173287"></P> <P><STRONG>Kitchener Street</STRONG></P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>Between our house, the shop, and Room 50 there was a lot of work always on display.</EM><SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>By 1951, Crichton had established his business, John Crichton Interior Designer, at 34 Kitchener Street, three doors from the Magistrate’s Court in central Auckland.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Wall and ceiling lights and black iron furniture dominated the shop. These were set among imported seagrass mats and tropical pot plants, including the designer’s favoured <EM>Monstera deliciosa</EM>. Crichton’s hammock chair was displayed alongside an Eames moulded plywood chair, which added an American accent to the display. Import restrictions were lifted from 1951 to 1957, which made such international design easier to procure.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Most designs, however, were Crichton’s. They came off the drawing board at Room 50, his studio workshop, located close to the Kitchener Street shop. Crichton outsourced production: wooden lamp bases, for example, were made at Mt Eden Turnery. But other work was produced within the studio. Crichton’s collaborator, the theatre lover Max Robertson, fabricated lampshades whose colourful, plant-inspired patterns readily evoked the tropics. Robertson’s own design interests extended beyond interiors; he commissioned the architect of the day, Vernon Brown, to design his house at Audrey Road, Takapuna.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Crichton bemoaned the New Zealand habit of having a ‘bulb in every room hanging from the centre of the ceiling and nothing else’.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> His partiality to lights is evident in the wide range of wall, standard, and table lights in his drawings and photographs. Swivel and adjustable mechanisms added sophistication, in keeping with the technical virtuosity of contemporary design.</P> <P data-associrn="1465697"></P> <P data-associrn="1466609"></P> <P><STRONG>Promoting the brand</STRONG></P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>It did one’s heart good to see the Exhibition ... Here at last was public recognition of the work of a group of designers.</EM><SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>In post-war New Zealand, interest in contemporary design was gathering. The architectural and design business Brenner Associates opened in Auckland in 1949. In Wellington, the Gallery of Helen Hitchings was selling furniture designed by Ernst Plischke, ceramics by Len Castle, and textiles by May Smith. In 1953, design appeared at the Auckland Art Gallery. The <EM>Exhibition of Advertising Arts</EM> displayed examples of advertising art, printing, and engraving, as well as furniture design. Contemporary furniture firm Jon Jansen had a stand featuring an imported Swedish chair; Crichton’s own stand evoked an exotic, understated domestic alternative.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> The exhibition drew over 12,000 visitors in three weeks - a clear indication that art and industry could compete with the visual arts.</P> <P><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM> did much to publicise Crichton’s work, both with paid monthly advertisements and feature articles written by the designer (‘Use materials with interesting texture’, ‘A room of intimacy and character’). In October 1952, the journal’s front cover illustrated a Crichton interior: ‘Informal dining - eastern style’. Bamboo gave ‘a tropical atmosphere’, and floor-to-ceiling windows ‘framed the landscape’, creating ‘a bold illusion of space’.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP> The blend of American open-plan living with Asian materials was typical of Crichton’s style.</P> <P>By 1955, Crichton’s designs were being selected for <EM>Decorative Art: The Studio Year Book of Furnishing and Decoration</EM>. This influential international publication highlighted ‘good design’ in a post-war era of housing shortages, and responded to a universal desire to increase technology in domestic design. International exposure lifted Crichton’s designs beyond the local audience - a rare feat in a country so far from the hub of European and American modernist practice. His talent for marketing meant that frequently both the <EM>Year Book</EM> and <EM>Home &amp; Building</EM> promoted the same schemes and designs, though not necessarily in the same year. </P> <P data-associrn="1466608"></P> <P><STRONG>East ...</STRONG></P> <P>In 1958, <EM>Home &amp; Building</EM> featured influential Japanese architect Kenzo Tange’s home – a fusion of traditional and modern Japanese design. Crichton himself had begun to integrate the Japanese influence into his designs in the mid 1950s. In it he saw an elegant combination of the modernist values of open-plan living and a close relationship with nature. He was also interested in the Japanese aesthetic ideal known as shibui. He reflected the refined simplicity of shibui in the balanced spatial planning of his interiors.<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>For the <EM>Year Book’s</EM> 1956-57 edition, the editors selected Crichton’s Java chair, which had featured in a 1956 <EM>Home &amp; Building</EM> article, ‘Echoes of the East’, in the stylish setting of the designer’s family home. The Java chair’s woven cane seat nestles within a black iron frame, evoking Eastern design. In the <EM>Year Book</EM>, it fitted in well among similar designs, executed in cane, from Britain and Sweden. </P> <P>At Kitchener Street, Crichton was to supply a similar cane chair, without the Java’s arms. (Contemporary advertisements indicate these chairs were imported initially, and subsequently made in New Zealand.) These Java variants appear frequently in photographs of modernist houses of the period, including Sumpter House, a Japanese-inspired residence by Auckland architect James Hackshaw, and houses by James Beard, Derek Wilson of Wellington, and Paul Pascoe of Christchurch. For a 1958 interior design, Crichton filled the sunroom of the Hotel St Amand in Tauranga with plants and the cane Java variants. The design created an ‘interesting and welcoming atmosphere’, exemplifying the Eastern influence for which he was becoming so well known.<SUP><FONT size=2>12</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>... meets West</STRONG></P> <P>The open-plan concept championed by American architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra was well known to New Zealand designers and anyone who read <EM>Home &amp; Building</EM> magazine or <EM>Architectural Review</EM>. In his 1956 book <EM>Life and Human Habitat</EM>, Neutra had argued the need for flexible spaces that could accommodate changing human behaviour. For him, ‘human habitat’ was the ‘fulfilment of the search – in space – for happiness and emotional equilibrium’.<SUP><FONT size=2>13</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>Crichton absorbed these ideas. He expressed the close relationship between the interior and exterior with floor-to-ceiling windows, and by introducing plants inside. In about 1960, he renovated a country homestead at Flat Point Station in the Wairarapa – a further expression of the American influence.<SUP><FONT size=2>14</FONT></SUP> Spaciously designed with low furniture, pendant hanging lights, and a towering river-stone fireplace, the homestead recalled Frank Lloyd Wright’s interiors. </P> <P data-associrn="1022830"></P> <P>Just as the Java chair had combined a modern use of iron with traditional cane work, Crichton’s patio chaise (about 1960) updated cane with modern plastics. The playful, bumblebee-inspired design in black, yellow, and white was a reminder that nature was not too far away. It was also symbolic of the American lifestyle, suggesting drinks on the patio in a way that was appealing and fun. </P> <P>Crichton’s fusion of Asian and American design was unusual within New Zealand, where the post-war influx of European artists and designers had ensured that continental influences largely prevailed. However, Crichton’s years living and working in Malaysia and Burma allowed him to recognise a gap in the market. As well as designing furniture, he imported cane furniture, rattan blinds, and seagrass matting from Hong Kong.</P> <P data-associrn="1465699"></P> <P data-associrn="1465698"></P> <P><STRONG>Success in the South Pacific</STRONG></P> <P>By the late 1950s, Crichton was receiving extensive commissions, including work for the Tourist Hotel Corporation. The interiors for the New Zealand Forest Products building in Penrose, Auckland, designed by architects Walker, Hillary &amp; Swan was another commission.<SUP><FONT size=2>15</FONT></SUP> For this project, Crichton incorporated tapa (bark cloth) from the Pacific. A large wall panel by Dutch New Zealand artist Theo Schoon featured M&#257;ori motifs, giving a more national focus.</P> <P>Promoting good design through education also became a focus for Crichton. He was active in organising a national body, the Design Guild, which was succeeded by the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers in 1959. Robert Ellis, Graham Percy, and Jolyon Saunders were among the artists and designers actively embracing industrial design, which during this period included craft design.<SUP><FONT size=2>16</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>Crichton’s business continued until 1975, outlasting Auckland’s other early design firms: Brenner Associates had dissolved by about 1959 and Jon Jansen had closed by the mid-1970s. After retiring, John Crichton continued his lifelong interest in art. He died in 1993.</P> <P><BR><STRONG>Justine Olsen</STRONG> is Curator Decorative Art & Design at Te Papa</P> <P><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI>Jeannie van der Putten, interviewed by author, 29 May 2014.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, July 1952.</LI> <LI>Jeannie van der Putten.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, December 1951.</LI> <LI>Michael Smythe, <EM>New Zealand by Design: A History of New Zealand Product Design</EM>, Random House, Auckland, 2011, p. 107.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, December 1942.</LI> <LI>Jeannie van der Putten.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, June 1953.</LI> <LI>Ibid.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, October 1952.</LI> <LI>Jeannie van der Putten.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, April 1958.</LI> <LI>Richard Neutra, <EM>Life and Human Habitat: Mensch und Wohnen</EM>, A Koch, Stuttgart, 1956.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, January 1961.</LI> <LI><EM>Home &amp; Building</EM>, January 1959.</LI> <LI>Michael Smythe, <EM>New Zealand by Design</EM>, p. 172.</LI></OL>
John Crichton’s hammock chair represents ultimate lifestyle in this 1960 government photograph promoting New Zealand tourism. In 1957, the Tourist Hotel Corporation took over the Chateau Tongariro Hotel. Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahana o te Kawangatanga, Wellington Office AAQT 6401 A66190

John Crichton’s hammock chair represents ultimate lifestyle in this 1960 government photograph promoting New Zealand tourism. In 1957, the Tourist Hotel Corporation took over the Chateau Tongariro Hotel. Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahana o te Kawangatanga, Wellington Office AAQT 6401 A66190

Cover of &lt;EM&gt;Home &amp; Building&lt;/EM&gt; magazine, vol. 15, no. 2, July 1952

Cover of Home & Building magazine, vol. 15, no. 2, July 1952 ,
Courtesy of HOME magazine/Bauer Media

Sparrow Industrial Pictures Ltd, John Crichton’s furniture showroom, 1954. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-NEG-SP-4-1118a

Sparrow Industrial Pictures Ltd, John Crichton’s furniture showroom, 1954. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-NEG-SP-4-1118a

Cover of &lt;EM&gt;Home &amp; Building&lt;/EM&gt; magazine, vol. 15, no. 5, October 1952

Cover of Home & Building magazine, vol. 15, no. 5, October 1952 ,
Courtesy of HOME magazine/Bauer Media

image

John Crichton, Standard lamp, circa 1955,
Purchased 2011.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

John Crichton, Patio chaise, circa 1960, black iron frame, plastic cane,
Purchased 2009.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Upstairs foyer in the new administration block for New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, designed by John Crichton, from &lt;EM&gt;Home &amp; Bulding&lt;/EM&gt; magazine, January 1959

Upstairs foyer in the new administration block for New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, designed by John Crichton, from Home & Bulding magazine, January 1959 ,
Home & Building magazine/Bauer Media

Sir David Henry&#39;s room in the new administration block for New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, designed by John Crichton, from  from &lt;EM&gt;Home &amp; Bulding&lt;/EM&gt; magazine, January 1959

Sir David Henry's room in the new administration block for New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, designed by John Crichton, from from Home & Bulding magazine, January 1959 ,
Home & Building magazine/Bauer Media