Colin McCahon: An Essay on the Centenary of His Birth

Here, on these isles, in tussock country, in Man Alone country, there lived a painter who decided that New Zealanders were closer to God, whatever he or that is, precisely for being further from London and New York. In the metropolis one may indeed be closer to Christie’s and Sotheby’s, MoMA and the Tate. But because of that God is a little hard to hear; our own lives, our inner selves, are somewhat harder to find amidst the bustle and din. Colin McCahon brought New Zealanders closer to the “centre”, not of culture but of life. 

Of course, “provincials” have always liked to purport such things. When your system of values, created by and imported from the metropolis, leaves you with little to boast, it makes sense to speak of what you have and what the metropolis doesn’t. Well, New Zealand has space, and hills, and mountains; Kauri reaching for the sky, Tui singing in the rain, Manuka in bloom breeding existentialism. We have a natural ruggedness that metropolitans dream of when looking at the oppressive walls of their Kafkaesque cubicle. There is something transcendent in our landscape, after all, something that speaks to the spiritual sensibility. So capture it. Twist it and wrangle it and grab it and get it on the canvas and once you’ve got it there it can’t escape; we’ll know then what we have that the metropolis doesn’t. Or, in the jingoist’s parlance, we’ll know then “who we are”. 

If it wasn’t McCahon it would have been someone else. Toss Woollaston probably would’ve stepped into the shoes. Though Rita Angus was more than talented enough, this was post-war New Zealand we are speaking of; it would be giving our forebears a little too much credit to think that in the 1940s they would have allowed a female fill those large, rugged military-esque marching boots of the title New Zealand National Painter. The point is that “Colin McCahon” was historically necessary—as necessary, I’m tempted to say, as Sidney Nolan was for Australia, and Jackson Pollock for post-war America. New Zealand needed this painter, at this particular time, just as much as it needed a flag, a national anthem and the Statute of Westminster.

The task in writing about McCahon, then, is to be transparent about whether one is speaking of McCahon or “McCahon”—McCahon the painter or “McCahon” the nationalistic idea. I am to write here of the former, of Colin McCahon, a painter who lived in a province, was limited by it, but whose Renaissance-like vision always found a way through. 

And “finding a way through” was what this born-in-Timaru son of a company manager did best. Finding a way through—from what, to what? From nothing less than ignorance to wisdom; traditionalism to modernism; from the aesthetic to the ethical, and then the ethical to the religious; muteness to eloquence; war to peace; blindness to sight. In our postmodern times we might be inclined to read such grand and sincere aims cynically, with the wry expression of Damien Hirst’s stuffed-shark. But the elementary requirement in approaching Colin McCahon’s art is to force oneself to believe once again in the mysteries of life and the grandeur of the artist’s intentions. This was a painter who believed unequivocally in art—believed in it not as someone like Hirst does, but as Giotto did, as a way to a different relationship with both the world and the sublime. To see McCahon’s ways through we must therefore find our own way through, setting aside our postmodern baggage and retrieving, as much as possible, the spirit of sincerity and determination that for so long was essential to the contemplation of religious painting.

Here I give thanks to Mondrian by Colin McCahon
Here I give thanks to Mondrian, 1961. Oil on board. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

At times during his career McCahon took such a challenge literally, and tried to find his own way through: his early 1960s Gate series—flat surfaces mediating between lightness and darkness, and playing at the edges of the canvas to give the effect of depth, of a surface to be passed through or beyond—are emblematic of his project. These 28-odd paintings glow with McCahon’s distinctive use of white paint, where the brushstrokes are discernible and so is the masterly wrist that produced them; there are glazes of luminescent white, and the brush has been twisted and swirled onto the canvas to create a glowing and tactile surface. One wants to touch McCahon’s canvases, the ragged threads, fibres and acrylic, and in the Gate series this adds a corporeal element to the recurring idea of a gate or passageway. By touching them, might we pass through them? And McCahon’s titles, too, give a sense of passage and journey—like his Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian (1961) from the same series, where this painter expresses appreciation for an earlier modernist’s conceptual  breakthroughs that made his own Gate modernism possible. Painting these works at the height of Cold War tensions while himself living in Auckland and working at the City Art Gallery, the Gates were also about the possibility of humanity finding a way through the nuclear weapons impasse that seemed to engulf the entire world. McCahon indeed lived in what still seemed then a province, but again, he was not limited by it; his painterly concerns were the world’s concerns.

Like Picasso, long-lived and prolific in style, McCahon leaves a little something for everyone. His journey through so many styles over such a long career during such a critical priod in the development of modernism leaves us everything from Cezannesque nudes (McCahon’s Bather from 1951, for instance) to white-on-black pure abstraction (his Angels and Bed series from the late ‘70s). He is difficult to pin down, beyond ‘periods’: his early religious works, his Cubist “Titirangi years”, his post-1958-America-visit colour field landscapes, his late religious work, to name just a few. And even this chronology inevitably simplifies matters, for McCahon’s development was never linear, and always he referenced his own earlier work.

Angels and bed no. 2 by Colin McCahon
Angels and bed no. 2, 1976. Acrylic on paper. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. 

With modernism we were conditioned to seek to understand an artist’s development: the teleological progression from emerging artist to mature artist to, in  McCahon’s case anyway, something of a high priest. What comes later is meant to have incorporated all that has come before; what was left was meant to have been pushed aside because there was a better way of describing things, a newer or more ‘developed’ visual vocabulary. The earlier can still be good work, and in some cases it can even be better than what came later. But this doesn’t change the fact that the artist got to where they were at the end because they saw it as a movement forwards.

McCahon disrupts these expectations. We find that at the end of his career he was still trying to say the same things as he was at the beginning. Gone were the Rinso-packet speech bubbles with religious quotations (seen in his very early religious paintings, like the 1947 Crucifixion According to St. Mark at the Christchurch Art Gallery)—and instead now we have a whole canvas filled with text. All his life he was simply trying to discover a better way of communicating with New Zealanders. It was not newness his art aspired to, for its own sake; none of the New York School avant-gardist bluster of the likes of Pollock and Rothko. What he sought was understanding, for himself and for New Zealanders—understanding of human life, of truth, and, to an extent, of what it meant to live in this country. With that aim there is no forwards nor backwards, merely different means and different effects.

— — — — 

In the art of Colin McCahon we discover the gulf between the expectations of how we are ‘meant’ to interact with a painting, and how this artist wants us to interact specifically with his own. We take for granted that art offers us some form of enlightenment, but in our next act of deciphering—“But what did he mean?”—we destroy precisely the opportunity for enlightenment that McCahon offers to us so much more directly. McCahon is not like Mark Rothko, who expects his viewers to sit long enough before his paintings in a dimly-lit room to recreate the kind of magic that might have once existed in Giotto’s Arena Chapel. Instead, he is literal: he means precisely what his paintings say. 

Case in point is the “Practical Religion” series. McCahon created canvas upon canvas and scroll upon scroll quoting Biblical passages that he believed people needed to be reminded of: James 3 from the series, at Christchurch, begins with “as the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse”, scrawled on the upper half. It is black text on a luminescent white-cream background—hurriedly, excitedly, McCahon seems like a student diligently copying out passages that he thinks he should take with him throughout life. At the bottom of the same canvas, in a small box to the right where one might expect the artist’s signature to be, he has copied out, “”GOOD LUCK TO YOU, KEEP YOURSELVES WARM, HAVE PLENTY TO EAT.”” He reminds us of life’s essentials, and in the process short-circuits the need for interpretation. What is there to  interpret, if McCahon tells you—and tells you in words, in the English language!—what he has to say? What is there to decipher, if it is all written out in front of you?

McCahon James 3 Practical Religion
James 3: Practical religion, 1969. Acrylic on board. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Yet this language of religion that McCahon uses to attempt communication with us is, in these times, a double-edged sword. Those already familiar with the bible, perhaps through a religious upbringing, might be drawn immediately closer to McCahon’s work, but those like myself for whom religion was wholly absent might refuse to engage with the work out of a fear of being preached to. And yet McCahon’s religiosity is borne not from evangelism, and instead from the pursuit of wisdom. Religion, and Christianity specifically, was the only vocabulary this artist found he had to communicate deep truths about life; it is used not preachingly, but rather because the alternative was to remain mute. Mark Rothko and Colin McCahon are, after all, remarkably similar artists, both believing deeply and intensely that art might be an antidote to the ills of modernity. But where Rothko’s time and place pushed him towards a secular art, Colin McCahon’s post-Great-War New Zealand gave him in Christianity precisely a spiritual vocabulary. Rothko’s colour fields leave his viewers to place onto them and into them whatever spirituality we might have. McCahon’s leave far less to chance, speaking directly and unashamedly. In another time or place McCahon’s vocabulary might have been secular, like Rothko’s, or of a different religion entirely. For those of us not raised religiously, all that matters is that we see McCahon’s religiosity as a language of humanity where otherwise we have none, a way through (it all comes back to that) where otherwise we might remain stuck.

His paintings, including their religiosity, do something remarkable: they transform a “white cube” gallery into a church and a school. McCahon knew, always, that his were secular times, and that the location where the majority of his works were to be displayed would be secular spaces. But to give that meaningless space meaning, to inject it with some kind of significance, was what so many of his paintings attempted. His Teaching Aids of 1975, for instance—large two by three-metre “blackboards” upon which he explores numeracy, literacy and theology—consciously alter the nature of the space in which they are hung, and consciously mimic the nature of an education. McCahon surely knew that a viewer’s first encounter with one of these works of his would be likely to produce feelings of confusion and ignorance; we don’t know how to interpret the seemingly random lines separating numbers written both in Roman and Arabic numerals and their corresponding English words. But over time—time spent in a classroom—the ignorance and frustration turns into a slowly dawning awareness and knowledge. We see this student, McCahon, exploring the possibilities and limits of words and numbers. We realise that each number between one and fourteen is imbued with the significance of the stations of the cross—perhaps McCahon’s most recurring motif—which are a means of undertaking a kind of internal spiritual journey by reflecting on the life of Christ before the crucifixion. We see different numbers highlighted and then backgrounded as this student struggles  with some and comes to understand others. All the while our minds are following, in almost real-time, the mind of the artist: we are doing what McCahon spent his life doing, which is seeking greater understanding, seeking meaning and order in our turbulent lives. In these paintings Colin McCahon refutes the idea that there exists an art that is not didactic, that there could ever be such a thing as art for its own sake.

McCahon Teaching Aids
Teaching Aids 3, 1975. Acrylic on 10 sheets of paper. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Luckily McCahon, who died in 1987 after a difficult final decade defined by alcoholism and dementia, did not live to read an interview with one of our former Arts Ministers in which the public reception of his art was summed up and summarily dispatched: “”He’s a strange one, isn’t he? I just find it all a bit… bleak.” But then again, McCahon had to face the charge of bleakness during his lifetime too; “Death has been this artist’s overriding subject,” one of our most distinguished critics wrote in 1984. And one can see the tendency towards that interpretation: the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes in burnt umbers; the solitary journeys in remembrance of a friend through a landscape whose only feature is the horizon (his masterful Walk (Series C), held by Te Papa); or most  clearly, in his final paintings, discovered after his death face-down in his studio, which declare the hopelessness of life in their quotation of Ecclesiastes—“I Counted the dead happy / because they were dead…” Yet an insistence upon McCahon’s obsession with death is to reduce him, to explain him away, to note only nighttime even when summertime days in New Zealand are two-thirds daylight. Bleakness did break through in McCahon’s work at times, but it was the exception. Far more he insisted upon life. To even bother to lift a brush, to daub its fibres with luminescent white and to form human words and symbols through darkness is an insistence on affirmation. His Waterfalls of 1964—single curving, expanding, finely modulated comets of human-created light through nothingness—are McCahon’s own I AM, his statement of existence, and his refusal to be seen as concerned only with death. 

Waterfall by Colin McCahon
Waterfall, 1964. Oil on board. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

In 1942 Allen Curnow asked, “Who reaches / A future down for us from the high shelf / Of spiritual daring?” Before New Zealand had a culture of its own, who would give us one deep enough to make these islands sustain our spirits? By now most New Zealanders have their answer. Colin McCahon did. It took decades too long to realise it; it is still an idea resisted by those who have only engaged with “McCahon”, that nationalistic idea; but we can most of us now say, emphatically, that Colin McCahon was the most spiritually daring of them all. Much of the painter’s reputation rests not on his art but on our art historical nationalism. The rest, however, is pure painting—a kind as soulful and as gutsy as anyone, in any country, will ever see.

Essay completed 2018-2019 in Wellington, Oxford, Venice and Florence.

Gordon Walters

Gordon Walters New Zealand abstract art koru
Gordon Walters. Untitled, 1973. Ink on paper. Private collection. Copyright Gordon Walters estate.

Drive along Wellington’s Oriental Bay and you’ll find, just opposite Freyberg Pool, the city’s imitation of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian yacht club, a car garage stencilled with Gordon Walters’ unmistakable interlocking inversed korus. It is fitting, really: one of Walters’ most significant works is titled simply Oriental, after this Bay. One can never be too sure how an artist feels about becoming “iconic”, but in this country Gordon Walters was likely the first artist to claim this status. The appealing simplicity of his designs lend themselves far better to reproduction than the earthy, dense pigment of a McCahon landscape—far easier to print on a tote bag or a business card or a car garage, and far easier, even, to tattoo, as has become a favourite of the young Kiwi expat. Walters’ iconic design is today something like New Zealand’s yin and yang, a feel-good, corporatised image of happy biculturalism. That, despite the reality that the koru was a motif included in far less than half of Walters’ paintings.

Of all the New Zealand artists, Gordon Walters was the most adamant that he be known simply as an “artist”, free from the confines of geography. At the same time, he often seems to be “New Zealand Artist” Number One. His koru symbol has become to New Zealand’s visual culture what Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is to the United States’: in it we find the essence of a popular and an historical culture, an icon (even in the word’s religious sense) that provides a kind of passage to a world of national meaning and associations. And yet the questions to follow the work of Gordon Walters are how such a simple form could come to mean so much to a nation, and whether that meaning was ever intended. “The form I use in my painting is not really a Māori koru—I think of it as a line ending in a circle,” explained the artist sardonically on one of many occasions. But the artist’s protestations of intent were ineffectual, once the art had entered the national consciousness; the years of hostility to the artist’s “modern” and “foreign” painting were forgotten by the public, replaced with a lusty demand for the artist’s images; and from then on, Gordon Walters was the favourite artist of every half-patriotic New Zealander.

Born less than two months after Colin McCahon in September 1919 on Te Whiti Street in Wellington (street names were always significant to this artist, becoming the titles for many of his works), Walters was brought up during the years following the birth of abstraction. Kazimir Malevich painted the Black Square in 1915, the artwork said to have first discovered pure, or “non-objective”, abstraction. From this point onwards, art could be conceived of even if it did not refer to the “objective” world of nature (of course this doesn’t mean most art viewers liked abstraction; far from it, for a long time). So Malevich was painting his Suprematist compositions, and Piet Mondrian was painting his grids—not that the young Walters would see much of this in his childhood and during his schooling at Rongotai College, beyond, if he was lucky, a few black and white magazine reproductions. It was a heady time to be born, for a future European abstractionist, yet a time seemingly like any other for a future New Zealand painter. That a painter born in Kilbirnie, Wellington, could come to create art as deep and as limitless as that of the best European abstractionists is a testament to Walters’ mind and ethic.

Gordon Walters New Zealand artist
Gordon Walters. Chrysanthemum, 1944. Oil on card. Starkwhite Gallery. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

There never seemed to be the possibility that Walters would be a naturalistic painter, recording recognisable landscapes or this country’s flora and fauna. Even his early works depicting landscapes or flowers hint at high-modern tendencies: Waikanae Landscape of 1944, a conté crayon drawing of tree stumps on an ethereal beach, suggests a future Surrealist path, while his Chrysanthemum of the same year—a colourful, exploded, deconstructed flower on a light blue background—intimates the pure abstract path Walters would later take. Chrysanthemums are, after all, often now thought of as Mondrian’s flower: the hundreds of studies of this flower that the Dutch abstractionist did in the late nineteenth century showed his processing of many European artistic styles, as if in preparation to surpass them. So it seems with Walters, and by 1947, when the artist was just twenty-eight, we find the last of his works to retain even a hint of the recognisable, natural world; his The Poet from that year is the point of departure, depicting a seated figure, but drawn with the Māori-influenced style that would later become Walters’ own unique visual identity.

Gordon Walters koru shape New Zealand
Gordon Walters. Ranui, 1956. Ink on paper. Te Papa Tongarewa. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

One discerns in Walters’ personality a scientific rigour and rationality, combined with an ethic of hard work; these go some way to understanding his lifelong focus on geometric  abstraction. Abstraction, particularly the “hard-edged” kind of Walters’, has interesting associations with the world of science, technology and machines. Walters was not particularly interested in the spontaneous, reflexive effects that a paintbrush held in his hand might produce (think of McCahon’s individualistic scrawled words). Instead, he was concerned with order and rigour: he found over time found that perfectly straight lines, and perfectly circular circles, produced far better the effects he was after, even though these removed the impulsive, human touch of putting discernibly human marks on a canvas. At first, in an early koru work like Ranui of 1956, Walters drew his lines and his circles by hand, the shaky wrist of even a master artist visible all over. But later, from around the early 1960s, even that remnant of a human touch is removed: all lines are ruler-sharp, all circles drawn seemingly with a compass. Walters’ art, from here on, possesses a clean clarity—a trait we can link back to the artist’s own mind. 

And then there were the encounters, of which a few are critical to this artist’s oeuvre. In 1941 Walters met the Dutch artist and craftsman Theodorus Johannes Schoon, better known as Theo, a figure whose influence on New Zealand’s understanding of its tradition is immense but who has been for too long ignored. Schoon’s influence on Walters is difficult to understate, though in later years the two would publicly disagree over the sway each had on the other. What we do know is that a few years after they met Schoon and Walters travelled the South Island together, exploring caves containing relatively unknown early Māori rock carvings. The experience left Walters deeply interested in non-Western art: his later visual diaries are a fascinating record of his lack of cultural bias, freely exploring connections between a Paul Klee painting and Inuit masks, for instance. Picasso, it’s true, had decades earlier been influenced by the art of non-“Western”, non-“modern” cultures; but with him it seemed if anything more a plundering than an exploration. Yet despite Walters’ committed and sensitive explorations, the charge of cultural appropriation would later dog him and his koru works. He never did find a neat way through the quagmire of cultural politics.

Two other encounters did much to shape this abstractionist’s work. In 1950 Walters left for Europe, spending a year in London with excursions to Amsterdam and Paris. Just as Colin McCahon’s 1958 trip to the United States has come to have almost mythological status, after he returned and painted the Northland Panels, so too should Walters’ European sojourn—it was here that he saw at first-hand all the different strands of Modernism, and determined which were most worthy of his attention. After the trip Walters’ work becomes more linear, more geometric, and within years the koru motif would be born. But there was another path that would present itself to Walters not long after his return to New Zealand: Theo Schoon one day brought to Walters a number of drawings made by Rolfe Hattaway, a diagnosed schizophrenic and inpatient at Auckland’s mental hospital. The drawings are remarkable, leading for Walters to many of the insights that the European Surrealists had spent decades trying to obtain—and for years afterwards Walters would work with Hattaway’s designs, pulling them into his own paintings, sometimes seemingly unconsciously. The borders of rationality were always of interest to Gordon Walters: step one way and his artworks are the product of a scientific, machine-age ethic; move slightly the other way and they are its opposite, the non-linear workings of the subconscious mind.

Walters’ artistic style and his earlier working life combined fortuitously in the late 1950s when he had the chance to produce a screenprint of one of his works. After finishing his formal artistic training at the Wellington Technical College School of Art Walters worked as a commercial artist and designer, including at the Wellington Government Printing Office. The experience left him aware of how art might reach a larger audience through mechanical reproduction, and Walters reacted to the possibility of screenprinting many of his koru works seemingly with glee. The thirteen screenprints he would go on to produce—all except two from his koru works, signalling the public demand for these New Zealand icons—are perhaps the most significant body of prints a New Zealand artist has produced (with the exception of John Drawbridge). They did much to cement Walters’ reputation and widespread awareness of his work; but they also, maybe unwittingly, demonstrated the ease with which the koru works lend themselves to reproduction. Search TradeMe for “Gordon Walters” today and one will find hundreds of listings, yet not for his work, or even, unfortunately, for books about him. Rather one finds the full range of commodities that prop up an artist’s public reputation but which also make a mockery of it. A cotton tote bag for $32.99, featuring Walters’ 1972 Untitled? A bargain! Or an umbrella, perhaps—just $54—embossed on the top with bold interlocking korus? Mostly that cynical reaction is just art-world snobbery, but unfortunately familiarity does breed a certain kind of contempt. The korus have today lost some of their visual power through sheer abundance.

Gordon Walters pure abstraction
Gordon Walters. Painting H, 1975. Oil on canvas. Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

The works of Walters’ that were never produced as prints—never, because most people weren’t interested in them—are those that demonstrate the intellectual depths that this artist plumbed. New Zealand needed Walters’ koru works. What it did not need in the twentieth century, and what no one knew what to do with once Walters had brought them into existence, were works like his Painting H of 1975, now in the collection of the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth. This square canvas is divided perfectly down the middle. The left side is painted a nectarine red; the right, a muted white. Nothing else. The harmony between the colours is gorgeous, and the eye flicks back and forth between one side and the other, enjoying the simplicity and distillation of Walters’ work. Yet an art-interested public didn’t know what to do with such a painting: does it represent traditional Māori red, and the white skin of the coloniser? Perhaps the colours are an attempt at expressing the harsh clarity  of New Zealand light at sunset? No, neither of those things. There is no representation. Instead it is another exploration—a continuation of the artist’s lifelong project, “an investigation of positive/negative relationships within a deliberately limited range of forms”, as the artist described in 1966. 

Gordon Walters Oriental Pacific art
Gordon Walters. Oriental II, 1967. Oil on board. Private collection. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

So it is that Walters’ greatest contribution to the history of art—not the history of New Zealand art, but simply of art—is liable to be ignored. His later mise en abyme works depict (though the analogy is not perfect) a painting within a painting like the play within the play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are visually powerful and intellectually stimulating works that make a refined contribution to a consideration of self-reflexivity in abstract art. Oriental II of 1967, for instance, is a horizontal black-painted canvas with a thin, vertical white strip to the left of the canvas; but to the right of that is a smaller, thin white strip, with a white rectangle to the right of it, mirroring in inverted colours and smaller size the larger canvas composition. The painting exists as itself, but contains within it an inversion of itself; it lives and breathes through the duality. Here Walters has distilled all his lessons: the early European pure  abstractionists’; the Surrealists’ focus on the workings of the unconscious mind; Hattaway’s works, bringing the irrational to life in art; and all his explorations of the sheer variety of art forms in Asia and the Pacific. 

The title Oriental at once refers to the place of Walters’ childhood, Oriental Bay, and the possibility of art made in New Zealand connecting with the art of the wider Asia Pacific region. At a time when modernism is no longer within the sole purview of London, Paris and New York, Walters’ art is a testament to the sheer range of its possibilities. But, trapped within the borders of this country by our demand for that which most directly represents the nation, he remains unknown overseas.

Mulgan on Homesickness and New Zealand

There was a deep and elemental truth in the Wordsworth doctrine, nevertheless. Even though the vision of his belief was denied to me, I came in the end to know that much of what he wrote was true, and that, in particular, the land and the people whom we know when we are young stay with us and haunt us until we die. I don’t know that this proves anything about immortality or reincarnation, but it is a fact. If you try to fight against this truth, and forget the country of your youth, as I did for a long time, you will lose the fight and wither internally of homesickness.

This is one reason why New Zealanders, a young people but already with a place in history, are often wanderers and restless and unhappy men. They come from the most beautiful country in the world, but it is a small country and very remote. After a while this isolation oppresses them and they go abroad. They roam the world looking not for adventure but for satisfaction. They run service cars in Iraq, gold mines in Nevada, or newspapers in Fleet Street. They are a queer, lost, eccentric, pervading people who will seldom admit to the deep desire that is in all of them to go home and live quietly in New Zealand again.

Putting aside Wordsworth, and our queer eccentricities, what is it about Oxford to breed this particular kind of withering homesickness in New Zealanders?

Furniture and Philosophy — On Vitsoe

This was a feature article published in HOME Magazine New Zealand, July 2019.

Vitsoe New Zealand
Vitsoe’s headquarters in Leamington Spa. Photography by Dirk Lindner.

Open your iPhone’s calculator and you’re looking at a version of the calculator that German designers Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs designed for Braun in 1980. It’s a modern classic: held in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, the functional, clear and even beautiful design is so difficult to improve on that Apple’s designers were left simply paying homage. But what irony, then, that our iPhones will barely last three years while Braun’s calculators are still going strong almost 40 years later. Apple’s designers borrowed Rams’ aesthetic, but not his ethic.

At least one company is still committed to both. Vitsœ (pronounced “vit-soo”) is a somewhat paradoxical company. Its key product—one of only three that it makes—is a flexible shelving system so understated that it exists merely to highlight the objects placed on it. Vitsœ is a company that doesn’t mind being invisible, like its shelves; but then again, you’ve probably seen these shelves many times without realising it. Called the “606 Universal Shelving System”, they’re the ones that house your architect friend’s books and ceramics, and which adorn the walls of so many Instagrammable mid-century modern houses.

It’s a “system” rather than a shelf because every part is interchangeable. You buy some vertical brackets that attach directly to the wall. Between these, you then fit the thin metal shelves or cabinetry. You can start with a small shelving unit and then add to it as required; you can replace individual parts if they wear out; and you can pack them and take them with you when you move—all of this is Vitsœ’s sales pitch. Because of their flexibility, I’ve heard it said sardonically that Vitsœ’s shelves are the most divorce-friendly in the world.

All three products Vitsœ makes—the shelves, plus the 620 Chair and the latest addition, the 621 Table—are designed by Dieter Rams, the man behind so many of Braun’s twentieth century designs. Clocks, shavers, coffee machines and toasters: Rams designed them all with a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and with the belief that if made well enough, consumer products could improve the world. Planned obsolescence was anathema to Rams. If a product is good, it should last. This was the ethos with which Niels Vitsœ began selling Rams’ home furniture designs from the late 1950s. 

What the shelves are is environmentally friendly, though you won’t see Vitsœ explaining this. The most the company emphasises is that “Recycling is defeat,” in the words of Mark Adams, the eloquent and elegant managing director of Vitsœ who brought the company from Germany to England in the mid-1990s. Adams was just 24 when he quit a lucrative office job to join a furniture store that happened to sell some of Vitsœ’s products. And for him, Vitsœ is far more than a furniture company—as he puts it, Vitsœ is a “service business that just happens to make some products.” He’d never say it (the company’s understated philosophy, and a dose of English reserve would prevent him), but the measure of success for Vitsœ seems to be more about how far it can spread its philosophy of “Living better, with less, that lasts longer”, than how many products it sells. 

Vitsœ is not the only company producing long-lasting, flexible shelves. Swedish company Lundia has a wood-based system that has been sold through an NZ-owned subsidiary for many years. It’s slightly less flexible, but the use of natural materials has long spoken to NZ-Scandinavian design affinities. One significant difference between the two companies is that Vitsœ only sells directly to the consumer through their website: you can’t go in to a store to pick up any shelves, though Vitsœ’s “planners” will design shelving combinations for you after you send them a photo of your wall. The direct-to-consumer approach has further helped Vitsœ reduce wastage since it controls the whole process, down to reusable packaging materials.

As I walked around Vitsœ’s beautiful factory (usually an oxymoron) my thoughts turned unexpectedly to New Zealand. I recognised something in Vitsœ’s honest and direct use of materials—the building is just exposed timber, glass, metal and concrete, without a single brushstroke of paint. There is something of the Elegant Shed and Number Eight Wire and Colin McCahon’s use of unstretched jute canvas to Vitsœ: a transparency and honesty, both in its building and in its philosophy. The normal corporate facade doesn’t wear off no matter how hard you go looking—in fact, there is no facade. With Vitsœ and its shelves, what you see is what there is. Much like a Group Architects house in Auckland, I want to say.

I found myself wondering: what if we were to double down on these values, making “living better, with less, that lasts longer” a kind of national design mantra? We seem to already have the foundations built for us by our twentieth century architects and designers. What Vitsœ shows us is that those values are not necessarily synonymous with “local business”—that you can in fact lead the world with them, and turn a good profit at the same time.

Now, just two years after the company completed the move from London to its new bespoke-designed headquarters, Vitsœ seems to be entering a new and exciting chapter in its history. For those who have followed the company for many years this is unsurprising. Vitsœ has always done things differently, always rejected trends and fashions. And at a time when the implications of a century or more of wasteful, throwaway design culture are more than clear, Vitsœ’s understated, long-term, slow-but-steady philosophy offers a lesson for us all. The philosophy comes free—beautiful, long-lasting furniture is an optional extra.