The Kiwis prove fruitful

Janice Kirkpatrick was wowed on a recent visit to New Zealand, where she found a country keen to forge a design-led society and international connections

Who says having a design consultancy is boring? Last week, with little warning, my world changed from winter to summer when an esteemed client demanded I go immediately to New Zealand and stay there for a week. It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to get south of the Equator and I must admit to being a tad excited.

As I journeyed, I carried in my mind a story a friend had recounted when visiting New Zealand for the first time. As the plane was about to land the captain announced: “We are about to land in New Zealand, please turn your watches back 30 years”. Was I about to be transported to the Sixties or was I in for a surprise? Despite global communications, I really had no idea what design and designers in NZ were up to.

I arrived in Auckland and watched the surfers playing in perfect turquoise spray next to the airport. So far so good. I then flew straight to Wellington and was met by an official, whisked by my hotel and off to a Friday night session in a pub which could have been in Manchester or London except for the light evening and balmy weather.

The first thing that struck me was how incredibly friendly everyone was. Within minutes of meeting, people would ask questions about buildings or politics. They proudly proclaimed how good their art schools were and how much better their education system was, compared with ours. Like Yorkshiremen or straightforward Scots, Kiwis don’t muck about. Like Glaswegians they are anxious to tell you how great their place is. The evening was followed by Saturday at the racecourse for the Trentham Cup.

On Sunday I wandered downtown to see what the place looked like. Everything is drama, with volcanically steep hillsides covered in precipitously perched shingle homes among jungle vegetation. Wellington is beautifully situated on a bay with a confounding mixture of Scots Victorian stone-built piles, train-station Victoriana, Seventies Swiss medium-rise and Eighties corporate hi-rise. The city is a collection of “cut and paste” architecture collected from Europe but given a new spin. Little bits looked like New York or home, with names like Caledonian Chambers carved on a Thirties two-tone Miami blue facade with New York-style fire escapes running across the front. Why have I never seen pictures of this before?

Monday, as usual, was work and a visit to the school of design at Wellington Polytechnic – an outspoken and progressive school led by Lynne Ciochetto and housed in an excellent contemporary campus which seemed more prosperous than many schools in the UK. Thankfully, educational “reforms” in NZ are several years behind those in the UK, which is one good reason to build closer alliances with our fellow designers down under. Tuesday dawned blustery and blue, I repacked and caught a flight to Christchurch on the South Island.

The South Island is less Maori and more British. I flew over the fertile Salisbury Plain but not so far as Dunedin which has both its architecture and street plan based on Edinburgh. It has its very own Princes Street and its own Scott Monument.

Christchurch is not so pretty or dramatic as Wellington but it has its own buzz and will host the Commonwealth Young Designer Awards in August under the energetic direction of Cathy Baker. Cathy is keen to continue to build bridges between the UK and New Zealand with the help of British design internationalists including Terence Conran and Paul Smith. While the UK sits myopically at the self-proclaimed centre of the design world, our Commonwealth cousins perhaps have a better view for a design-led society.

Wednesday meant another flight back to Auckland on the North Island. I had meetings with the NZ distributors of Jaguar and Triumph Motorcycles, who were quick to tell me that consumer demand outstripped supply for the most recent range of these great British products.

Kiwis have the best of British character traits without any of the cultural baggage or class angst. They are what we could be if only we’d get on with life instead of reliving old battles and sweating over decisions yet to be made. In numbers alone the UK has the edge, on the street we have the sharpest humour and the fastest style and the meanest support. Five years ago New Zealand may have been 30 years behind Blighty, but they’re fast catching up and the UK should make sure it’s part of the action.

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