The Designers Institute Black Pin for Outstanding Achievement is given to the individual who has made a lasting contribution to the design profession and to design in general.
In 2020 the Designers Institute Black Pin for Outstanding Achievement was given to Jonathan Custance FDINZ.
Q: Were you predisposed to a career in design?
JC: I was… my father was a design engineer and he built an engineering business that grew out of a furniture manufacturing business that he purchased in Hawkes Bay. As a teenager I remember working in the factory, building furniture, learning a bit of engineering.
I also remember at the age of 16 going up to the annual general meeting of the Society of Industrial Designers and meeting people like Rudi Schwarz who was the foremost furniture designer at the time… so that was my early exposure to the industry.
Q: What sort of furniture was your father making?
JC: It wasn't very contemporary, He focused on building the engineering side which ended up being a specialist in the country, for material handling equipment; things like electronically controlled conveyors. In terms of furniture they were bed makers and dining furniture but that sort of tapered off as the engineering side grew.
Q: What were your early memories of visiting that factory?JC: I was fascinated with all the machines and built up the skills as a teenager to run some of those. I was helping the cabinet makers with processing which I think exposed me to the practicality of materials and how things go together.
Q: Did you then train in something similar?
JC: Well... I had to tell the career advisor at my high school that there was a thing called the School of Design in Wellington! At first I was going to do architecture but during the last two years of secondary school I changed my mind and decided to go into industrial design.
Q: Following in your father’s footsteps or...?
JC: Largely because I enjoy building things and it seemed to be more craft oriented, more hands on rather than sitting in an office with a white shirt and tie in an architecture practice. So that degree sort of set me on the path.
Q: Where did you study and how would you describe your alma mater?
JC: I did industrial design at the Wellington School. It was the only place where you could study design - other than architecture – in Auckland. James Coe was the head of that institution and he was the founder of ergonomics in this country. That was a critical component. The industrial design course was quite diverse as industrial design is in a sense. It covered product, consumer design, ergonomic work, exhibitions, probably touched on the interiors side, a bit of retail.
At that stage it was mostly the Fisher and Paykels who were engaged in employing graduates. In other words there wasn't a lot of jobs. I mean, if you think about it, mine was a class of 15 per annum that went through and probably half of those dropped out!
Q: What made you want to go into such an obscure field?
JC: Let’s back up a little… I had another very strong influence, in my second year of design school, I went to live with Ian and Clare Athfield. That exposed me to a whole new architectural side since he was everything that the profession wasn't in general. He was an artisan, he was a builder, a creator, in that sense, and was probably one of the most revolutionary architects in the last hundred years in New Zealand. Revolutionary relative to, one: spatial manipulation, and, two: his social convictions relative to how space can affect people's lives and their behaviour. So I had that as a very strong influence over a series of years.
Q: How did that come about and did you work for Athfields?JC:. What happened was that for my second year of school, after the hostel, I questioned …What do I do, go flatting? What are the other options? So I came up with the idea of trying to go and live with a designer and his family. Mainly to understand how design fits into that family dynamic. There used to be an Industrial Design Council of New Zealand, which had a magazine called Designscape. The first design magazine available here. I put an ad in that magazine, saying 'industrial design student looking to board with a designer and his family’.
Q: Any bites?
JC: The editor rang me up one day and said: “I've just had a call from Ian Athfield, he saw your ad and he's interested in meeting you!”
Ironically, after I had placed the advert and while waiting for it to be printed, I had come up with another solution. I created another living environment: rather than everybody going and having one bedroom each, and having their whole world in that bedroom, the idea was that we would all sleep in one large room, have a spare room for other activities, have a library, have a studio and have a kitchen and just, I suppose I was wanting to shift normal habitats of living in a flat. Living and sharing was to take on a different structure than just flatting.
I talked about the idea and I had a group of people that wanted to join me from the hostel but then Ian Ahtfield came along, and mentioned that what he wanted to do in his home, where the office was functioning, was to increase the living headcount into more of a community. So here was the space, physically, that enabled my thinking.
Q: So you moved into Ath’s?
JC: Yes, I was the first to move in and then basically a commune was started.
Q: That’s fascinating! How long did you live there and what do you think you gained form that experienced which influenced your career?
JC: A couple of years and some fast growing up. I was largely with people that were 10-15yrs older and with children, so I matured rapidly from 19 to 40 in the space of 2 years... well around relationships , child raising and running a household anyway. All pretty demanding emotionally but so insightful. It was like a speeded up prototype run to my later real life journey but of course created an understanding of who I was and what I wanted in life. The Athfields have remained very close family to today, Ath has gone but I still spend time with Clare.
View from Jonathan's bedroom in Athfield house. Jonathan was 19 years of age and in 2nd year at university.
Q: Fast forward to post-graduation: you didn’t end up at Fisher & Paykel, right?
JC: No, I had a year out after my third study year and went to Europe, not working, just travelling and looked at everything, from furniture fairs to museums to cities. So when I came back I did my thesis year, because it was a four year course and I came out deciding that I wanted to go into workplace design.
Q: That discipline would have been a very new thing back then, right?
JC: Well, it didn't exist. I then basically spent three months in Wellington, interviewing people to find out where that industry was, who was in that potential space: from builders to suppliers, the furniture makers, to architects, to construction companies, to real estate agents even to stationery shops that sell furniture.
Q: Why did you choose workplace design?
JC: We spend such a majority of our time at work, that I thought, how could design help in that environment, how can it be improved? That was the key driver.
The other aspect that I saw and liked was the project cycle. If you're designing a consumer product you might work on it for five years, whereas, doing a fit-out, the cycle from conception to manifestation was shorter and a good rhythm for me.
Q: How did your industrial design focus affect your work as an interior designer?
JC:. There are two fundamental things that change across different spatial disciples: one is scale and the second is materials/connection /processes. What I've found is that the process of thinking, the process of design-thinking, or the problem solving analysis of industrial design training can be applied to all…. that's the pinnacle of it all.
The black box processor, part of that is background, part of its inquisitiveness, part training and all one’s experiences. That can be applied to the different scales and different disciplines. So the commonality: my design thinking process.
That process is both understanding the problems presented then creatively finding the solution. In a way, it's all problem solving, and I think that's been the strength of having an industrial design training, as opposed to training in interiors or even architecture. Because often architects miss that point too.
And then it's a case of just building up a knowledge of the materials you use, and the issues associated with it. A consumer product is a different ballgame from a building, which needs to relate to a site, the elements, it's got to be waterproof, it's got a long life structure. But again, you come through, a building is only made up of components. So, my industrial design background and interest in product design, can manifest itself in architecture.
Q: That sounds like the sort of thinking that lead to design consultancy?
JC: There were no spatial design consultancies when I started out. Commercial architects largely dealt with the building and not what went inside. Builders and as I mentioned, stationery suppliers ended up providing and selling the componentry that went into an interior.
So design is an increment on the manufacturing process. And I always say that we only have a job if we can provide incremental thinking, conceptually, or material use and componentry, if we don't have that edge and a builder can come along and whack out the same thing he did last time, then we're out of work!
So, if you think about it, the market was sort of static: just doing the same, and no one was delivering the physical manifestation of what offices are about. Until we got to the 80s Boom and basically, there was an appetite and a worldly exposure to doing better. With that appetite, with the 80s corporate stock market, awareness and people traveling and so forth suddenly, there was an appetite for something different.
I was one of probably six key players in the supply market, designers in supply companies that left those companies and established the first interior design consultancies.
Q: Back in those days, the individual offices within a large workplace still ruled.
JC: There were three major suppliers, which were manufacturing open plan office furniture under license from international companies. One was from England, which was Hille - and I worked for that company. And the other two were Westinghouse, and Knoll from the states. We were the key instigators to the open plan movement here.
Q: What was your logic behind that?
JC: Well, effectively, the problems are no different today than they were back then. There were cellular offices, which had no flexibility, everybody was isolated, and they weren't communicating well with each other, organisations were churning or growing or shrinking, and the environment didn't adapt to that. So, open-plan came in with panel systems, so you could reconfigure your desking and storage in a flexible manner.
Q: Can you think of a key project that illustrates the evolution of workplace or your own thinking about workplace?JC: My design consultancy started in 85 and we won our first award in 91, which was for the Housing Corporation in Porirua. That was in an environment where I just basically came up with a completely different planning concept, which again, was observing what was the functionality, who were the customers coming there, what was their state of mind. Some were paying rent, others had serious issues to resolve around conflict, so we were looking at the customer experience for all the different interactions.
I looked at where the staff are what they needed to have a better interaction and rather than having a big long counter where, maybe a mother comes out with three kids, one's got a snotty nose, another is crying, she hasn't been able to pay the rent, she's got to have a conversation next to somebody standing a meter away talking about another issue. I just broke all that up.
Put a playpen in with a fish tank so the kids could be fascinated, had a zone where the mother could deal with that and then I gave privacy and barrier. I created a transition zone through that, with six different settings, you have to deal with different circumstances. That just gave a much better congenial solution to that interaction. You could call it ABW [ the same principles of Activity Based Working….what setting and tools are best created to the task or interaction at hand.]
So that was significant from a planning point of view. But the other key thing that contributed to us taking the awards was that we managed to capture multicultural qualities.
I wanted somebody to walk in from Tonga and say: ‘This is me!’. Or a European coming in and saying, ‘well, this is me too’. So it was quite critical on how we created the form, the materials used and detailing to give a less than token cultural favour, but to feel the space fully from each cultural perspective, with historic reference.
Q: You've also been a stalwart of design at a policy/strategic level for many years. What got you involved with that?
JC: There are two fronts that I've been active in. One is that when I started Custance in Wellington, I started the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of industrial designers and became a committee member there, drove activities for getting people together there but I was often working in Auckland, too. So I had the connection with the Auckland members. It was then I realised that to get the voice of design into the marketplace, we needed to basically go to a larger group of designers.
At the time I was also a member of the Association of Interior Designers in Auckland and thought that what we needed to do was to merge and be one stronger voice. So I was the instigator of the concept of forming the Designers Institute of New Zealand. I brokered between the Association of Interior Designers - which had people like Hugh Mulane, Mike Thorburn, Nannette Cameron - and the Society of industrial Designers made up of product design or industrial design, and graphic designers.
Q: And the main purpose of those two organizations was advocating at government level or plainly bringing people together?
JC: Mainly for a voice to industry first off, we weren't probably at the government level, though that was in our sights. But what we did want to do was just strengthen the message of what design could contribute. And if we're a bigger organization, we could then get a secretariat rather than be on a volunteering basis. So you'd start to get publications out, you start getting awards programs running, etc. So we just evolved through that process.
Then my next driving role was really around the task force and going to central government to get funding.
Q: How were those early discussions with government like?JC: They were very favourable - It was Helen Clark’s era. We put a taskforce together and drove a paper to government to ask for $12.5million under the GIF fund.
The sell was that enabling manufacturers to engage with the design process could improve our exports. So it's a case of bringing our product up to an international standard to sell offshore. It was about using design as an enabler to grow exports. And we set the task of creating half a billion of additional export over five years for the $12.5 million we asked for.
They gave us a caveat to say we had to work, although independently, under the umbrella of Trade and Enterprise [NZTE]. It was an interesting model, and I think it was a successful model in that we had a private board [ I was one of seven members], then we had NZTE administration staff, then we had private sector advisors at the coal face auditing the companies So NZTE was just in the middle there. We set the policy and direction and we brought designers in as advisors with their market experience, not just bureaucrats. To cut a long story short, we ended up being audited and we achieved those goals.
Q: You would have also experienced a lot of peaks and troughs throughout your career. What is your view on where the industry might see itself in a post COVID world?
JC: I have dealt with some major troughs and they have all been expensive and what you might lose in a year might take three to four to get back. The GFC cost me $300K, effectively not having a salary for 3 years. I worked hard to try and keep everybody on but we halved over that three years. Since then, we haven’t grown the NZ team in numbers only the Sydney office has got back to a dozen. When Covid came I decided I wasn’t going to go there again!
Q: How is this one different?
JC: We had the financial crash of 87, property crash of 89, economic tip point of 92, the Asian crisis of 97-98 which was a bit of a dip and then the GFC… now we have COVID. Throughout those, the economy of NZ has become far deeper and more stable. We have been lucky globally. I am optimistic about NZ’s depth of the economy, how we handled it, but in terms of the rest of the world, that hasn’t hit yet. I am still optimistic by nature but far more cautious these days.
Q: Did you make any changes at Custance?
JC: I had a lease coming up so I decided not to sign up for another five years. I pulled the office and staff on to our private rural estate. It saves $60-70 thousand a year which are better off in wages. It reduced my liabilities, keeps me agile. I also realised that I left in and returned in darkness for half the year to a property we have spent 20 years planting and developing….. I really enjoyed it in lockdown, and the team now travel to the studio in a short time than heading to the CBD. It means that if we do semi-lockdowns our bubble is isolated. We enjoy having lunch in the garden, it’s a picturesque setting on a cliff facing north across the Pauatahanui harbour to rural hills. Nice afternoons… we go for a walk, then work later.
Q: What is the future of workplaces in a post-COVID world?JC: There will be a reduction of square meterage across the board. Some people have gone overboard, like I have a client at the moment who has 17,000m2 and has decided they only need 8000m2 because there is not that many people coming in. I think the answer is in the middle. COVID has cemented remote working.
We will occupy less square meterage, we will be utilising those m2 completely differently, there is a fantastic opportunity for design: what is more critical is the power of that space in cohesion with the culture/story /purpose and business drivers/caring of those people. People need social interaction for their work and their emotional well-being.
Custance home studio 2021