The Designers Institute runs many initiatives throughout the year to celebrate the achievements of the design community. 

The Best Design Awards

The Best Design Awards are Australasia’s largest annual showcase of excellence across graphic, digital, motion design, product and spatial along with the Value of Design Award, Public Good Award and the Toitanga award recognise the changing nature of our design industry. Year on year, the event grows in both its size and its impact.

View all of the 2019 winners on the Best Awards site.

Best Design Awards History up to 1998
as recorded by Peter Haythornthwaite, ONZM, LifeDINZ

In the beginning
The 1970s saw unprecedented growth in the New Zealand design profession, not only in numbers of practitioners but in the scope and standard of work. Designforces was the pre-eminent design consultancy of the time, together with Jasmax. Design was taught at Wellington Polytechnic, Elam (the University of Auckland), Ilam (Canterbury University) and ATI (now Auckland University of Technology). Many of the leading designers had recently returned from Europe and the United States.

Communication Arts and Graphics were the two benchmark magazines of the graphic design field, and the Swiss School of Design was still relevant but its influence was waning. It was in this climate that in 1976 Stan Mauger, along with Ann Shanks, Mark Cleverley and others, proposed the first National Graphic Design Awards, the precursor of the Best New Zealand Design Awards.

John Massey, the highly respected head of the CCAs Centre for Advanced Research in Design (The Container Corporation of America later merged with JC Penny) was invited to be the head judge along with Maurice Askew (Head of Graphic Design, University of Canterbury, School of Fine Arts), Hamish Keith (Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Arts Advisory Council), and Martin Salmond (Art Director, J Ilott Ltd, Auckland).

The National Awards attracted 300 entries (of which 130 were exhibited as finalists) in the categories of advertising, typography, corporate identity, technical literature, publicity, packaging, illustration, architectural and exhibition graphics, and pattern. Four awards were available in each category, but the judges only awarded the full four in advertising, corporate identity and packaging. Each award winner received a tile designed by Mark Cleverley (which included a cartoon by Don Hatcher) and manufactured by Crown Lynn. Bret de Thier received the Letraset Travel Award for outstanding design work and incidentally, for the best use of Letraset. Amongst other award winners, Mark Cleverly was recognised for his handsome stamp designs and ceramic pattern design. An exhibition, together with a lecture series, was held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and the first time since the early design exhibitions of the 60s this award galvanised New Zealand designers, recognising the commercial and cultural benefits of design and the strength of individual designers. It was decided that another programme would be run after a 2-year rest – but this was not to be.

Five years later
For 5 years, David Bartlett (the founder of Artspec) and Peter Haythornthwaite discussed how a new award programme could be started, and then in 1988 David, along with his partners Mike McLaughlin and Richard Hook, committed Artspec to back and manage a programme covering all categories of graphic design. It was named the Best New Zealand Design Awards. The steering committee comprised Mark Adams (President NZSID), Peter de Beer, Fraser Gardyne, Peter Haythornthwaite (Convenor), Martin Hill, Stan Mauger, Alan Sanders and Andrea Thomas, with Jane Natoli as coordinator. The judges comprised Australian design Gary Emery, Stan Mauger, Hong Kong consultant Henry Steiner, and multi disciplinary American designer Michael Vanderbyl.

As with the previous awards, great care was taken to ensure that they met the demanding ICSID and Icograda rules of fairness and consistency. Artspec as principal sponsor was supported by BJ Ball Papers, McCollam Printers, Spicer Cowan, Western Litho and Wiggins Teape (The Paper House). There were also 21 other sponsors and contributors. The awards were put together in less than 7 months with three primary objectives: to demonstrate to business and industry the advantages gained through the effective use of graphic design; to applaud designers who were making outstanding contributions in their fields; and to enable New Zealand designers to benefit from the experience and insight of internationally recognised designers. The Awards collateral was created by 7 different consultancies, with surprising synergy.

563 entries were submitted for the 21 entry categories, four special awards and a most promising student award. Winners receiving more than one category Gold or Silver Award included de Beer Design, Designworks, PeterHaythornthwaite Design, No Straight Lines (Fain Flaws), and Sanders Design. The Mayor of Auckland, Dame Cath Tizard, launched the Awards at the Regent to media, industry leaders, sponsors and designers. A number of very well attended seminars were held with the international judges as speakers. In addition to the Awards gala presentation and the exhibition, which travelled to the three main centres, a 164-page annual was produced through sponsorship.

Later each of the international judges designed a limited edition Artspec/NZSID poster. Judges Gary Emery, Michael vanderByl and Henry Steiner commented on the high standard of New Zealand design and were impressed with international standard of much of the work.

The second Best Awards
One year later, again with Artspec as the principal sponsor and 46 other supporters and sponsors (of whom BJ Ball remains a major sponsor), the 1989 Best Design Awards were held. This time, Grant Alexander was the Convenor, with a steering committee of 17 fellow professional designers. Deliberately, a very different group of judges from those selected in 1988 were invited to New Zealand, comprising internationally recognised designer Thomas Geismar of Chermayeff and Geismar Associates, New York; David Hillman, magazine designer and partner in Pentagram; and Kaoru Kasai, celebrated Japanese typographer and designer. Barry Ellis, a well-respected Wellington designer, with a broad practice background, was the New Zealand judge. 435 entries were submitted of which 16 received silver awards (no golds were given) and four special recognition awards along with one student scholarship. This time David Bartlett’s new design consultancy, Graphikos, received very high prominence along with many small and established consultancies. Kasai commented he felt a great sense of freshness and youth in the work.

David Hillman encouraged New Zealand designers to create their own identity without direct reference to overseas trends. Geismar observed that much of New Zealand’s better work had not been entered, and Ellis surmised that New Zealand with its wonderful environment and diversity of peoples has a good deal to offer, and we should ensure that this is reflected in the work we produce. The award presentation was held in Wellington and the exhibition travelled from Wellington to Auckland and then on to smaller centres. Again through generous sponsorship, a 164-page annual was produced with numerous copies sold, as in 1988, through book and stationery shops.

1991 Designers Institute of New Zealand is formed
The enormous amount of time involved in staging the Best Awards took its toll and it was not until 1992, under the spirited leadership of DINZ President Hugh Mullane, that another awards programme was held. This was the first time that awards were run by the Designers Institute of New Zealand – the new organisation formed by the merger of NZSID and NZAID. There was a new briskness to the awards. The disciplines were expanded to include graphic, interior, product, fashion and craft. Terry Stringer was commissioned to design the discipline and category gold award that was aptly named the Stringer (Terry used Leonardo da Vinci’s hand measure of man to symbolise design and Nikau Palm to express the New Zealand spirit). The broad base of advisers was put together, many of who had consistently given their time on the previous Bests.

The presentation function was held at the Auckland Town Hall; it was an energetic celebration of design – boisterous, impassioned, very audio visual and unforgettable. Eleven Stringers were awarded: graphic – Black Stump, Designworks, PeterHaythornthwaiteDesign (2), deBeer/Adams and Cheah Chuni: product – PeterHaythornthwaiteDesign and Eric van Helmond; craft – Allan Preston and PeterHaythornthwaiteDesign; interior – Inscape, Gascoigne Assoc and Noel Lane (2). Again to ensure a balanced appraisal of work, the judges comprised New Zealand and overseas designers, with Niels Different as the main product design judge.

Four - year hiatus
There followed a four-year hiatus due to too few having to commit too much time and energy to stage such comprehensive programme. However, in 1995 Fraser Gardyne, Murray Pilcher and Michael Major (along with a small committee) took on the responsibility of running the next Best Awards. The disciplines were limited to craft, graphic, interior and product design. As in previous years, it was the passion of the committee combined with the support of the sponsors that made the awards a success. John Britten was posthumously given an award, which is now called, in his honour, the John Britten Award – the highest recognition given by DINZ to an outstanding individual for leadership, vision and achievement. The presentation and exhibition were held at the Maritime Museum, downtown Auckland, and were coupled with a conference on team-based design with the main speakers being Tom Schnackenberg (America’s Cup team leader) and Michael Bryce (Australian Olympic Games bid leader). The judges comprised Michael Smythe and John Hatrick-Smith for product; Peter de Beer, Mark Adams and Lindsay Marks for graphic; and Hugh Mullane, Mark Gascoigne and Ron McKenzie for interior. Stringers were awarded to Custance Design (interior), Origin Design (graphic) and Peter Tasker Design (product).

The foundation for the Design-Led Business Award
Two years later, the 1997 Best Awards took place in Auckland, with the same entry disciplines as 1996. The committee comprised Jill Carroll, Bryn Chapple, Paola Dashwood, Peter Haythornthwaite (Chair), Bina Klose, Murray Pilcher and Kim Willis. James Coe, (former Director of Wellington Polytechnic, School of Design) was the recipient of the John Britten Award and Max Hailstone was, posthumously, given the Designers' Institute of New Zealand Outstanding Achievement Award. The foundation was established for the Design-led Business Award through the vision of Bina Klose and Bryn Chapple. The judging panel was made up of many well respected designers (NZ and Australian) and business leaders including Michael Barnett, Stuart Gardyne, Euan McKechnie, Hugh Mullane, for interior; Stephen Allan, Adam Laws, Chris Mitchell and Tony Parker for product; and David Bartlett, Dick Brunton, Annette Harcus and Alistair Lang for graphic.

The presentation evening was held in the pure architectural environment of the New Auckland Art Gallery, with the exhibition at the Auckland City Library. Only two Stringers were awarded, one to Fisher White Architecture (interior) and the other to Designworks (graphic). The evening created a surprising camaraderie amongst the attendants. Maxim designed the annual to a brief, which ensured that the sponsors’ advertisements, while individual, were in keeping with the structure of the publication.

1998
The dedication of time and the financial knife-edge meant that a 1998 award programme was unlikely. However, Gesundheit, the project management arm of AGM Publishing proposed to DINZ that it run the Best programme on a yearly basis looking after sponsorship and all of the administrative functions related to the call for entries, judging, exhibition and presentation evening.
Dave Clark, DINZ President, was the convenor supported by a small group of designers respected for their work and professional integrity. So as to ensure bipartisanship in the judging, the panel was expanded to 6 judges in each discipline. Gifford Jackson was the recipient of the John Britten Award and ECC Lighting received the inaugural Design-led Business Award. The Awards evening was held at the Auckland Town Hall along with the exhibition. As in the preceding year only two Stringers were awarded, on to Fisher and Paykel (product), and the other to PeterHaythornthwaiteDesign (graphic).

Writing such an abbreviated history has sadly meant that many of the designers and sponsors who have been critical to the success and continuity of the Awards have gone unmentioned. This omission necessitates that in the near future the history of the New Zealand Best Design Awards is comprehensively recorded with a full list of committees, sponsors and winners. These people must be recognised!

The Best Design Awards demonstrates the economic sense of design to New Zealand business, recognises outstanding design and designers’ achievements, bears witness to the cultural influence of inspired creativity, and uniquely unifies the profession. It is the responsibility of the profession to ensure that the Best Design Awards continue to be run free of bias, and serve as an accurate measure of our development and, we trust, our progress. The new years of the 21st century will reveal the extraordinary talent of young designers and encourage business to use the “extraordinary power” of design to compete and profit internationally.

As recorded by Peter Haythornthwaite,  ONZM, LifeDINZ

Black Pin Recipients

Each year, the prestigious Black Pins are awarded to individuals for outstanding achievement within the design community. In 2019 DINZ introduced the Value of Design Black Pin.

The John Britten Black Pin is awarded to a designer for their leadership, vision and achievement both in New Zealand and internationally.

The Designers Institute Black Pin is awarded to a member of the Institute who has made a lasting and valuable contribution to the design profession and design culture in New Zealand.

Liz and Neville Findlay

The Designers Institute John Britten Black Pin is awarded to a designer for their leadership, vision and achievement both in New Zealand and internationally.

In 2020 this Black Pin was given to Liz and Neville Findlay, founders of fashion label Zambesi. Federico Monsalve spoke to them about the journey so far.

Federico Monsalve  (FM)
Liz, so you came to New Zealand from Greece?

Liz Findlay  (LF)
Yes. I was born in Greece and my older brother as well. My mother is Greek, but she was born and brought up in Russia. My father was Ukrainian and they met in Germany towards the end of the war. My family immigrated to New Zealand in 1951 on a vessel called the Goya.

FM
So… what language did you speak at home?

LF  
My parents wanted to learn English, so although we learnt some basic Greek and Russian we were encouraged to speak English. I can still understand a few words. We have a few Russian and Ukrainian staff at our workroom so it feels a little familiar hearing them speak to one another. 

FM 
It is quite a multicultural office.

Neville Findlay (NF)
Yeah, very much so!

LF
I think the thing with language is that if you're not using it in your home or in your workplace, you know, you don't retain it. Maybe if I had married a Russian or Greek, life with language would be different, but I didn't!

NF
Instead, you ended up with a Syrian Scot!

LF
Our girls are a real mixture!

FM
Do you think that internationalism in any way colours your output as a creative?

LF 
I don't think you consciously do that. I think that it's probably just inherent. My grandfather was a shoe maker in Russia so maybe it was in the genes! When we moved to Dunedin from Central Otago – my mother went to work for a local designer, as a seamstress. She loved making clothes and was very creative. She would manipulate patterns, make all our clothes and taught us all to sew. So, it could be that generation did make their own clothes and were used to doing it for themselves. So, that creative thing, I think, was encouraged by both my parents.

NF
It was born of necessity. They would do and make everything, it was part of the culture.

FM
Were you interested in a career in fashion from an early age?

LF
It did not enter my mind as a career at a young age. I loved being around fashion, fashion shows, fashion magazines etc. I loved being around clothes and dressing up. I loved sneaking into my mother’s wardrobe and drawers when she was out and trying on all her clothes, shoes and jewellery. I do not know whether she realised at the time but she never said. I was fascinated by her choices and everything was beautifully folded and boxed. My mother had a passion for clothes and was always making garments for us. She had this wonderful, big, travelling chest that had come to New Zealand with us in 1951 and it was always full of remnants. So we were often taking from and adding to that treasure trove of fabrics, making something to wear and buying remnants of fabric from our favourite store Penroses in Dunedin. We were taught to sew by our mother who was very particular and adept at manipulating patterns and a seamstress by trade. I think it was her passion that rubbed off on me. It was more about putting them on my back and not really on anyone else’s at that stage.    

FM 
Were you already playing around with your own designs and developing your own style at that stage?

LF
I think I had a particular style and loved mixing things up. 

NF  
But you already had a contemporary bent rather than a classical bent, didn't you? I remember you always wanted to shop at the latest boutiques. 

LF 
Oh, yeah, but I loved vintage too and classics that could be twisted a little.

FM
Were fashion brands and labels that big of a deal back then?

LF

Well... yes, there were a lot of boutiques and stores with their own brands and I think there has always been a market for fashion on many levels. There were hardly any imports because duties were so high and local manufacturing was protected. This allowed the industry to grow and develop without a lot of competition.

LF
There were also a lot of boutiques around when I started. Really unique. They were all very individual in their presentation and environment. Very authentic. I feel like there is a return to that now. 

FM
So what was your first ‘industry’ job.

LF

I guess my first introduction to the industry was working for a company in Auckland in the office of Derek Batts, a clothing manufacturer and wholesale brand. I got in through the admin, of course, because that was where, you know, my skills were. But then I asked if I could go through to production. I was fortunate enough to be given this opportunity and I learnt a great deal from a planning point of view and learnt to operate industrial machines. I then went on to work in a retail environment and a  fabric importer and lastly in a small workroom with a very creative team and this was very inspirational. These varied roles have been invaluable to me in my career and I am sure that the experiences and education in the industry have laid a good foundation for my role at Zambesi.

FM
And when did you arrive at that moment when you said ‘I want to do my own thing’?

LF 
Oh, well, actually, I have probably never arrived at that moment! [laughter] Looking back it seemed inevitable. Neville and his friends used to say: 'you always look so different, the way you put things together!  Why don't you do your own thing?  Why don't you start your own label? And then we went... ‘oh, OK,’ so we started thinking about it seriously.

NF 
That came along with the desire to maybe own a little boutique for starters. There was that retail side and the creative side.

LF
Yeah, I think it was just a very natural evolution, if you like, it was an organic kind of thing. So we decided to take on a space that was called ‘Rhubarb’ in Parnell Village and we changed the name to ‘Tart’ because that whole area had all these weird 70s names like: ‘Roots, Shoots and Leaves’ (a plant shop) [Laughter] Can you imagine?! And another called ‘So to Bed' (an antique shop) and ‘Snatch Factory’ which was a knitwear shop. Yeah…. so we were Tart! We opened in 1976.

FM
Sounds very 70s indeed! What was your business model?

LF
I used to go and buy all the brands that I liked, and sell them. And then I started making pieces that I felt we were missing. So I kind of started very slowly. We retailed for about three, four years and a couple of the brands we were buying were opening their own stores and didn't want to supply us anymore. So, we thought, well... how do we protect what we're doing? And that would be creating our own brand. When we established Zambesi in 1979 it was to create an identity that represented our philosophy of strength, beauty and independence. 

FM
Is that when you guys started thinking about interior design and how a physical space could represent the garments.

NF
The first couple of stores were pretty nondescript mainly because we didn’t have any money. When we went to Vulcan lane is when we decided we were going to do a number. 

LF
It coincided with Neville having decided to leave his job. 

FM
What was your job at that time?
 

NF
I was an automotive product designer, I had a pretty responsible job at a young age and designed a factory that built exhaust systems for cars. We just used to make the componentry like air filters, oil filters, mufflers, all that sort of thing.

FM
Is that where your passion for cars started? 

NF
Oh no, it started well before that! I luckily got into a job that I was interested in. So I sort of ended up running one of the group companies and I set up an industrial filtration division within this company. So, I had a nice little career going on. 

FM
Quite a daring move then to just sort of quit that and move into a budding fashion label?

LF 
It was kind of the right move, at the time. Have you regretted it? 

NF
No. Not at all!

LF
That's good. You could always start up again and get a really good job!

NF
From my perspective, I was ready to move because I sort of moved into that sort of management side of it, and I wasn't doing so much of my hands-on design, and I didn't really enjoy that as much. And I thought... I would rather get back to doing something, you know,

LF
Rather than sitting around the boardroom!

FM
And the rest is history! Any tips on how to build a long-lasting, family business in the creative industries?

NF
Making your own rules. I think we made it up as we went along. 

LF
But also, it was never about who was getting the credit for anything or who did this job and who did that job. I think we're really lucky in that our personalities fit the job and Neville has always been incredibly supportive and generous giving me the freedom to do what I believe in. He's never tried to step in or change it.

NF
We've always worked the brand forward. We've also tried to stay away from being market-led but more design-led. So it's never been like chasing the big numbers, it's been more about doing something individual and creative.

LF 
Yes, our motivation wasn't about making money, even though... we desperately needed some! [laughter] I think we just let it grow organically. We started working from home with one staff [member], and then it was two, and then we opened our first workroom.

NF  
We went into Australia, which was kind of a tough market.

LF
Yes, it was. We're not saying that this is how it should be done. It's just the way that we've done it, and grown it and become proud of it, I suppose. For us the integrity behind what we do and being authentic and being honest about it, and not trying to oversell ourselves, that's been really important for us. Now, of course, you know, you're confronted with this whole social media marketing thing, which I struggle with, to be honest. But luckily, our daughters are involved with us, and they both are very creative and bring fresh ideas to the table. We are blessed to have them work with us presenting shows, videos and images and taking care of social media.

FM
You guys have created a very distinct brand. Was it something that you consciously defined?

LF
I don't think we've ever really had a strategy or a plan. The first few years I was probably experimenting and creating an identity without trying to do that. You slowly start editing your own work, and you start leaving out the things that you're not happy with, or you want to move on from and focus on the work that really attracts you. 

FM
Like black.

LF
Yes, I've always loved black because you know, we wear a lot of it, so that has become the kind of backbone, I guess, of the brand. People always go ‘but you only do black!’ And no, we don't, we actually do other colours, but black seems to be our signature. Black is never just black to me! It has depth and layers and textures.

NF 
I always compare it to black and white photography. You can see a lot more in a black and white photography: the texture, the light, the graininess, all those sorts of things. I think that that is why black clothes have an appeal to a lot of people.

LF
Another part of that brand aspect is that people always feel like they have ownership of it in a way. Somehow you feel like it belongs to you and I think it is because they connect with us through our interiors, our shows, our music. All those things contribute to the identity of the brand and the way that people perceive the brand. 

NF  
Also because we leave, you know, we leave a little bit out. Like we don't try and define the way people dress, we create a vehicle for them to become the stylist rather than us pushing an entire look or series of looks. They get a lot of joy and buy-in from doing that. Quite often Liz will see someone wearing something she designed and think 'wow I didn't think of styling it like that!'

FM
Do you outsource any of the components of the business?

NF
We do everything in-house and sometimes it's a little bit naive, and we ask: can we get away with it? And I think because it's fully ‘ours’ people accept it, because it's the Zambesi way. Like, totally, we try and do everything from our graphic design, to interior design, show design, styling etc. 

LF 
And by that, we mean our creative team. We have a menswear designer and a womenswear design assistant to me and an incredibly skilled workforce and creative team. The process from design to production and completion is in house. So it's kind of a team effort, a family effort, in many ways that's what is underpinning the longevity of the brand.

FM
How would you describe your customer? Like, if you had to imagine a demographic or an ‘avatar’.

LF
Individual and confident. Someone once said to me that we're like little tribes, you know, I belong to your tribe, because of the way that we dress and I love what you do, and I wear it. So that's, you know, like, without meaning to or thinking about it, you do create these kinds of cults or clubs or followings.

FM 
Which have the same music, similar dress styles...

LF
Yeah, we enjoy the same things. You know, we were drawn to the same kind of architecture or art or film. Yeah, all of that stuff, but you don't set out to try and capture that. 

FM
Has being ‘Made in New Zealand’ a contributing factor to that success? Has local culture given Zambesi something you wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else?

LF
Well, I wonder whether we would ever have done anything like this anywhere else. I think what New Zealand offers us this amazing freedom, you're not...

NF
Daunted?

LF
Yes, daunted by fashion history. People used to say ‘why don't you and your brand go to Paris?’ and we did and have done our stint offshore. However, we have come back to our comfort zone and are not concerned with making it anywhere but here!  On-line of course has changed things!

FM
But you did end up going to Australia though.

LF 
We had retail stores in Sydney and Melbourne for 25 years and we still wholesale in Australia. When we opened in Sydney we opened a small store in the beginning and then gravitated to this amazing space, a ballroom. Five years later we found out no one wants to go up in a lift to the ballroom!

NF
It was a difficult task to break into that market. We succeeded but it had to do with the fact that they saw us as disruptive, they were weary.

LF
I remember when we first went to a client meeting there, one of them looked at our clothes and said “Where is the pink?” [LAUGHTER]. Trend of the season?

NF
It was a bit like ‘what are you doing here?!’

LF
It was the first time I thought ‘ohhh, this could be fun’!

NF
We did win them over in the end.

FM
Have there been any key disruptors to your industry during the years that you've been in the business?

NF

Covid and online shopping! 

LF
You could say online shopping was a little bit disruptive in the beginning, because, like, we've been buying imports, you know, for many years, like Margiela and Rick Owens and all the brands that we like... Raf Simons… and we used to have them delivered at the right time for our season. We used to delay it so that the summer collection from Europe arrived in our summer. Online shopping has changed all that. Now we need to have it at the same time as it's up online but it has to suit our climate as well. So it has been disruptive but it's also been something we've had to make work for us.

FM 
You pulled out of Australia recently… is there a future in brick and mortar?

NF
For us it is essential.

LF
Like me, some people need to touch and feel. We have a lot of clients that want to try it on, see it on themselves, get your opinion. Online shopping doesn’t do that for you. 

NF
It has to be an inspirational experience.

LF
In saying that, we have shrunk the number of shops that we used to have. I don’t think you need as many anymore.

NF
We are doing quite well online so it doesn’t feel like we need three stores in Auckland anymore.

FM
How do you keep coming up with new ideas after so many years in business, what are your techniques for maintaining creativity flowing.

LF
I don’t know… a lot of it is the team. They stimulate me as well and they are very inspirational. They believe in the brand and they get excited when things are going well.
We try more and more to involve them in our processes. For a long time it was a lot about me, and what I wanted to do and how it got done… and it is still a little like that but now we get feedback from stores, from online and [our daughter] Marissa is a photographer and works closely with the stores and fashion week and our PR and social media and Sophie looks after the website, graphic design and music direction and [both daughters] whom we are incredibly proud of keep us grounded and on our game. They are very involved with that part of the business which has made us rethink how we really need to be quite open to our ‘Zam-fam’ as we call them, and what they bring to the table as well. 

FM
You have also mentored or helped the careers of many amazing designers in the industry who went on to make their own brands… 

LF
People move around because they are exploring. I did that, I worked in the industry in many different areas. We have had some great people come through our doors and go on to do their own thing.

FM
You don’t feel there is a tug-o-war between mentoring and helping people grow but also keeping that talent within your stable?

LF
No, because if you start freaking out about someone else’s creative talent vs yours, then it becomes a competitive thing and I don’t think that way. Even with our peers and other brands… everyone is unique. Everyone who has worked here has contributed to Zambesi but understands the brand… it has always been about our brand and even if they leave to do their own thing, even if it is similar, it is still not ours, it is theirs.

NF
If you think of someone like Murray [Crane] for example, he went on to do suits. Nothing to do with Zambesi.

FM
What excites you about the NZ fashion scene at the moment?

LF

It’s got a great future. What we need to ensure is that we can manufacture here if we wish to. We are NZ made and we want to keep it that way. Not to say that we will never manufacture offshore.… At this stage, there is no plan to do that, but to encourage the new generation there needs to be that infrastructure here to be able to access that.

NF
Covid has almost saved the industry in a way.

LF
You think so?

NF
Yeah, five years prior to that, there had been a real decline in local manufacture and by designers going to China, etc. 

LF
I agree I think a lot of designers are coming back to local manufacture, and that is a great thing for them. What we need now is to encourage and improve the skillset, and that is the hard thing. Because our machinists are scarce and I have talked to a few of the design schools and institutions discussing the need to encourage craft because not everyone is going to be a designer. There are so many processes in making clothes that require skilled craftsmen. There is so much satisfaction in creating a beautiful garment and being part of a creative team.

NF
There needs to be more status placed on the artisanal side of making clothes. 

LF
Yes, it is not just being able to draw an amazing picture or dream up something in your head because if you did that all day you would never be able to produce all your ideas.

NF
You need a balance of skills. 

LF
And we need to encourage creatives who are good with their hands. To make garments and to feel satisfied with that. There is a great future. Look at where it has been in the last 20 years. Look at Fashion Week, that has been encouraging for existing and new designers. Gives them a voice.

FM
A couple of years ago you announced that Zambesi was for sale.

LF 
Yes, we announced that pre-Covid. It was Fashion Week 2019. We had a buyer… but then Covid happened and they withdrew.

NF
After that, we thought it was meant to be. 

LF
Obviously, Neville and I are getting on but… we still have a lot of energy left, I think! Actually, I love making clothes and am so lucky to still be doing something I love!

NF
There is still a bit in the tank!

FM 
So we are not going to see you as a full-time racecar driver anytime soon?

NF
Not full time no, but if I get the call… I’ll be ready!

Jonathan Custance

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.

Federico Monsalve (FM) talks to Jonathan Custance, FDINZ (JC).

FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

FM: 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!

 FM: 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. 

 FM: 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’.

 FM: 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.

 FM: So you moved into Ath’s?
JC: Yes, I was the first to move in and then basically a commune was started. 

FM: 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.

FM: 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. 

FM: 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.

FM: 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.

FM: 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.

FM: 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.

FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

FM: 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. 

FM: 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.

 FM: 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. 

 FM: 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!

FM: 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.

 FM: 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.

 FM: 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

All Recipients

Designers Institute Black Pin John Britten Black Pin Value of Design Black Pin
2020

Jonathan Custance

Liz and Neville Findlay

2019

Annie Dow

Clive Fugill

Fisher & Paykel Healthcare

2018

Rik Campbell and Steve Le Marquand

2017

Kent Sneddon

Dan Bernasconi

2016

Ben Corban

Danny Coster

2015

Professor Tony Parker

Kris Sowersby

2014

Mark Cleverley

Matt Holmes

2013

Cathy Veninga

Grenville Main

Kent Parker

2012

Sven Baker

Ian Athfield

2011

Fraser Gardyne

Mark Elmore

2010

Tim Hooson

Dean Poole

2009

Dave Clark

Joseph Churchward

2008

Professor Leong Yap

Laurie Davidson

2007

Brian Richards

David Trubridge

2006

Grant Alexander

Gary Paykel

2005

Hugh Mullane & Craig Horrocks

Mark Pennington

2004

Michael Smythe

Richard Taylor

2003

Ray Labone

Peter Haythornthwaite FDINZ

2002

Doug Heath

Ann Robinson

2001

Robin Beckett

Humphrey Ikin

2000

David Bartlett

Bruce Farr

1999

John Hughes

Karen Walker

1998

Not awarded

Gifford Jackson

1997

Max Hailstone

James Coe

1995

John Britten

Purple Pin Case Studies

The Best Design Awards is the annual showcase of excellence in graphic, spatial, product and interactive design. The entries judged Best in each category are awarded the Gold Pin. The very best project in each discipline is awarded the supreme, Purple Pin for work that truly raises the bar for New Zealand design.

Competitions

To The Floor - The Lifeforce
WINNER ANNOUNCED 30th NOVEMBER


To The Floor is a design competition brought to you by
Milliken-Ontera to create a design that is to be translated for commercial environments.

The design theme for this competition was inspired by the circular flow of our living systems. Creating a rhythm between all living things, restoring and regenerating with each flow.

The winner will work with Milliken-Ontera's creative director to develop a carpet tile collection that will be manufactured and sold globally earning the winner 3% on sales.

See Winner Here 

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The Student Council run several initiatives including Interviews, Folio Nights and Best of the Best Students Speak. 

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