Garnet Campbell (Garth) Chester.
The ‘Mau Mahara’ exhibition and book produced in 1990 to celebrate 150 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, reintroduced the main centres of New Zealand to the ‘Curvesse’ chair, and unearthed a history of design and craft almost lost to our notice. These items of such everyday history seemed unique and full of promise, handcrafted and stitched, with the lustre of age and use, unlike the products from European and American wunderkinds being promoted by the ever expanding design store culture.
The’Curvesse’s’ appeal comes partly from its clarity and economy of production; a truly ‘No 8 wire’ response which is also an incredible design classic – several thin sheets of water-glue softened plywood, with two lengthwise cuts to produce the arms, laminated together in a mould until set. Easier than pavlova for a handy chap with some spare time in the shed!
Unlike many of the other objects in the exhibition, Garth Chester’s chair was designed as a production piece. His partner (and cousin) in the original business, A L Williams described the possibilities that were never achieved in his or Chester’s life times; the drive to move from manual to mechanised production, the development of a variety of models (including a two seater version) and models in other materials. Produced near the end of the World War II as a home-grown response to the work of Aalto Alvar and Marcel Breuer, the ‘Curvesse’ was also a design with a market in mind.
The war had produced many casualties requiring nursing and recuperation facilities for the various ailments and injuries of a nation in recovery. TB and other degenerative diseases had claimed millions of lives before and during the war, leading to an exponential growth in care facilities in the Western World that required furniture and seating which was easy to clean and low maintenance. Plywood, or alternating veneers layered into sheets has a history going back centuries, but came to be known in its modern form after the development of the veneer lathe by Dr K. Asano in Nagoya, 1907. The Japanese Imperial Army developed landing craft using its unique structural properties, as did early aviators, strengthening their cloth and wire biplanes. Its use and influence in modernist furniture production stems from Europe and the now iconic piece by Gerrit Rietveld, (‘Beugelstoel’ of 1927) as well as those by Thonet and Alvar developed during the early 1930’s. The capabilities of plywood were extended too many situations including medical – the Eames later developing leg splints, etc for the armed forces. From modernist ideology it was but a small step to the development of sanitary seating and furniture for the convalescing, as designed for the Paimion Sanatorium by Aalto.
The plywood ‘Curvesse’ fulfilled many of the modernist requirements – ‘form follows function’, ‘truth to materials’, ‘unified structure’ – yet also seemed to fit with the more elegant era of ‘cursive line’, somewhere between Grey and Makintosh. Several of Chester’s designs over the coming years are based around ply’s ability to be formed around curves, as in the child’s barber chair for ‘Kay’s Salon’ and his design for a child’s pushchair – a design which he tried to sell abroad. Had he been able financially, after a factory fire, relocating and starting again, it seems possible he may have ventured materially even further afield, carried along by developments into synthetic fibres and composites developed during the war. His adoption in the 1950’s of bent steel rod resulted in a popular three–legged chair design called the ‘Bikini’ (1955) which was employed as seating in the fashionable Ca d’Oro coffee bar in Auckland. Other interior commissions came through friend and architect Allen Rigby of ‘Rigby, Mullan’ and architect Paul Pascoe in Christchurch. His wife Nan points too many areas of exploration throughout the years, from aerodynamics to heating products in various materials, some produced with close friends, others for national businesses, some yet to see the light of day. Not content with just designing, she remembers him working with local theatre in his spare time, constructing sets and working backstage.
His collection of films, made over many years, has languished, hidden from view since being given to this city’s Museum, to be catalogued and copied. Within those deteriorating celluloid frames of forgotten silver, rest a remarkable piece of New Zealand’s design history – of a highly innovative, articulate renaissance man, who steadfastly endeavoured to follow his muse, in a time were individuality and difference was often thwarted by the mechanisms and machinations of commercial reality and the era’s ‘curators’ of style. Yet still to be fully appreciated, ‘Garth’ Garnet Chester’s designs and influence stands along side that of our now iconic two dimensional creators such as McCahon, Lusk and Fairburn – and on equal footing with works produced by Breuer for Isokon or Ray and Charles Eames in America. (Had Keith Murray remained in this country of his birth, would he still have produced the ceramic icons of the modernist era?)
In the 65 years since it was first produced, the ‘Curvesse’ still holds a fascination for those with a curiosity and passion for the unique and inspirational of our recent cultural heritage. That his design still holds the power to ‘wow’ and translates effortlessly into other materials indicates the strength and universality of its conception. It seems also to epitomise many of its creator’s own attributes- elegance, resilience, individuality, durability to name but a few. Garth Chester stands out as one of this country’s great three dimensional designers and artists, though sadly, like many o-‘riginals’ he died relatively young and remained mostly unsung in his own time.