Maori connection to Art Deco

What's that koru doing next to that ziggurat?

Art Deco was the most fashionable international design movement in modern art and architecture from 1925 until the 1940s, and was characterised by smooth lines, geometric shapes, streamlined forms and bright colours. 

A little known fact about the style however is that in the 1930s, architects designing in the Art Deco style occasionally used decorative motifs from indigenous cultures - including, in New Zealand, motifs from Maori culture.

The use of Maori art forms though was certainly not widespread. Of the almost 150 buildings constructed or reconstructed during the rebuilding of Napier (following the 1931 Earthquake), only three feature Maori decoration. One is Napier's famous Soundshell (on Marine Parade), but the features are subtle. The other two buildings however include Maori decoration in what is possibly the purest form to be found anywhere in New Zealand.

ASB Building - Corner Hastings and Emerson Streets, Napier 

Napier's (and New Zealand's) preemminent example of Maori decoration use in Art Deco is the old BNZ Building (now the ASB Building).

In 1993, the building was taken over by ASB Bank, restored and refurbished, to continue its life as Napier's premier bank premises. The late Doug Dalton, who worked as apprentice plasterer on the building when it was built in 1932, recalled that twelve or fourteen plasterers worked for a month or more on the decorative features. 

On the exterior, Maori carving patterns in cement plaster feature prominently, incorporating the zig zag which is so frequently seen both in Maori art and in the Art Deco style. The designs in the entrance opening are said to represent "the wealth of the tribe". A bronze grille over the high window which sat above the original entrance doors incorporates the shape which represents "Rumano the whale", as did the iron gates. 

The ASB Bank building was given a Category One classification by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1991.

The Napier Antique Centre - 63 Tennyson Street, Napier

Originally the Ross and Glendinning building, this building was designed by Ernest Williams, and is unusually simple for its time. This features a kowhaiwhai (rafter) pattern called "ka mate he tetekura - haere mai tetekura" which represents the fern frond (and, symbolically, the family) dying and being replaced by another. The simplicity and strength of the design attracts a good measure of admiration both from local people and from visitors exploring Napier.


Adapted from “Indigenous Art Deco in New Zealand”, an article in “New Zealand Historic Places’ magazine, December 1990.