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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 5 (October-November 1952)

Craftsman from Sweden

page 116

Craftsman from Sweden

Some time last year I heard that a Swedish craftsman was working in wood in Havelock North. It seemed an unlikely idea and an unlikely place to find such a man, but when I happened to be in Hastings in August I set out to look for him.

Right in the centre of Havelock North we found an enchanting shop. We felt suddenly that we were in San Francisco again except that the goods in the window were unmistakably Swedish. A balsa bird turned slowly on a long string above all kinds of table-ware in glass and pottery. Hand-woven fabrics and screen-printed cottons made a decorative background for wooden bowls and platters. Not everything in the window was for purists, but to eyes dulled by years of drab-window dressing the whole expression was intoxicating. Everywhere colour and simplicity.

Window-shopping was not enough. The door opened with a tinkling sound from a child's zither, and I found myself inside the smallest shop I have ever seen. But if I walked the length and breadth of all the china-shops in Wellington I could not gather together anything like the quality and variety of design and craftsmanship in the de Flon studio.

The shop, then, was a delightful surprise. But I had set out to find the wood-carver himself. As we struggled to adjust our desires to our budget he rode up on his bicycle.

‘Why Havelock North?’ asked him.

‘Well you see, I met a furniture manufacturer from Hawkes Bay in Auckland when I first arrived and he asked me to be his designer. But it didn't work out. No one here bothers to carry out designs carefully, so I opened my shop instead.’

That was a familiar story. I suggested that a shop like his would do a roaring trade in a bigger town, perhaps Auckland or Wellington, even Palmerston North.

‘But I haven't enough things to sell in a bigger place.’

Mr de Flon told me that the new import regulations had dried up his supply of Swedish glass and pottery and decorative novelties altogether. I thought of the rows and rows of atrocious and expensive yases and figurines and china dogs that have survived the import regulations and found this restriction on these simple and very inexpensive things quite baffling.

‘But can't something be done about it? The demand for things like these is growing all the time?’

‘Well, I have tried. One official told me I should not bother with my shop or my work but go to the freezing works for a job instead. It is very disappointing.’

I thought ‘disgraceful’ filled the situation better, and asked him why he had come to New Zealand. He told me that after some months in the States, instead of going home he had gone to Tahiti for six months and then, thinking that New Zealand would be very like Sweden, he had come on here.

But we all know how very different the two countries are. I thought of what Samuel Butler said in 1863. ‘A mountain here is only good for sheep…. If it is good for sheep it is beautiful, magnificent and page 117 all the rest; if not, it is not worth looking at.’ With art galleries, arts and crafts exhibitions, specialist teachers in the schools and a magazine dedicated to spread the gospel of good design we are often very smug and think we have come a long way since 1863. But when a craftsman chooses to live among us we make things as difficult as possible for him.

The importing side of Mr de Flon's enterprise is secondary to his own work, but it is important, particularly in getting started. It is not easy for a craftsman to live on what he can do with his hands.

The conversation turned then to his own work. It was the happy marriage between his skill and their useful purpose that most attracted me to his bowls and platters. The salad bowls were generous and large enough for entertaining, the platters for bread or fruit or hors d'oeuvres interesting in shape and right in size. I went into the workshop where his twelve-inch lathe is set in a tiny room, the floor deep in warm red shavings. There is a good market already for his own work but even here there is frustration.

‘I have advertised all over New Zealand for seasoned mahogany, totara, southland beech, any wood suitable for my lathe and I just cannot find anything large enough any more.’

This difficulty seems more heart-breaking to me than the importing problems. After an exhibition in Napier recently he has been overwhelmed with orders. After two and a half years of hard uphill work that would be very encouraging if the difficulties of supply were not so worrying. But I cannot imagine that they will be insurmountable because he is a very ingenious man. I have visited the workshop three times. In August he still had a number of very large bowls. By October he had begun to make more shallow platters and spoons and lids for good pieces of English pottery that he had been able to buy. When I saw him in November he had just been experimenting with deep bowls again, joined through the waist as it were. Round the workshop this last visit I saw what he had been able to find, half-burned fence posts, the mahogany legs from an old wardrobe, slabs of unpromising looking totara. I know that if I could go to Havelock North in December all of these would have been turned and carved and fined down into things of beauty.

Karl Axel de Flon is a very modest man. ‘There are hundreds of men in Sweden who can do what I do.’

On the other hand there are probably no New Zealanders with his experience and his wide skills. After teaching in a Swedish trade school for some years he became a Government Adviser on crafts, in Bohuslan, a farming district. There he travelled round spending six weeks here and six weeks there teaching the people to develop their skills in weaving and carving and turning. To find a market for these things he opened a shop in Gothenburg. There every week a different craftsman worked in the corner window in full view of the public, sometimes a potter at his wheel, sometimes a weaver or a basket-worker.

New Zealand is very lucky to have attracted such a man, and we should make every effort to keep him.

Photographs by John Ashton