'Never underestimate the power of good design'

By Claire McCall

From his beginnings in the American Midwest through a stint in the Netherlands and then down to New Zealand, Heath Lowe has developed a passion for good design.

Heath Lowe's European green sofa bed with wall unit in the living room of his Birkenhead home. Photo / Babiche Martens
Heath Lowe's European green sofa bed with wall unit in the living room of his Birkenhead home. Photo / Babiche Martens

When visiting his parents' farm in America's Midwest, Heath Lowe enthusiastically lends a hand in the kitchen. Washing dishes is not merely familial duty - there's emotional gold in them thar suds. Framed in the window above the sink is his childhood treehouse, a finely engineered mini "shed" floating on stilts between an orderly pair of maple trees. Seeing it gives him a rich inkling of the design gene he's inherited. "Dad is a good mechanic, welder and builder," says Lowe. In this case, however, the apple has tumbled a little further from the tree. Like his father, his preference is for the practical - objects with purpose; unlike him, his skills lie not in tinkering with tractors or knocking up a fence but in the finer side of graphic and product design.

As founder and creative director of Special Group, an independent advertising and design agency, Lowe was recently asked by the Designers Institute to judge the graphic category of the annual Best Awards.

He's excited to have been a part of an awards programme he deems vital. His message is that we should "never underestimate the power of good design". A case in point: it was the magnetism of enduring design that lured Lowe and his wife, Clare Buchanan, to a 1950s home on the North Shore, away from the comfort zone of their Kingsland villa.

Tawa-panelled walls, an open-tread staircase, built-in storage and banks of north-facing floor-to-ceiling timber windows suckered the couple in like bears to honey.

Built of cedar boards on a block base, the two-storey Birkenhead house was originally designed and owned by Murray Neads, a former engineer for Auckland City.

In 1954, there was no Harbour Bridge. The ferry or an arduous bus journey were the only ways to get to the property. But the site overlooked fields of strawberries and, beyond, the waving crowns of a punga grove, so the Neads dug in and lived in a caravan while they built. First to go down was a heat-retaining poured concrete pad - a pioneering practice in those days but now commonplace.

For Lowe, who found the home by typing "1950s" into real estate search engines, it was the perfect environment for the couple to bring up their sons, Henry (5) and Lucien (3). Plus, those timber floors and panelled walls provided an appropriate backdrop to a collection of mid-century furnishings.

But where did his passion for modernism begin? "Growing up in the Midwest, two hours from Chicago, you'd think I'd have zero exposure to design," laughs Lowe. Not true. This is Big Gun territory - Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen are both here in bricks and mortar. And the Daddy of them all, Frank Lloyd Wright, was particularly prolific. "There's a Chicago suburb called Oak Park where you can drive around and point out his houses here, there and everywhere."

While Lowe's mother collected primitive pine pieces, raw and ready to work hard ("nothing ornamental or Victorian!"), Lowe's awakening to design came at university where he at first studied architecture. "I realised soon enough that architecture was a big process and I was too impatient for it." He swapped to graphic design for its faster turnaround. There's some irony in this: at home, Lowe verges on obsessive about the merits of "slowing down" and the joy to be found in layers of history.

He's sweet on beekeeping, for instance, believing it one hobby that unites you with the passage of time. "Bees are connected to everything," he says. "They tended a cherry tree in our garden that was almost dead."

After a year of nurturing, of collecting pollen and fertilising the tree, it has magically reawakened. "What I love about bees is that they take a little piece of other things to produce an amazing gift. And the honeycomb itself is such a wonderful structure. If nature is that simple, why does anything need to be more complicated?"

It's a philosophy Lowe readily applies to furniture - and he'd place the work of Charles and Ray Eames at the pinnacle of the US design pyramid. "I probably saw my first Eames chair in an airport," he recalls. He was captivated by its pragmatic beauty, looked at the label underneath - and was hooked.

Another turning point came when Lowe met his Kiwi wife-to-be on a ski-field in France. They decamped to live in Amsterdam for a while and it was amid the cycle lanes and tulips he discovered a world of European designers who had previously passed him by.

Post-war, many designers were working with limited resources, re-shaping their ideas in the context of the small apartments that were built after city centres were lost to the bombing. "This wasn't Corbusier's Machine for Living [a manifesto to create a purist house that dispensed with any decoration] - this was their reality."

Designers such as Cees Braakman fashioned cabinets that were 300mm x 600mm - the standard size of the timber materials and configured to fit exactly in those snug post-war kitchens. One now stands in Lowe's dining room on the North Shore, still functional in its modular make-up.

Another Dutch designer he came to love was Friso Kramer, an industrialist whose work from the 1940s onwards has shaped that country's modernist aesthetic.

Vintage Revolt dining chairs that Kramer designed for De Cirkel are now placed around the scrubbed pine table. "He folded their steel legs and made them hollow so he could use less material - they were lighter, stronger and cheaper to ship around Europe," says Lowe. A moulded back and seat, made from pulped paper, is a material that was a precursor to MDF.

Also in the Lowe/Buchanan household is a green sofa by Martin Visser. It converts into a single bed and hails from 1945. "It was designed specifically to fit into the tiny rooms at nursing schools," says Lowe. The Dutch factory still makes a slightly revised version today. "Sixty years later that design is totally relevant."

Lowe sees parallels from the past in even the most cutting-edge items. He points out a ply wall cabinet with rounded corners that hangs above the sofa bed. It's an unknown piece but, he says, its shape is echoed in his Apple laptop. "Sir Jonathan Ive, a designer at Apple Inc, is known for taking great design from the past and re-contextualising it."

The original iPod, says Lowe, has all the sensibilities of a transistor radio designed by Dieter Rams in 1962. "Everyone fell in love with Apple because they didn't keep adding extra to their designs. On the contrary, they took away as much as they could."

When accused by friends of worshipping the past, Lowe is adamant that surrounding oneself with things that have an interesting back story offers a much richer experience of living. "I like to know the intentions behind a piece." The DAX chair inside the front door was his first Eames purchase - but not his last (there's also a Charles Eames plywood splint from 1947 commissioned by the US Navy to replace the heavier metal ones). Although the DAX chair has a wonky leg and a chip in its fibreglass seat, he will never part with it. "Look at it," Lowe demands. "It couldn't be more simple?"

At work, he favours typography designed by Kris Sowersby, a graduate of the Wanganui School of Design. "I admire his revisionist approach. His typefaces all come from a place that works really well - I love them for their history and authenticity."

The Dutch brigade aside, he's a big fan of many local designers. Jamie Mclellan is a personal friend as are artists like Dane Mitchell whose humour he admires. "New Zealand design responds to needs; nothing happens without a reason. They just go in, row the boat, get the job done, win the gold and that's what they do."

After seven years here, Lowe says he feels "well at home" in his corner of Aotearoa.

He's mindful of this Kiwi leaning towards no-nonsense design. And he puts this into practise in the graphics and branding of everyday products. This simplicity is evident, for example, in his packaging for Ecostore, itself a gold medallist in last year's Best Awards. Judging the current crop of entries and having an overview of the wider awards has re-inforced Lowe's view that good design is certainly not high falutin'. Last year a Purple Pin [a supreme category award], went to Good Nature for a humane possum trap that does not need to be constantly re-set. "This humble trap could well change the face of New Zealand. It could affect the growth of this country. Now tell me design is not important."

- NZ Herald

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