Peter Haythornthwaite might be famous for his kiwifruit “spife” but, as he tells Kim Knight, great design thinking is just as important as the products.

My pen is out of ink. Two minutes into this interview, and I'm scrabbling.

"Have mine," says Peter Haythornthwaite, gentleman designer. He hands across his Bic classic fine — a slim orange stick with a plain black cap.

He loves this pen: "Because it's nothing. It's down to the barest minimum. It's unembellished. It works. I guess you could say in some ways it's ugly. We know too much about it, it's so common, but I like it, because it's so simple."

I see a pen. Haythornthwaite sees design. That little hole, halfway up? Ink expands when it's warm. A designer has considered this problem and introduced a pin-prick of a pressure equaliser. Elegant. Beautiful, even.

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"Beauty is about appropriate balance," says Haythornthwaite. "It's when colour, materials and content integrate with fluency. It's experienced when form is not 'styled' and does not clash with purpose."

Haythornthwaite, 73, is one of New Zealand's most celebrated and successful industrial designers. His work is in New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent collection — and, possibly, your kitchen drawer.

In 1998, Haythornthwaite designed the Zespri "spife", the spoon-meets-knife that turned the country's national fruit into an on-the-run snack.

"You could say that was a really throwaway product. When I started, I felt a bit guilty. They're going to make a whole lot, and then they're going to throw them away."

In fact, people kept them. "Mums, particularly, would say they were going to buy a bunch of Zespri for the spoons. That made me feel less guilty. Because we are in a consumerism age, no question.

"Change is happening at such an incredible speed. We don't throw our Apple phones away, but we never use them again. Technology forces the development of new products. There are a lot of temporary products that were never designed to be temporary, but technology means that they're disappearing and outdated."

The horizon, he says, might be a long way off. "But we catch up with that point in the horizon very quickly."

He's speaking to Canvas two weeks before Peter Haythornthwaite: Design Generation opens at Auckland's Objectspace. Curated by Michael Smythe (who has written a major book to accompany the show) it chronicles more than five decades in design.

Career high points? Haythornthwaite picks the LOMAK (Light Operated Mouse and Keyboard system), a head-mounted laser device first imagined by an electrician and made a reality by a design team.

"We were really helping people in need," says Haythornthwaite. "We helped develop a product that made people feel normal, not disadvantaged and not that nasty word 'handicapped'. They felt normal."

It was the first New Zealand product in MoMA's permanent collection. It won gold at the International Design Excellence Awards. But it was also a commercial failure. No long-term investors could be found.

Design, says Haythornthwaite, is the scariest profession.

"Do you know what's important? This is what the Danes and Silicon Valley say — fail fast."

Haythornthwaite's back catalogue is eclectic. A Wella hairbrush. The Raven Mop-A-Matic. The Armadose sheep drenching system. The Crown Lynn Country Kitchen range. Environmental wayfaring signs for Auckland Zoo, a range of gift products for Greenpeace. The Stack Vista woodburner. Hundreds and hundreds of projects impacting thousands of lives. So it's a surprise when he opens the large cardboard box he's brought along for the Canvas photo shoot.

Peter Haythornthwaite with his Gone fishin' fly cabinet. Photo / Dean Purcell
Peter Haythornthwaite with his Gone fishin' fly cabinet. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Gone fishin' fly cabinet is an absolute one-off. Haythornthwaite used a bandsaw and a disc sander to handcraft the fish on the top; the cabinet's legs are fishing rods. The design was sketched on a napkin at an Italian restaurant in Melbourne's Lygon St and the finished product — created for the 1987 Artiture exhibition in Auckland — was the joint winner of the Craft Design prize at the 1992 Best Design Awards. It is a sweet, whimsical and beautifully made folly that looks like nothing else in his oeuvre.

"Because it's just me being playful and nobody can tell me what to do . . . that's my personal indulgence, my acting."

Does he fish?

"I've been fly-fishing . . . "

But, no, he concedes, " . . . it's dreaming."

In an interview from the new book, Haythornthwaite tells Michael Barrett that his career successes are the result of a "coalescence between search and dream".

He worked for seven years in New York as a senior designer for industrial design heavyweights Henry Dreyfuss Associates, had a teaching stint at Auckland University and a sabbatical alongside Chuck Pelly (best known for global consultancy DesignworksUSA) in California.

In the US, he recalls being told "for heaven's sake, don't start doing any drawing until you've got the facts".

"And that's just totally stayed with me. What were the issues that needed to be dealt with? What could people not do that they needed to? You don't need to be a prima donna to address that. You need to approach it intelligently, you need to be all ears. All the antenna have to be up, and you often don't get the answers you want because people don't know how to express their needs, but if you observe and ask them further questions . . . "

One of Haythornthwaite's earliest local projects was a portable work station for New Zealand Post Office tellers. In the mid-1970s more women were joining the workforce. Haythornthwaite conducted a "human factors review". The upshot? Lower counter heights and the removal of equipment that led to broken fingernails and snagged stockings.

Haythornthwaite says design teaches people to see. "And it's seeing that gives the opportunity for answers."

He grew up in a family of big-picture thinkers and relationship builders. His father Bill was in advertising and public relations; his mother Ann was an aspiring opera singer turned haberdasher, who valued personalised customer service. His childhood was shaped by entrepreneurial spirit — houses that were under constant modification, extended overseas travel, and hard, hard work. In 1959, there was another defining moment when his parents took him to see evangelical preacher Billy Graham, confirming his belief in God and Christianity.

"I have been given the privilege to create and that's the way we've been made. We've been made to engage with people, we've been made for joy and design brings joy. If it's good, it's delightful, it's beautiful, it brings joy and contentedness."

Juxtapose all of that with the bohemia and so-called "organised anarchy" of Auckland University's Elam School of Art and Design. The class photo from 1964 shows Haythornthwaite alongside prestigious alumni — Ian Scott, Terry Stringer, Michael Dunn, Barbra Tuck, Richard Killeen, Carole Shepheard, Paul Dibble, Ann Robinson and more.

An illuminative tale from Michael Smythe's book: Elam staff and students are ceremoniously destroying the plaster casts of artistic antiquity, pitching them down the Grafton Gully slope, when Haythornthwaite rescues a bust of Homer and places him in the Elam design studio.

"Safe from modernising historians, Homer silently informed students that design was as much about thinking as doing and the best outcomes were poetic rather than prosaic," writes Smythe.

Haythornthwaite says Elam was "a marvellous environment . . . because it's totally unreliable. You can do anything you want, but there is a structure and that support is there. It doesn't prepare you just to be a painter or sculptor or designer or a film-maker — you can be anything you want, you just have to go after the piece of it you're looking for."

Some days, that might require selling your brand new house on the North Shore. Haythornthwaite and his wife Carole, a Long Beach hairdresser he met during his American years, did just that when he needed money for the tooling, manufacture and packaging of a new office product.

"I had a friend coming out from California, and I asked him if he could bring me a rolodex. I had no intention of making anything like that, but I thought 'I'm going to pull this thing apart and see how it works' . . . I thought, 'it's good, but I think I can do something that's better and simpler and costs less'."

He made the FlipFile (which appeared in an international Nescafe campaign) and the Forget-Me-Not — a household pinboard augmented with slots for scissors and pens and keys. Three months later, he sold the designs, covered costs and had enough leftover for a house.

"If you're not brave, you're just tinkering. You've got to break through all the ceilings."

All four of Haythornthwaite's sons have made careers in design. He credits Carole with the "incredibly practical feedback" that has refined so much of his own work.

"Need drives direction," he says. "You have to dream things in context to the needs."

New Zealanders have a history of inventiveness, "but if you invent a mousetrap today, people don't necessarily beat a path to your door because there's more to the story. It's the product and the brand and the whole experience. When I was running my consultancy, almost every day someone would say 'I've got a great idea'. The best thing I could do was say 'okay — but tell me, what is the unmet need there'."

In 2000, aged 55, Haythornthwaite sold his company to his associates. PHD morphed into phd3 and the former founder started pursuing projects that would encourage the integration of "design thinking" into the very core of New Zealand businesses.

There is nothing, he says, that can't be improved by design.

"The products, the brand, the service offered — it's the experience that people are engaging with and that's what they take away. And if it's well designed and every single touchpoint is saying the same thing, even though it's doing something slightly different, you form a very, very clear picture."

Companies need a culture of authenticity, says Haythornthwaite. They must be committed to being good "to the bottom of their feet".

"If a company doesn't have that, if they don't clearly understand why they exist . . . it's not about money, money is the by-product."

Three years ago, he took a group of Australian company executives to Denmark, visiting small businesses and the giants such as Lego and Velux.

"What you could see was that culture and purpose drive their organisations. They are so clear about where they're going to go, and why they exist."

A successful business, he says, must know exactly what the world would miss if that business disappeared.

"That's fundamental, because that drives your competitive organisational strategies and then it drives your competencies — and then it drives the outcomes."

Does Haythornthwaite ever stop thinking? He suspects the last thing he sketched on a napkin might have been the word "why". He and Carole live on a farmlet in Waimate North. Recently, he designed a "simple fence".

And then: "I couldn't help designing a way of tightening wire. I want to see refinement of detail. Even though it's that man's world of rough and tough stuff, to me it needs to be simple and better resolved.

"I love it. Honestly, it's part of my soul. It's just part of who you are. I'm always picking things up and watching people do things and saying there must be a better way."

PETER HAYTHORNTHWAITE: DESIGN GENERATION RUNS UNTIL APRIL 25 AT AUCKLAND'S OBJECTSPACE AS PART OF ITS MASTERS OF CRAFT SERIES. AN ACCOMPANYING BOOK, WRITTEN BY MICHAEL SMYTHE, IS PUBLISHED BY RIM BOOKS.