Philanthropist Christine Fernyhough, author of the bestselling Road to Castle Hill, shares her personal collection of everyday objects, housed in her 1950s bach, in her new book The Butterfly House.
1 Why did you and your husband ( businessman John Fernyhough) decide to buy a simple fibrolite bach at Mangawhai?
It was when John was getting sick with cancer and we didn't know how long we had. My children were starting to have children and we wanted somewhere within an hour or so from Auckland where we could go and build some memories. It looked like a butterfly, poised above the estuary. I've always loved fibrolite baches; they engender real beach life - mumus, buckets and spades and sand in your toes. A lot of baches have become so gentrified no one comes because you can't relax. The great thing about Formica and vinyl is if you spill anything, you can just wipe it up. We started off with one-bedroom and added on as the family grew, so it's now a very large fibrolite bach.
2 Did the bach prompt your collection of what's become the Museum of Everyday Objects?
Yes when I first started collecting for the bach there were garage sales all over Mangawhai; every little town had a trading shop but they're all gone now. I never buy online - I need to see and feel things first. I started off collecting things commonly found in homes in the 60s, so there's Murano glass, but increasingly I got into New Zealand made. People had much more time on their hands before television and took enormous pride in the handmade. They'd personalise things, like hand-painting a kiwi or tui on a Sovereign wooden tray. I've got pieces by folk artists like Jane Brinkley, a mother-of-11 and midwife who carved wooden objects with a penknife in the '40s, and Popeye Beavis (Captain Adair) who combined his love of sailing and the Old Testament in shell-covered boxes and paintings.
3 Does Crown Lynn play a big part in your collection?
It does because it was mass produced so it really was in every home. Tom Clark made a big effort to bring in international talent like Ernest Shufflebotham from Wedgwood, Dorothy Thorpe from California and Mirek Smisek from Bohemia. My favourite was Frank Carpay who did avantgarde shapes influenced by Picasso but no matter how hard Tom tried to get people away from rosebuds and thatched cottages they couldn't take the quantum leap to Frank Carpay. Crown Lynn swans made before 1970 are increasing in value but buyers need to look out for replicas.
4 You still use your bach. Were you nervous about opening it to the public over Labour Weekend?
No, people were very respectful; lots had questions and were keen to share photos from their own collections. We didn't bother with security. Most of the objects are only worth between $20 and $80. People have this idea that because they're not expensive, they're not worth collecting but they are important as they're our history. Manufacturers like Crown Lynn, Peter Pan Plastics, carpet and glass industries flourished because of Government protection at the time.
5 Do some of the souvenirs commonly collected make you cringe?
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Yes, Maori imagery was seen as intriguing and used extensively by the English potteries in Stoke-on-Trent. It wasn't seen as appropriation then. One of the worst examples of offence to Maori was by the New Zealand Sports Foundation when they sold as a fundraiser in 1972 bourbon bottles in the shape of Hone Heke, Hongi Hika and Te Rauparaha.
6 What everyday object from our era will be in a future collection 30 years from now?
A single-use plastic bag. I'm keeping one.
7 Your book The Road to Castle Hill: A High Country Love Story sold 30,000 copies. Was it hard to return to Auckland five years ago?
Not really because I'd done 10 years and was missing my grandchildren. Farming is not for the faint hearted. I have enormous admiration for farmers and believe they're in the main respectful of the land and waterways. I think they take an unfair amount of blame for environmental degradation when a lot of it's due to poor infrastructural choices in the cities.
8 Growing up in Huapai, what were your parents' aspirations for you?
I was born during the war. My mother's family had an orchard at Huapai. In the 1950s parents had the idea, particularly fathers, that girls going to university before marriage was a waste of taxpayers' money. So I did secretarial, married and had my kids young, and then went back to university and teaching in my 30s. I'm hoping my grand-daughter Alice will manage the 24-acre farm I recently bought near Mangawhai. Farming teaches self-reliance and creative problem-solving.
9 Do you like being defined as a 'philanthropist'?
I've been really lucky with the choices I've been able to make, so everything I've done has been voluntary, whether it's starting Books in Homes with Alan Duff 25 years ago, the Gifted Schools Programme for kids in low decile schools or the Limited Service Volunteer programme at Trentham, Burnham and Whenuapai. I was proud to receive an award for service last week at the University of Auckland's For All Our Futures campaign which has raised $380 million for research. It's harder for charities to find volunteers now because people are so busy just surviving and trying desperately to get on the home ownership ladder.
10 What are you working on at the moment?
Six years ago, a group mostly from the University of Auckland started the Creative Thinking Project to push for more arts in the curriculum. There's been too great an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at the expense of the arts. We're part-way through a research programme led by Professor Peter O'Connor to see which schools have an arts rich curriculum and encourage curiosity, problem solving and risk taking.
11 What does your collection of everyday objects tell us about our society in the mid-20th century?
It was a time of homemaking. A time of putting roses in a vase, making Christmas decorations, doing embroidery and turning your sheets upside down to keep them going a bit longer. A time of woodwork for boys and home science for girls. A time of family board games, flagons of beer, very little wine and slow cars. A time of shared pot-luck dinners; someone brought the coleslaw and someone else the chops. One of the unexpected benefits of making this book is that it's being used as a tool to help people with dementia because so many of the objects shown in the book act as memory triggers.
12 Would you want to go back to that time?
Yes and no. There was plenty of family time, near full employment, home ownership. There was a 'keeping and treasuring' attitude as opposed to today's 'disposable' world. But New Zealand is now the richer for being a multi-cultural country and it is cool to be in touch with the world on today's devices.
• Mid-Century Living: The Butterfly House Collection by Christine Fernyhough, out now, RRP $60