Railways Studios: How a government design studio helped build New Zealand is the second title we explore in Design & Books. I (DA editor Nicole Arnett Phillips) was recently talking with an artist about the nostalgia he experienced discovering Ross Murray’s tourism inspired contemporary work. We talked about the use of our landscape in period graphic design and the zeitgeist of the age produced by different graphic technologies. As the conversation unravelled, it left me thinking about our national identity and also about what elements make our design style visually distinct also what about the work resonated with us as visual practitioners.
The Railways Studios were a government department, with a focus on the infrastructure and a mandate to help build and connect New Zealand. The agency worked beyond transit and tourism taking on a breadth of commercial and retail projects—their work dominating Aotearoa outdoor advertising from 1920 through 1987. The studio’s outputs ranged from posters to billboards, editorial publications and brochures.
The pictorial descriptions of life in Aotearoa towns and the remarkable landscape each ‘destination’ offers are one of the things that make the Railways graphic work so iconic and so quintessential to the visual vocabulary of our country.
Whatever the promotion or imperative – travel, economic development, enlistment in the armed services, health and safety, the Railway Studios played a role in delivering critical information to the New Zealand public. Its designs influenced public attitudes, shaping how New Zealanders saw themselves and genuinely contributed to building the nation by advancing our infrastructure, economy and society.
One hundred years on from the Studio’s establishment Te Papa published a definitive history of railways advertising, the studio processes, their people and also examines the Railway studios role in our design and art history.
Written by Peter Alsop, Neill Atkinson and Katherine Milburn. The book was designed by Peter Alsop who is a keen collector of New Zealand art with a particular interest in tourism and publicity as well as mid-century landscapes.
The 376-page book is as visually rich as you would expect with over 600 images of the studio’s output, the studio spaces, designers and signwriters who worked there as well as process images.
The government-owned Railways Studio (originally a public service unit of the department of Railways before going on to service private-sector clients), was the most prodigious producer of outdoor advertising and commercial art in Aotearoa, it endured 67 years of social and political flux.
There are several interesting angles with content in this book but of particular fascination to the DA audience is the visual documentation of the studio environment. Photographs chart the development over the 67 years the studio operated giving evolution in the technology and pre-digital production processes they worked with.
The people working within the studio are also documented – not only through the visual survey but also in a sequence of biographies in the books backmatter pages 358-364. I must also confess that after seeing so many men represented, I was delighted to discover Mary Janssen (now Vermy) featured!
The main focus is of course on the output, and although there is a short chronology, the book is primarily organised by category in a design gallery of visual outcomes. Throughout, there are themes of national identity, regional development, connectivity and social discourse. Alsop notes that the work produced by the studio was controversial – being in the public gallery and so widely viewed (not to mention the scale of some of the billboards and hoardings) the Railways Studios work tended to polarise people. This book asks the reader to reconsider the work, taking into account its social significance and place in art history. The gallery serves to shine a spotlight on the surprising diversity and impact of work they produced.
Throughout the gallery section of the book work in progress images show the evolution from concept to finished art.
The studio was responsible for environmental graphics and architectural details in Railways properties
This is a substantial book 265mm x 250mm case bound with a 32mm spine. The first 176 pages are printed on uncoated stock with the balance on a satin allowing for the vibrancy of reproduction within the design gallery. The book also has a gatefold feature in the latter part of the gallery.
This book is such a great fit for the DA audience. It is a record of our profession’s past; it explores the visual heritage of our Nation and the ideas that shaped our economic development – I believe it belongs on the shelf of every Aotearoa design studio.
Of course, more broadly it will appeal to anyone with interest in train travel, tourism, and history (Perhaps given the timing a good Christmas gift too!?)
Railways Studios: How a government design studio helped build New Zealand.
Publisher: Te Papa Press
Publication date: November 2020
NZ RRP (incl. GST): $70.00
Extent: 376 pages
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