Design & Books… Railways Studios: How a government design studio helped build New Zealand

4 years ago by

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 Studios

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.

This photograph gives a feel for life inside the Studios in the early years (Archives NZ, ABIN W3337 Box 253). Published in Railways Magazine in July 1932 (see page 45), it was captioned as ‘a corner of the storeroom’ of the Publicity Branch.

This photo (Archives NZ, AAVK W3493 Box 378), digitally coloured by Brendan Graham, is the earliest known photograph of Studios’ staff.

This photo of a young man working in the office of the Christchurch Press Company is a rare example of turn-of-the-century commercial art production in New Zealand (ATL, PAColl-8763-4). A lithographic stone with an artwork under development can be seen on the left. Covers for the Christmas editions of the Weekly Press in the background likely date this scene to 1905 or shortly after.

Life inside the Studios in the early years (Archives NZ, AAVK W3493 Box 330). Seven artists are working on decorations for the 1927 royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of York.

The photograph of a printing room in an unknown advertising studio shown opposite was taken by Gordon Burt around 1940 (ATL, 1/2-037148).

The Studios’ poster room was used for producing billboards, and the sign room for painting metal signs. The artist in the sign room in the top photo is Cor Geldof, who in 1954 asked his colleague Alan Love to take a series of photos of life inside the Studios, probably for sending to Geldof’s family overseas.

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!

It has been difficult to establish how many women worked at the Studios, in what was substantively an all-male domain. Mary Janssen (now Vermy) started work at the Studios in 1979 and in 1983 became one of the first two women in New Zealand to complete a signwriting apprenticeship. She was also the first female apprentice in any trade in New Zealand Railways. The photo, taken by the department, shows her receiving her apprenticeship documentation (Mary Vermy Collection).


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.

A detail from the Studios’ 1938–39 poster promoting travel to Lake Wānaka (ATL, Eph-E-RAIL-1930s-04

Napier Carnival 1933, 88 × 58 cm Archives NZ, R18837553 An old note attached to MOTAT’s holding recorded the woman as Stanley Davis’s wife.

Back cover of the Christmas number of the Weekly News in 1940. It has not been definitively linked to the Studios but – like other joint campaigns – it was possibly prepared under its direction, and in this instance was designed by Winton Bristow. This Image from the Peter Alsop Collection.

Stop! Safety First. 1926, 77 × 100 cm NZRLS Collection NON-ATL-NZRLS-009

Maurice Poulton, who designed this tposter was one of a small number of employees who worked in railway advertising for 40 years. He joined the Studios as a cadet artist in 1925, and rose to the position of head of the design studio at head office before his retirement in 1965. The poster was one of several prepared for the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, probably around 1955–60, sized 88 × 58 cm (Peter Alsop Collection).

Throughout the gallery section of the book work in progress images show the evolution from concept to finished art.
A billboard design for Mobiloil (Archives NZ, ABIN W3806).

This design for Boni Bread (Archives NZ, ABIN W3806) is an excellent example of a part-coloured original design, sufficient to guide a billboard artist in completing the work.

Starting in late 1938, and seeking to build on the post-Depression recovery, the Railways Department promoted New Zealand-made goods. At the time, Jockey and Tekau were the type of domestic brands the campaign sought to protect. Tekau is a two-sheet poster; the joins have been digitally removed. The working sketch for Tekau incorporates a grid pattern, a standard drawing technique for transferring images. Tekau Knitwear c.1950, 150 × 100 cm (two-sheet) ATL, Eph-H-COSTUME-1950-01 Below: Tekau Knitwear (sketch, detail) Archives NZ, W3806/24

The studio was responsible for environmental graphics and architectural details in Railways properties
The designer of the main stained-glass windows in the Dunedin railway station has been a mystery for well over 100 years. When the George Troup-designed station was opened in 1906, the Otago Daily Times (20 October) noted Smith & Smith as the windows’ maker, but a designer was not mentioned, and one does not appear to have been named since. Research for this book uncovered a similar design which was quite possibly for a second window before the decision was made to install a matching pair. All evidence points to Ad Howitt being the artist of both designs. The front profile of the locomotive seen in the installed window also appears in another Howitt design. The three panel window shape, the use of the same locomotive and the similar rock work, all point to Howitt. In 2013, the meticulous restoration of one of the station’s windows by stained-glass expert Kevin Casey included the removal of unsightly reinforcing bars and the correction of other installation errors made in 1906. Now, as the image shows, the window looks immaculate. Contemporary glass encases the original as a conservation measure, ensuring that the window will remain a tribute to Howitt’s work for many years to come.


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
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 978-0-9951338-3-9
Buy the book here

If you have a book you’d like us to review email  with details.

Tags : Katherine MilburnNeill AtkinsonPeter AlsopRailways studiosTe Papa

Between the Pages Edu Series: Metallic Foiling & Spotgloss

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 […]

4 years ago by

Between the Pages Edu Series: Top tips and common mistakes of setting your book files up for print

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 […]

4 years ago by

Fresh From The Field — Reset Urban Design Rebrand - By Fluid

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 […]

4 years ago by

Design Assembly's Events & Workshops coming up for 2024

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 […]

4 years ago by

Leave a Reply