Considering Frank Carpay

LOUIS LE VAILANT

When the 1950s Show exhibition opened at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1992 there had not been a substantial exhibition (or publication) referring to New Zealand visual, architectural and decorative arts history of that decade. Pioneering in its approach, the 1950s Show was a touchstone for further responses.

FRANK CARPAY Untitled design for screen printing (birds) c. 1970

A participant in the curatorial team for this exhibition, Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins has continued to explore the works and lives of the designers of that period. Ten years later, Frank Carpay was celebrated at the Hawke's Bay Museum, the culmination of a trilogy of shows in which Lloyd-Jenkins has rejuvenated interest in the wallpaper and textile designs of William Mason and the fabric designs of Avis Higgs.

In this striking exhibition and accompanying publication, Lloyd-Jenkins finally gives due recognition to the life and work of Dutch-born designer Frank Carpay (1917-1985). Previously, we have only known of Frank Carpay during his employment with the Auckland commercial pottery, Crown Lynn. He was employed as a designer from 1953-56 of one-off pieces in the 'Specials Department'.

FRANK CARPAY La Femme du Potier 1953
Crown Lynn earthenware

In the monograph, three major additions have been made to the Carpay story: his time in the Netherlands, the intervening post-Crown Lynn years and his reinvention as a textile designer and manufacturer.

FRANK CARPAY El Sombrero De Tres Picos 1953
Crown Lynn earthenware

The discussion of the pre-New Zealand period adds depth to Carpay's training, influences and early career opportunities. Most vividly drawn in this section is the breadth of reading material to which Carpay was exposed and the range of work he produced as a professionally trained designer. There is a more thorough glimpse of the brief, yet pivotal, time spent with Pablo Picasso and his work at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, France in 1950. At Picasso's insistence, Carpay met with two other pottery decorators, Roger Capron and Roger Picault, also working in Vallauris. Carpay returned home with several of their works. Although Carpay presented a work to Picasso, regrettably, there remains the deliciously tantalising question of why the gift was not reciprocated.

Following this visit to France, Carpay went on to establish his own smail commercial pottery, Ambacht Volendam, producing hand-decorated ceramics. While his ambition was to create work independently, his success was undone by the economic downturn and by a less than satisfactory business partner. With the pottery business proving unfeasible, it was closed. Carpay's venture had put him to the test, so he returned to work as a graphic designer. These difficulties can be seen as inspirational, but as Lloyd-Jenkins makes apparent, they were the genesis of a chilling pattern of success and failure to follow in New Zealand.

FRANK CARPAY [Apples] 1953
Crown Lynn earthenware

Carpay's passage from the Netherlands to New Zealand is now given greater detail: unemployed Carpay saw an image of Auckland City featuring. palm trees on a postcard. He wrote to directly to John Allum (then Mayor of Auckland) for the name of a pottery where he could find work. As a result, this letter was passed to Tom Clark, who created a job for him at his Crown Lynn factory. Arriving in New Zealand in 1953, Carpay joined others like Mirek Smisek and ex-Wedgwood thrower Ernest Shufflebottom. They had been recruited to the 'Specials Department' of the fledgling Crown Lynn to produce more upmarket works from their existing commercial production-line wares.

As an assured designer, Carpay was immediately able to begin articulating his existing ideas on numerous readymade production line blanks. There is both fluidity and individuality in the painting of these pots and there appears little evidence of trial and error. As he quite quickly produced hundreds of works, there was seemingly no end to his creative capacity as his productivity flourished at Crown Lynn. Lloyd-Jenkins is able to shed light on the natural limitations of the domestic functional ware as a starting point for his designs and the subsequent use of individually thrown wares from the factory.

FRANK CARPAY Royal Visit earthenware
Crown Lynn 1953

As can be seen in pieces such as El Sombrero de Tres Picos, the spirit of Picasso's Vallauris works had left a distinct impression. Carpay's designs showed a mixture of regulation and control as well as a sense of enjoyment. They are constantly alive with spontaneity and invention. they remain linear with little evidence of the characteristic Delftware watercolour techniques in his designs. This is significant now that we know that Carpay declined work at de Delft Blauw factory back in the Netherlands.

Frank Carpay demonstrates his decorating technique at the Crown Lynn stand, Auckland 1953
(Photograph: Sparrow Industrial Photography)

Carpay's one-off designs were meant to go into wider production. Tom Clark set strategies in place to increase the market acceptance of Carpay's work. He had work accepted into art society exhibitions, where he won awards and was critically acclaimed, working displays and at department stores. Some were retailed through Brenner Associates and Stocktons. Despite these strategic attempts to introduce Carpay's designs to the New Zealand market, they failed to be well received by consumers.

In attempting to portray the characteristics of British design in the 1950s, historian Fiona MacCarthy has said that it is 'Modest and not too grandiose in scale. . . not too logical in form. . . a reasonable compromise between beauty and utility, neither over stressing beauty till it degenerates into ornament, nor overstressing beauty till it becomes bare and hard.'1 If there is a resounding character evident, she emphasises that modern English design was acceptable only if it embodied simplicity, while lacking pretentiousness and reticence.

Frank Carpay in his studio

If New Zealand's taste had been conditioned from the homeland, we inherited a sense of moderation and ~ disposition for caution. A much more commonsense, even puritanical approach was expected of New Zealand designs. Simplicity and modesty were to the fore and it could be said a suppression of personal identity, as well. As evidenced in the wider reception of Carpay's work, it was not yet time for the cult of personality - the designer as maestro.

Entrepreneurs, like Tom Clark generally chose designers like Carpay out of economic interest to develop their business. The lack of market potential revealed itself as a stubborn obstacle that moderated the type of objects that Carpay could produce. As Lloyd-Jenkins describes, the market preference remained with imported fancy goods, while utilitarian items for daily consumption were to be New Zealand made. The reticence of the market, not the aspirations of the manufacturer determined Carpay's downfall. It was with a sense of commercial pragmatism that Tom Clark had to let Carpay go. It can be said that Clark was not acting out of any sense of idealism, but more to stave off foreign competition. The insularity of the New Zealand market, by repelling foreign influences such as Carpay is ironical with the acceptance of imported and sometimes direct copies of British designs that became typical production lines at Crown Lynn.

Frank Carpay (left) and David Jenkin display their Handwerk range for an Auckland Star photographer in 1953

Leaving Crown Lynn, the second aspect of Lloyd Jenkins' work is augmented and given new depth. Trying to find a niche in the Auckland job market, Carpay updated his drawing portfolio with some New Zealand inspired mock-up designs for Innes, a soft-drink manufacturer, Airest and TEAL airline. Unable to find design-related work, he spent some years teaching at Howick District High School.

Here Lloyd-Jenkins discusses the obstacles that many recent migrants encountered in trying to establish a place to fit in their newly chosen country. Carpay and his advanced designs had challenged the staunchly egalitarian and regulated society. It was not an easy time for him or his wife but he managed to maintain his presence by exhibiting paintings in art society shows, giving pot decoration demonstrations, teaching at the WEA and tackling mural commissions for domestic and commercial interiors.

Frank Carpay holding El Sombrero de Tres Picos and La Femme du Potier, 1953

Shifting focus, the third major contribution towards considering Carpay is the introduction of his later work as a textile designer and printer. Essential in recognising and rounding out Carpay's career, the textiles are fully examined. This undoubtedly heralds a crucial change in the stature of Carpay.

Carpay used the art equipment and resources at Howick District High School to develop his screen-printing techniques in the late 1950s. Cautiously, he began to re-direct his work onto fabrics. Carpay's own entrepreneurial expertise had been formed when he started his pottery in the Netherlands. He repeats this model when he established a screen-printing studio in the basement of his home in Titirangi in the early 1960s. At the outset, he printed with placemats inspired by Maori rock drawings. Lloyd-Jenkins makes it clear that Carpay's 'market lay in a small group of people who were willing to furnish their homes in a progressive style. This was the same group that Crown Lynn had relied on for the sales of Handwerk.'

FRANK CARPAY Labels for Innes soft drink bottles 1956

Carpay then struck on the idea of using white towelling to create beach.towels and generate a wider market to sell his work. With his wife Carla, he was able to work independently and self-sufficiently, unencumbered by restraints found in earlier partnerships and commercial ventures. It seemed that at last Carpay could juggle and control the attributes of the artist as entrepreneur, capitalist, financier, manager, promoter, merchant and salesman all rolled into one.

The beachwear that developed from the initial towels ranged from beach robes, jackets, and hooded tops to beach bags. They immediately gained acceptance in the emerging youth market. Graphic designs also produced at this time, like Untitled (black birds and red dots), were startling and still retain their crispness, energy and sense of modernity. Unlike the earlier pieces made for Crown Lynn, which relied on a certain acceptance on inherited taste tied to England, the new fabric designs, like GO GO, captivated a youth market inspired by television and music. The business did well, gaining both critical as well as financial success. Carpay had at last found a niche and the market had at last found him. The golden weather lasted through the seventies. When a batch of cloth for the new seasons production arrived and proved faulty, it was enough to send his humble business under (in the late '70s). Unfortunately, the pattern of success and failure was to repeat itself and it proved his last great creative venture.

Frank and Carla Carpay on the deck of their home immediately after they arrived from Holland

Like the publication, the Frank Carpay exhibition replicates the linked chapters. With understated precision, exhibition designer Josephine Hughes has realised the layout of the Hawke's Bay show, clearly representing the ceramic, graphic and textile designs.

Only a small number of ceramic pieces have been selected. There are enough key examples of his Dutchmade Ambacht Volendam pieces as well as his Handwerk designs to illustrate the dynamic breadth of Carpay's repertoire. Central to the installation are the superb graphic designs that combine a mix of the earlier European and new designs prototyped for New Zealand. These are, of course, pivotal and underpin of all his work. Without this strong sense of design and technical expertise neither the ceramics nor the textiles could have been produced. The exhibition culminates in the textile section, where the revelatory aspect of Carpay's work is discovered. These textiles displayed, it could be said for the first time, manage to signal the freedom and new possibilities that these materials offered.

FRANK CARPAY Fly TEAL, 1956

If Carpay's legacy has grown since his death, the Hawke's Bay Museum has played a part of this recognition. By highlighting designers such as William Mason and Avis Higgs, as well as Frank Carpay, we have a strong base from which to celebrate.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 109 Summer 2003-04