An exhibition at the Hawke’s Bay Museum in 2002 showcased the textiles of Frank Carpay alongside his ceramics and for the first time drew attention to the contribution that he made to the New Zealand fashion story. Up until then it had been the designs he created for the Crown Lynn potteries in the early 1950s that had earned him a place in local art history rather than the 25 years he spent in fashion and textile printing.
Born in Heusden in the Netherlands in 1917, Frank studied design at the 's-Hertogenbosch Technical College, learning both design theory and practices like graphic design, ceramics, screen printing and metal work. Following the war years when he was drafted into service, he was employed in the field of ceramics and worked in an artisan workshop, Het Edele Ambacht, where his talent was quickly recognised and rewarded with a leading role in their operation. However times were tough in post-war Holland and in 1950 he was laid off, an opportunity he used to travel and explore what was going on in European ceramics. This trip included a meeting at Vallauris in the South of France with Pablo Picasso, who Frank says "kindly helped" him with contacts that were to help him develop his art practice. By 1953 the economy in Holland had not improved and Frank, with his new wife Carla, emigrated to New Zealand to take up a position with Crown Lynn in their 'Specials Department'. This division, in contrast to their mass production, was focused on experimentation, innovation and on the handmade one-off with an eye to commercialising the most successful developments.
Frank was given a very free hand at Crown Lynn and his work was showcased around the country at Art Societies and design stores. He gave live demonstrations of his skills in applying modernist decoration to ceramics and the finished products were offered for sale in upmarket department stores. At home in Titirangi he and Carla found the support of a rapidly growing creative Dutch émigré community that included fashion designers Robert Leek and Rosemarie Muller, for whom Carla sewed for a time, fashion photographer Ted Mahieu, model Else van den Muysenbergh, furniture designer Peter Smeele and studio potters Simon and Tina Engelhard, who were later to become founding members of the Brown’s Mill collective.
In the three years between 1951 and 1954 some 10,583 new immigrants arrived from Holland and by 1968 the Dutch were the biggest single group of non-British immigrants in New Zealand. Despite their apparent success at settling in and the contribution they were making to the flourishing local economy, Dutch immigrants were not universally welcome. Egalitarianism was the New Zealand ideal but as Bill Pearson wrote in his 1952 essay, Fretful Sleepers, it was not a belief that all are equal but rather the belief that in this society all "the varieties of human quality and personality" could be levelled into conformity. The culture here was British and the Dutch were just too 'continental'.
While Frank’s ceramic work received critical acclaim it did not achieve commercial success and after just four years he was "let go" from Crown Lynn. With a family to support he sought work and the opportunity to use his creative talent. He found employment as an art teacher at Howick District High School and in this role he revived his knowledge of screenprinting. It was here that Frank saw new potential and, in 1960, he and Carla established Frank Carpay Designs Limited. They began screen printing beach towels, operating out of the basement of the family home in Titirangi. The limitations of the fabric with its irregular surface meant that the print designs needed to be simple and bold, allowing him to draw on his knowledge and love of the modernist idiom.
European modernists had drawn on the art of Africa and Polynesia for their inspiration and in New Zealand educationalist Gordon Tovey was sending young Māori art teachers and advisers out to schools to teach and reinvigorate the practice of Māori arts and crafts. In this context Frank created his textile prints, drawing inspiration from the heritage and nature of his new home in the Pacific. He chose titles such as Ohope and Waihi for his prints to reference the beach environment he was designing for and to resonate with a local audience. And resonate they did, perhaps because of the relaxed informality of the beach their bright colours and bold patterns were appreciated and immediately found ready buyers. Frank had discovered a niche that he could happily fill. The success of the towels inspired a steady expansion into other beach wear which they asked their friend Robert Leek, to design for them. The range included cover ups, beach jackets, hooded tops, shifts and beach bags.
Frank and Carla built up a successful boutique business that they were able to finance and operate on their own from home. Every year Frank would design a completely new range of prints and they would spend the winter months printing and preparing for the summer when they would load up the car and travel around the beachside towns selling their wares. They drew on the support of their Dutch friends to produce publicity photos for the label with Robert Leek and his sister Else van den Muijsenbergh as models and Ted Mahieu behind the camera.
Frank made some attempts to expand the range of work he was producing and again with design input from Robert Leek they produced a line of linen shift dresses and tops with printed panels in 1970. These however didn’t achieve the success of the towelling range and were discontinued. Dependence on this single line made the business vulnerable and indeed it was a shipment of faulty towelling which brought an end to this independent business venture.
Frank once more found work designing for someone else. In 1974 he went to work for R Kendell and Co Ltd. The company had hit on a winner with a style of boxy shirt made in a graphic printed polyester knit. They were printing the designs onto cut panels so that the print was positioned in the same place on each garment. The fabric was initially printed by Foster Clark but when they closed, Kendell bought the screenprinting plant and took on Frank to design and print for them. The print process was quite sophisticated and allowed sharper lines, finer detail and the application of more colours than had been possible with the simple set up in the Titirangi basement. These fashionable prints also required graphic precision and Frank was able to draw on his early training and work in Holland to develop designs that now had a wide appeal in the New Zealand and Australian markets.
When fashion changed and the graphic prints were no longer in, Kendell’s kept, but split off, the screenprinting business which now began producing corporate flags. Despite having reached retirement age Frank continued working with the business until his sudden death in 1985.
Today Frank Carpay’s ceramic work achieves the financial success and recognition that he did not enjoy in his lifetime. Recognition and acknowledgement of his contribution through his textile design rounds out his New Zealand legacy.
Text by Doris de Pont. Banner image courtesy of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 20158. Image © unknown.
Last published January 2018.