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Oh, what a treasure we had in Crown Lynn!

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If there is any message to come out of the new book about former Crown Lynn design genius, Mark Cleverley, it is that unbeknown to most New Zealanders, Crown Lynn really was a world force in the design and decoration of dinnerware and china ornaments.

Mr Cleverley is a living treasure in the New Zealand design profession. He pioneered new concepts and innovative and sometimes courageous, design in areas as diverse as architecture, postage stamps, packaging, graphics and ceramics; as well as being a legend to several generations of design students whom he has taught.

And of course, he was the man who, in 12 years, took Crown Lynn design to the top of its game.

Now honoured by his peers as a Master of Craft, and the subject of a new book, ‘Mark Cleverley: Designer’, he entertained the large crowd at the recent Going West Books and Writers Festival in Titirangi and treated the appreciative audience to lively and sometimes interactive reminiscences about a time when Kiwis were innovating in many fields and were “showing the world how it’s done”.

The great pity is that TV wasn’t there; this warm bath of nostalgia for an age when Kiwi creativity was bursting out all over would have made an unforgettable documentary.

Today, perhaps the overriding memory of Crown Lynn is that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, every New Zealand household had at least one Crown Lynn dinner set. It was our ‘every-day ware’ and that rather tends to disguise the fact that some of these every-day Crown Lynn designs were really good by any international standard.

Mark joined Crown Lynn in 1967 at a time of exploration and expansion into shapes and decorations that were attuned to international tastes and trends. But the sales could barely keep up with demand for new designs. So, on the one hand, while some of our finest industrial designers of the era, including Mark and chief designer Dave Jenkin, were investing their professional energy into producing world-class quality, salesmen were sticking transfers on product to create a ‘new design’ sample to take down-country. Mark and David pushed the limits of what was possible, as Mark put it “We took the Murray Curvex [ceramic printing] machine apart and rebuilt it. We did more with it than it was ever thought possible”.

It sounds like a recipe for potential disaster but it saw Crown Lynn ware came on in leaps and bounds. Indeed the results were so good that Sir Arthur Bryan, chairman of Wedgewood, that most iconic of names in ceramics, said no single pottery in the UK could do all the things Crown Lynn could do.

During this time Mark Cleverley and his colleagues vastly expanded decorating techniques and created ware that sold in Australia, Canada and the USA. Designs like Autumn Splendour and Green Bamboo “sold in huge quantities” and Sapphire was “one of the most successful designs ever”.

The team also explored Aboriginal and Maori designs. The Maori fish-hook motif was used on ware designed for Bellamy’s, the parliamentary restaurant (apparently the then MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan insisted that a Maori design be used). Ngakura ware was created for the tourist trade and proved very popular. Crown Lynn ware was also chosen for a major exhibition at New Zealand House in London and for the 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan.

Unfortunately, the 1970s marked both the water mark and the beginning of the end of this era of incredible commercial creativity, when New Zealanders across a vast field of endeavours, discovered that they were at least the equal of the world’s best and very often, better.

By 1974 Crown Lynn had become incorporated into the new Ceramco conglomerate. Inevitably this led to internal change and a new business culture. Five years later, Mark Cleverley decided that he had achieved all he could at Crown Lynn and moved on to a new career in teaching design.

Crown Lynn pottery production continued for another decade before the door opened to cheap imported dinnerware and this brand, once a household name, ceased and the business closed its doors.

The great irony in the early years of the 21st century is that the brand, which we once took for granted, a product that was everywhere, has now become iconic New Zealand ware, highly valued by collectors.