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Celebrating Art Deco Style: Napier, New Zealand

In 2014, we travelled to the north island of New Zealand. The normal tourist trail extends through this beautiful country, from the Bay of Islands in the north, to Wellington in the south. The famous volcanic regions of Rotorua, and the Mt Tongariro - Ruapehu National Park region in the centre of the island, are well trodden.

One regional centre we visited, slightly off the tourist radar, has a suprisingly important place in the world of architecture and style.

Napier in New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most remote places of the world and far removed from the European and American cities, where 20th century design evolved. However the town boasts one of the most extensive, intact examples of Art Deco architecture and style. The Art Deco style is generally associated with Paris, Manhattan, Hollywood of Miami Beach.

Art Deco did not happen by accident in Napier. The adoption of Art Deco was in response to the devastation left by the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake on 3 February 1931.

Why Art Deco in Napier?

There were three principal reasons for rebuilding Napier in the Art Deco style. These were:

1. Art Deco was fashionable. The style had spread rapidly following the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs of Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. Art Deco was embraced by a world eager to adopt a new look to match the sweeping changes evident in social behaviour, technology and woman’s rights.

2. The architectural style was cheap to implement. Many households in Napier, were facing the rebuild at the time of the Great Depression. Further, many insurance companies had refused to pay out, maintaining that the earthquake was an "Act of God" not covered by their policies. The architectural response was basically a concrete box that could be cheaply decorated to become a fashion statement.

3. Art Deco suited Napier’s need for a structurally safe form of construction to protect the town from future potential earthquakes. The new buildings were of reinforced concrete, free of previous decorative attachments, many of which had fallen off and killed and injured many people in the earthquake. Low relief patterns that are part of the Art Deco style could be applied to the smooth concrete walls.

Napier-UNESCO World Heritage Site

Although a few Art Deco buildings were replaced in Napier with contemporary structures during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, most of the centre remained intact long enough to become recognized as architecturally unique, and from the 1990s onwards, many buildings have been protected and restored.

As of 2007, Napier has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. According to the World Heritage Trust, when Napier is compared to the other cites noted for their Art Deco architecture, such as Miami Beach, Santa Barbara, Bandung in Indonesia (planned originally as the future capital of Java), and Asmara in Eritrea (built by the Italians as a model colonial city), "none ... surpass Napier in style and coherence".

There are some interesting adaptions to the architectural vernacular of Art Deco represented in Napier that reflect the local environmental, cultural, technological, economic, and historical context. Surviving examples of 1931 Art Deco architecture and their interiors are discussed below.

National Tobacco Building

The building is a concrete box embellished with decorative features in stucco to make a fashion statement.

The arch above the doors has a sunburst of Art Nouveau tendrils tipped by tudor roses the favourite flower of the original owner. The horizontal banding has insets of bottle green tiles. The outer doors of carved wood feature sunbursts and fruit typical of the regions.

The doors are flanked by stucco panels featuring native bulrushes and roses.

The doorway is lit by bronze lamps. The grapes featured in the small panels high on the front wall are representative of Napier’s importance as a wine growing centre.

Decorative details of the Art Deco period are also found on the glass doors with their sweeping metal detailing and leaf work.

Napier Municipal Theatre

The five year refurbishment to improve the capacity of the theatre was completed in 1997.

The foyer lighting although in the Art Deco style was improved to incorporate chrome hardware and tubular and neon fixtures. The carpet is an exact reproduction of the original cubist design.

Use of the mythological female figure in this wall decoration was designed to enable the theatre-goer to enter a fantasy world where every day cares could be left behind.

This photograph of the seating area, illustrates the attentions to detail on the walls walls and ceilings, which are painted in the pastels colours, typical of the Art Deco period.

Criterion Hotel

The Criterion Hotel is a hybrid of Spanish Mission and Art Deco styles. Spanish Mission is evident by use of tiled parapets. Art Deco style is reflected in the verandah profiles and the shopfronts.

Use of simple geometric decoration reflected in the plate rail and chimney with sunburst details.

Inclusion of modern furniture with minimal decoration and simple lines is sympathetic to the Art Deco style.

The stain glass window in stylised Art Deco style reinforces the hotel’s location on Marine Parade – sun, sky and Norfolk pines.

Refurbishment of the hotel entrance incorporating Art Deco detailing:

  • Light fixtures

  • Door and surrounding window treatment

Geometric friezes ziggurat pattern on the column and wave and swirl on the ceiling.

ASB Bank Building

This building may be described as a hybrid. Classical details are reduced in number becoming a more bland and deep set classical façade with rows of columns or shallow pilasters reflecting the Stripped Classical Style. The building also incorporates indigeneous and Art Deco ornament.

The entrance to the building is flanked with two bronze lamp corbels that represent the 'wealth of the tribe' through Maori tradition.

Triangular deco patterns mark the top of the windows combining Moari decoration with an Art Deco flavour.

The interior has a six metre high banking chamber, while the roof is supported by four columns. The ceiling also features decorative Maori patterns, with the coffers plastered with a Kowhaiwhai border, painted in traditional colours of red, black and white.

New Zealand’s Art Deco capital of Napier, celebrates its annual festival in February with a total of 126 events. Over 40,000 people flock from all over the world into Napier to see it transform back in time and enjoy this iconic event.

View the 2017 Festival programme, book your tickets, and start planning your weekend to Napier now! Visit

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