New Zealand Home & Building, October-November 1998
off the wall — Brush up your design IQ with our new series on design legends of the 20th century
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s William Mason was the agent provocateur of decor revolution. In the age of riotous wallpapers, Mason Handprints were the last word in high-style, competing with the best international designs and radically reforming the way New Zealanders approached their home decor.
Born in Napier in 1919, Mason trained as a teacher before the war shunted him into the Navy. After the war, he studied art at London's famous Goldsmith's College and, with the help of a war bursary, textile printing at the London Central School.
Returning to Wellington in 1950, Mason had some success as a painter but stumbled into design after winning first and second prize in a wallpaper design competition in 1961. This encouraged him to set up Mason Handprints, with his wife Maureen, initally to manufacture hand-printed fabrics. Then, in 1965, he branched out into hand-made wallpapers.
In time, Mason's become one of the most successful design-based companies in New Zealand history. From Carterton, William Mason designed interiors and wallpapers for New Zealand's overseas embassies and, in 1966, his designs were used to furnish the New Zealand suite at the new Hong Kong Hilton Hotel.
The Masons' entrée to the wallpaper business was well timed. By the late 1960s, Modernism, which in the fifties had been innovative and sharp, was beginning to lose its edge. At the same time, an affluent and highly vocal youth culture was fuelling the pursuit of an individual style. Whereas a decade earlier no one needed 'a self image', by the late 1960s those who lacked one were seen as terminally old-fashioned.
'Aubrey', a wallpaper inspired by the work of fin-de-siecle designer Aubrey Beardsley, was produced by Mason in black and white as well as red and gold.
William Mason cared little that most New Zealanders considered his papers 'too much'. He had a particular clientele in mind. Mason Handprints were for the hip and suited the Victorian and Edwardian homes that were then being rediscovered, and redecorated, by a new generation of city dwellers. In suburbs like Parnell, in Auckland, and Thorndon, in Wellington, Mason papers became an important ingredient in this round of inner-city revitalisation.
William Mason was highly aware of international trends in decoration. His works borrowed widely from designs that were fashionable internationally and then transformed them, with a deft touch, into something distinctive and original.
Because he was at heart an eclectic, motivated more by the pursuit of high style than modernist dogma, Mason was able to provide designs for an adventurous market seeking wall coverings that screamed NOW. But he also attracted a more conservative following who wanted to appear up-to-date, but shied away from the aggressively modern. As a result, some papers were inspired by sixties Op and Pop Art, while others drew on historical styles such as Neo-Victorianism and the Art and Crafts revival.
Inspired by the work of the fin-de-siecle designer, Aubrey Beardsley, Mason's 'Aubrey' paper tuned into the revival of interest in Beardsley's designs during the late 1960s. As well as producing the paper in an 'authentic' black and white, Mason made it available in a sensuous combination of red and gold. The use of metallic inks were a Mason trademark that gave his papers a sophisticated, lustrous quality.
Whatever their sources, Mason's papers pulsated with energy. Even his historically-sourced designs often had new life breathed into them through his completely fearless use of psychedelic colour. He was a master of pattern and of the synthesis of colour and graphic design.
By the mid-1970s, Mason Handprints was enjoying wide success. Then, just as it appeared the company might expand into the Australian market and establish its own factory, William Mason sold the business to Resene Paints. In what seems a characteristically seventies' decision, he chose to seek spiritual enlightenment over international success.
When he retired in 1974, Mason could look back on a decade that had seen local interiors undergo a radical transformation and the New Zealand psyche move away from the conformity and dullness that characterised the early sixties.
An exhibition of William Mason's textiles and wallpapers is on show at the Hawke's Bay Museum until February 21, 1999. Mason Handprints Ltd still operates in Wellington, and although the company is now under the ownership of David Cooper, it prints a number of William Mason's original designs. Phone (04-939 6443).
Douglas lloyd-Jenkins is a design historian and the head of design history and theory at Unitec in Auckland.