Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Decorated hero

All of which brings me neatly on to Napier, the Art Deco capital of New Zealand, where I've broken my journey up to Auckland for two nights. I spent yesterday afternoon taking in the town, which is a ridiculous, glorious riot of sugar-pink and peppermint-green facades, with tall palms crowning the effect: I feel like I'm in an Agatha Christie novel, set in Torquay.

And perhaps this extravagance is entirely apt, since it sprang from such an extravagant catastrophe. The 1931 earthquake razed the previous town to the ground - the museum has pictures, oral histories and newspaper accounts, and it really was as though the world had ended. Yet in response to all that violence they rebuilt something glorious. I begin to see the importance of the history of design and fashion; before, austerely, I felt it was irrelevant. Now, although it's an effect of history rather than a cause, I don't think you can understand people from the past unless you also know how they decorated their homes and themselves.

There are so many resonances in Napier, for example - the desire to be modern, yet also to follow Santa Barbara out of disaster; to make something distinctively different than before yet very much of its time; to be as fashionable as the rest of the world but keep their New Zealand character - that you cannot ignore the Art Deco. Though I understand why, if you lived here, it and all the related tourist industry would become stifling. Like living in an Agatha Christie novel...

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