Gifford Jackson

Michael Smythe
Design colleague, curator and author of Gifford Jackson: New Zealand Industrial Design Pathfinder, published in 2013, by Creationz Consultants.

The name Gifford Jackson is not as familiar as some of the products he designed. The Feltonmix and TurboStream shower units, the Ultimate reflector grill, Shacklock or Atlas stove splashback control panels, a range of Clearlite baths, an AWA transistor radio, and a number of stereograms and clever fold-up BiC filing trays are just a few examples. It is the mark of great design that its author is taken for granted.

Gifford Jackson carved out a career in industrial design when no professional pathway existed for New Zealanders. He spent much of his childhood building model boats and drawing futuristic buildings while excelling academically—he was the 1934 Dux of Devonport Primary School and an ‘A’ student at Takapuna Grammar. Aged only 17 he set off to Glasgow to study naval architecture. In 1943 he trained as an RAF navigator. His interest in American design trends was heighted when he spent his final post-training leave in New York City.

When supervisors found that Jackson had been hiding his airsickness he was classified ‘unsuited to operations’. As relegation to RAF stores duty did not appeal he requested repatriation and arrived home in time to celebrate VE Day. By the end of 1945 he had found employment as a design draughtsman with Fisher & Paykel.

In 1949 a friendship he had formed with a Stage Door Canteen hostess five years earlier led to Jackson being sponsored to work in the United States. Over 17 years he worked with leading industrial design pioneers including Carl Otto, Jay Doblin, Donald Desky, and Norman Bel Geddes. In 1954 his long-held dream of joining the Walter Dorwin Teague consultancy was realised. He worked in the Madison Avenue office for over a decade becoming the senior product designer.

In US design circles, Gifford Jackson became known as the expert on American styling clichés. His article entitled ‘Design styles and clichés’ was published in Industrial Design magazine. But despite its sophistication, cultural excitement and design leadership New York could be brash, tough, and sometimes dangerous. By 1966 he was seeing New Zealand as an attractive alternative.

Jackson brought his skills and experience home just as the New Zealand Industrial Design Council was being established and the first crop of design graduates were entering the field. He set up a consultancy studio in the front room of the Devonport family home where he could support his aging parents. His aesthetic sensibility, engineering knowledge, excellent pastel renderings and impeccable working drawings set the standard. Jackson provided many New Zealand manufacturers with their first experience of industrial design. His professionalism and the value he added to their products usually made them come back for more.

Known fondly as the ‘godfather’ of New Zealand industrial designers, Gifford Jackson died on October 30 aged 93. His highly valued contribution was first acknowledged in 1988 when he received the John Britten Award – the Designers Institute of New Zealand’s highest accolade. Wider recognition came in 2013 when he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.