The arrival of the art deco housing style of the 1930s heralded a complete change from the ornate Victorian/Edwardian villas of the beginning of the 20th century and the more casual bungalows of the 1920s.

The art deco or ‘moderne’ style appeared in New Zealand in the 1930s and marked a significant departure from the villas and bungalows.

Art deco or ‘moderne’ homes

The arrival of the art deco housing style of the 1930s heralded a complete change from the ornate Victorian/Edwardian villas of the beginning of the 20th century and the more casual bungalows of the 1920s.

Based on European influences that aimed to reveal the building structure rather than disguise it, the style became popular following the great ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes’ held in Paris in 1925, from which ‘art deco’ takes its name.

The style, called modern or international at the time, was based on the principle that building design should be functional and was characterised by smooth surfaces, large areas of glass, steel framing, chrome and cubic forms, with limited mouldings or adornment. According to Modernists, “the form of a building should be determined by its function, and be closely related to the lives of the people in it”.

Following World War 1, the political climate in Europe – including the rise of National Socialism in Germany – saw Modernist architects leave Europe to go to America and further afield, including New Zealand, spreading the influence of the new style.

The style that developed in New Zealand became know as ‘moderne’ to differentiate it from the ‘modern’ style and the name ‘art deco’ was not adopted until later.

Art deco or moderne houses first made their appearance towards the end of the depression in the early 1930s and lasted until after World War 2. The style typically featured:

  • parapet walls
  • flat roofs not visible from the street
  • stucco cladding to walls
  • rounded corners or semicircular curved walls
  • windows and doors without external facing boards
  • minimal external decoration, consisting of art deco designs such as chevrons, zig-zags and horizontal or vertical bands
  • a shallow recessed porch (figure 1) with a flat projecting canopy.


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The best known location of art deco construction is Napier where, following the 1931 earthquake, the rebuilding programme was extensively in the art deco style. Much of Napier’s art deco construction is commercial, but other places that also have significant numbers of art deco houses include some areas of Auckland, Hastings, Wellington and Lower Hutt in the North Island, and the Timaru region, Dunedin and Invercargill in the South Island. Almost all towns have some art deco dwellings, and there are regional variations, such as brick houses in Huntly. Semi-detached houses are common in some regions. There are also art deco houses clad in bevel-back timber weatherboards around the country (figure 2).

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There were two main types of art deco houses built in New Zealand:

  • Speculative houses, which were similar in plan to traditional housing but had a pastiche of parapets, flat roofs, plastered walls, rounded corners and applied decoration.
  • Architecturally-designed houses which tended to follow international trends in planning and design and were for clients who wished to be fashionable. These were in the minority, as are architecturally-designed houses of other styles.

There were also some art deco state houses. Some of these had modern floor plans with no hallways. Ernst Plischke and other European immigrant architects and designers working for government had an influence.

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Seismic influence on 1930s architecture

Another significant influence on New Zealand construction at the time came from the destruction cause by the Napier earthquake in 1931.

Before the Napier earthquake, there was little provision for seismic strengthening of New Zealand buildings. The effect that lateral forces could have on a building, or the need to tie a structure together, were rarely considered. After the earthquake, however, awareness of the need to design for seismic movement increased.

In 1935, the New Zealand Standards Institute publication NZSS No. 95 introduced for the first time requirements for designing for earthquake loadings and incorporating lateral bracing. Over the years, this document was revised and upgraded a number of times, but from 1935 onwards, seismic effects were considered in details such as tying subfloor framing to foundations, increasing the amount and types of bracing installed and no longer using unreinforced double wall cavity brick construction.

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Art deco houses today

Homeowners of art deco houses generally purchase them for their style, not their performance. These houses have frequently survived with their original street frontage intact. However, because of their age, and, in particular, the weathertightness issues associated with the stucco cladding and low pitched or flat roofs, many art deco houses are likely to have undergone repairs or possibly significant renovation work. Significant numbers have had aluminium windows installed.

Insulation was not installed in 1930s houses, and the low pitched or flat roof makes retrofitting ceiling insulation difficult, so even where refurbishment has been carried out, there may be little or no insulation.

Orientation was typically to the street, so there may frequently be little or no solar gain, and original timber windows and doors may be draughty, so, without a significant heat input, these houses are likely to be cold to live in.

Despite this, art deco houses are recognised for their unique character and heritage, and for this reason many terroritorial authorities have planning requirements in place to protect the character of art deco homes.