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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Railway Studios: How a Government Design Studio Helped Build New Zealand

On the 100th anniversary of its creation, this hardcover book celebrates Railway Studios - the design studio of the New Zealand Railways - and its role in helping build and connect our country.

The government agency produced advertising for any-and-all clients, dominating outdoor advertising for more than 65 years.

The Studios' advertisements ranged from posters to painted billboards and brochures, and they decorated every city and town, creating a gallery in the street.

Whatever the promotion, from rail travel to tourism to enlistment with the army, the Studios played a role. Thousands of its designs influenced public attitudes and shaped how New Zealanders saw themselves.

The book offers a glimpse of that time, serving as a time capsule of New Zealand life and art.

Short chapters chronicle the history of the studios at the start of the book, juxtaposing it against life in New Zealand at that time.

There's historical photographs and newspaper clippings, as well as plenty of examples of the advertising created by the agency. It's a fascinating glimpse into our history.

The book covers the demise of the agency too, and how technology altered the way it worked. While so many of the hoardings were hand-painted, new technologies - like television and printing presses - began to creep in.

The book then moves onto a condensed chronology, before the travel posters designed by the agency are reprinted in full glossy glory. They are kitch kiwiana to their core, and are bound to bring up memories for every reader.

The book then goes on to lay out some of the Studios publications - brochures, the Railways Magazine, advertisements and safety posters. Pictures, accompanied by brief explanations, are laid out in chronological view, quickly highlighting the evolution of design and technological advancements.

The product posters also get a section to themselves, showing the range of clients the agency had on their books. Everything from salt to tyres, crayons to coffee got the Railway Studios treatment.

Biographies of some staff are also included, and the authors have tried to compile a full list of employees spanning seven decades.

The editors of the book have varied and expansive histories - Peter Alsop is a senior executive who has worked across both the public and private sectors, while Neill Atkinson is chief historian and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Katherine Milburn is the ephemera collection curator at the Hocken Library, while Richard Wole is an art, design and cultural historian.

Te Papa Press has been producing some beautiful books lately and this is no exception. It is a work of art about works of art. Railways Studios offers a fascinating insight into the graphic work of a government agency that helped both shape and reflect New Zealand culture.

Reviewed by: Rebekah Lyell

Te Papa Press, RRP $70


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