08 June, 2016

Vernacular: The everyday landscape of New Zealand, by Philip Smith and David Straight


Is it possible to write a book about Kiwi ingenuity without using that phrase, or mentioning tired old number-eight wire? Philip Smith may have done just that in Vernacular: The everyday landscape of New Zealand.

A landscape designer, Smith travelled New Zealand with photographer David Straight. Together they looked for interesting power poles, boardwalks, bike racks, manhole covers and other public constructions that are integral to people’s lives but unsung and often unnoticed.

The modesty of these useful things and the anonymity of their creators is refreshing in an era where expensive or exotic materials, identifiable branding and all-round “look at me”-ism are all the rage.

Plenty of books purport to celebrate national quirkery but are really little more than quick and colourful stocking-fillers. Vernacular, published in 2015 by Potton and Burton (formerly Craig Potton Publishing), is not one of those. 

It can hold your attention: it’s singular and intriguing, as judges for the inaugural NZ Photo Book of the Year Awards said when they chose Vernacular as a finalist. They praised its good photos, great depth and pared back design (by an unnamed designer) that “doesn’t shout at you – it creates a harmonious balance between the text and the images”.

Smith is known for designing gardens that bring together our rarer native flora and underappreciated perennials: the flowering plants of many twentieth-century childhoods. Here his thoughtful, musing essays further explore his interest in the intersections between nature and artifice as well as between form and function. 

Straight lets his pictures speak for him, online (with Instagram and his website), in magazine work and in Vernacular

The book is arranged mostly under plain, practical headings like Urban, Rural, Wild Places, Across, and Up and Down ­– but there are also riffs on such tantalising topics as “Anonymous Genius of the Suburbs” and “Democracy of the Goat Track”. 

I found this a thought-provoking publication, pleasing to the eye and the mind. 

Title: Vernacular: The everyday landscape of New Zealand
Author: Philip Smith

Recommended by Claire G, Grey Lynn Library


Claire G reads widely, writes narrowly, pampers her poultry and neglects her garden. She thinks Leonard Cohen was right about there being a crack in everything.

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