introducing | vernacular


Vernacular is a collaboration between Philip Smith of O2 Landscapes and photographer David Straight.

It is a book which explores the everyday landscape we tend to take for granted, or not see at all, within New Zealand.

It is also a book for those who doubt we as a country, have much of a cultural legacy. It is plain to see, through Philip's words and David's eyes, that yes we do. In fact it's beautiful and everywhere we care to look.


1) Vernacular is an interesting title for a book, can you tell us a bit about what this word means to you?

There are several words that relate to everyday things, including 'vernacular'. That word is used a lot with respect to language, in which it refers to local modes of speech that come out of everyday life. In architecture, it refers to domestic or functional buildings (as opposed to monumental buildings), and therefore can be applied to things that have simply been made for their purpose. So a lot of the objects and forms that we looked at were just made to fulfil a particular need (often in the simplest or most direct way).

Most of them don't have a name attached to them. It only occurred to me whilst doing an interview with Jeremy Hansen that a good way of describing them is that they are a 'natural history in built form'; features that have simply arisen out of how people live their lives, rather than conforming to a particular design narrative. 

2) How did the idea for Vernacular come about? Is it a result from your work as a landscape designer?

I really like design that doesn't slap you in the face with how clever it is trying to be, and I think that the best examples of landscape design for me are the kinds of humble, yet beautifully made places in which the maker does not have to stamp their identity in an overt way.

We always look closely at the context of any job, whether that relates to place (plants, natural landscapes, vernacular forms etc.) or the people that we are designing for. The book is a study in context. We wanted to cast a critical eye over New Zealand, and look into prototypes for design that come 'naturally' out of everyday life.

I had wanted to write the book for about 10 years, as I had always looked intensively into this side of our culture (especially with several friends - Paul Duffy, David McDermott and Michael Shepherd - with whom I had worked on designs). When I met David, he said 'That sounds great; do you want a photographer to do the book with ?', and within about 10 minutes we had unofficially embarked upon the project (a little like 2 kids in a playground who decide they're friends because they both like Transformers toys).

3) Did you work on instinct in finding examples, or were you tipped off along the way?

A friend, Michael Shepherd, and I have looked at this stuff for years, so he informed me of a lot of things (like the Palliser Bay garden walls). Paul Duffy told me about the Kauaeranga Valley steps. I knew about a load of things. David walks (habitually), especially around cities, and would therefore find things. Finn McCahon-Jones showed us what he knew of Central Auckland's layers. And then we just drove and walked, and a mutual yelp would occur when we saw something amazing. Much of the process involved us actively deciding to go down side roads, and try and anticipate places where cool things might be.

4) Can you explain the roles you and David had throughout the project?

Mutual agreement, and occasionally silent dissent. We generally agreed on everything, but sometimes I needed to push David away from his natural instincts on subject matter, and he would push me on the kinds of things we should include. As somebody said, our collaboration was a case of 'One plus one = Three', insofar as the way in which we came to it with different perspectives.

5) Finally, you and David have now seen a lot of New Zealand, any particular highlights?

Staying with Bruce Martin (fish and chips and wine at the dinner table) at Kamaka Anagama was my highlight, as I find Bruce to be a really wonderful person (an inspiring example of a life well lived, and a man who is forever interested in conversing and learning).

However, there were many other great instances, such as camping at Kohaihai (at the western end of the Heaphy Track) or taking in the amazing coastal highway in the eastern Bay of Plenty (where one can sense Te Whanau-a-Apanui's affinity for these landscapes in their appearance).

In terms of surprise value, our eyes just about popped out of our heads when we came across 'The Gully' - a magnificent grassed amphitheatre at New Plymouth Boys' High School. In truth, our stomachs also played a role in determining some of our enjoyment along the way, whether we were having a pie in Harihari on the West Coast (best in New Zealand), dining in Wellington's centre, or meeting at our favourite restaurant, Cazador, to plan the book. 

Click here to purchase Vernacular at garden objects in either standard or limited edition formats.

For more information on the book, visit the Vernacular website:

All photographs kindly supplied by Philip and David.

older post / newer post