New Zealand’s celebration of Art Deco style

Hawke's Bay New Zealand pulls out all the bells, whistles and stylish threads for the annual Napier Art Deco Festival.

The 2019 and 31st edition of the annual Napier Art Deco Festival in Hawke's Bay is shaping up to be the biggest yet with more than 40,000 people participating in over 300 events at the five-day celebration.  

From small beginnings 31 years ago in 1989, the festival has grown into one of New Zealand's major events. More than 25% of participants are from out of the region, amongst them a growing contingent of international visitors attracted by a spectacular and ever-growing list of events, world renowned architecture, and world-class food and wine.

When the annual festival rolls into town, the streets of the seaside city and surrounding Hawke's Bay wine region throb with colourful activity and vibe. 

The fantastic array of festival events pays homage to the 1920s architecture style of Art Deco. Today, Napier's town centre is recognised as one of the largest collection of Art Deco buildings outside Miami.

An Art Deco Trust was established in 1985 to promote and preserve what this world-class collection of Art Deco architecture. The annual highlight on the Trust’s calendar is the Napier Art Deco Festival but visitors can experience the art deco story year-round with a variety of regular tours or by just wandering around the colourful city centre. 

Check out the 2019 Art Deco Festival programme here. 

And, if you can't make it to the big event, there's a smaller more intimate Winter Deco Weekend, running from 19 - 21 July, 2019.

Bertie Cocking

Founding member of the trust John ‘Bertie’ Cocking loves everything about the festival and the city of Napier.

“It’s a beautiful city with great architecture, great weather and most of all great people,” he says.

Bertie Wooster, John’s festival persona, is a lover of the cars, music, design, and all things Art Deco. Some say Art Deco without Bertie is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse.

He first came into being when John was asked to host a function celebrating 10 years of the Art Deco Trust. “I borrowed a blazer and boater and it all seemed to drop into place. I enjoyed it; the audience enjoyed it, so I just carried on. Twenty-one years on, I am still out on the street as Bertie, promoting our Art Deco City.”

Since Bertie became involved in the festival in 1993, the event has ballooned in size to become a hugely popular event with both New Zealanders and overseas visitors.

“It’s huge in all sorts of ways since it started. Just consider 1989, we had seven events; around 14 vintage cars were on display and around a hundred or so people involved.”

“Today we have over 200 events during the Festival period, many free for the public to attend; around 400 vintage cars arrive from all over the country and the world.”

Iconic events like the Vintage Car Parade, Soapbox Derby and Death by Chocolate are always popular but New Zealand’s biggest Art Deco festival - and possibly the world’s - boasts a massive programme with over 100 events. 

Punters dress down for the Depression Dinner, a fun event that takes you through the city and serves up dishes popular in a time where making ends meet was a struggle. The Prohibition Dinner relives the Florida dark underground nightlife of the prohibition period with bootleg liquor, non-stop music, and live entertainment.

Napier Earthquake

Ironically, today's architectural treasure was created from tragedy.

At 10.46am on 3 February 1931, Napier and its surrounding region were struck by an earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. While the ground shook violently for less than three minutes, 261 lives were lost as the ground moved and buildings crumbled around inhabitants.

Fires broke out all over town, some beginning in chemist shops where gas jets were close to flammable liquids. Firemen could do little to stop the rapid spread as water supplies had been cut in the earthquake.

Afraid to enter their homes, the survivors camped afterwards in their gardens, on roadsides, at Nelson Park and on Marine Parade beach. Over the next two weeks, 525 aftershocks were felt in the region.

As a result of the earthquake, the Napier area tilted upwards - a maximum of just over 2m (7 feet) - and 2230 hectares (5575 acres) were raised to sea level. Since then, the area has continued to creep up at the rate of 1cm per year, so that it's now 60cm (2 feet) above sea level.

In post-earthquake Napier, Art Deco was both a safe and economical choice. The new concrete buildings were more resistant to earthquakes and fire, materials were cheap and the stucco relief ornaments typical of Art Deco offered a less costly form of decoration.

As a result of their combined efforts, Napier was almost rebuilt within two years of the disaster.

Five Q’s with Bertie Wooster

What is the ultimate must-do at this year’s Art Deco Festival?

There are lots – Vintage Car Parade, Gatsby Picnic, Big Band Concerts, Bathing Belles – but, for me, it’s one of the more serious events, the Veronica Bell Parade when we pause for a moment from all the excitement to remember the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake that destroyed the city and the remarkable recovery and rebuild that was completed within two years. 

What is one item of essential clothing for Art Deco Festival?

An Art Deco style hat - for me it’s the traditional boater. This is absolutely essential for style and protection from the sun which is going to shine all weekend!

What’s your favourite Deco building in Napier, and why?

There’s a few but if I have to pick one it would be the National Tobacco Building in Ahuriri. This is one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand and I can understand why. It’s got it all – decoration, colour and a fabulous story that is best told by the Art Deco Trust tour guides. 

What is Bertie’s favourite mode of transport during Art Deco Festival?

My 1935 Austin 7 sports is small, nippy, elegant with just a hint of audacity.  Now, who does that remind me of?

One piece of advice for Art Deco first-timers…? 

Come along, grab a Deco hat or a string of beads and join in. You’ll find the Art Deco Festival goers a real friendly bunch. The Art Deco Centre in the heart of the city is the Deco HQ and certainly should be the first point of call for all visitors. 

Travel Tips
Napier, in the Hawke’s Bay region on the east coast of the North Island, is a one- hour flight or a five-hour drive from Auckland. The region is known for its wineries including Elephant Hill and Craggy Range vineyards. World class golf is on offer at Cape Kidnappers, voted the 16th best golf course in the world by Golf Digest Magazine. The 2019 Tremains Art Deco Festival runs from 13 – 17 February.