Made in New Zealand: Dunedin artist’s Happy Hens without borders

Happy Year of the Rooster - but did you know about Dunedin's Happy Hens (and roosters) who breed happiness around the world?

As Asia launches into Chinese New Year on Friday (27.01.17), Year of the Rooster seems like the perfect opportunity to turn the spotlight on some of New Zealand’s most colourful domestic feathered friends – the happy hens (and roosters) of Dunedin’s Portobello.

It’s true that happiness comes in many forms but, in New Zealand’s southern city of Dunedin, one woman’s creative talent is breeding happiness that knows no borders.

Fans and new customers flock to artist Yvonne Sutherland’s little shop / workshop at Portobello, on the waterside near Dunedin, in search of Happy Hens – an ever-expanding range of brightly painted ceramic hens designed to bring a smile to your home.

In the 33 years since Yvonne created the first batch of Happy Hens, these cute little domestic works of art have become an icon for the coastal city which is also renowned for its other prolific wildlife – albatross, penguins, seals, sea lions, to name a few.

A career as an art teacher and a love of history led Yvonne into this thriving business with its growing export markets.

Yvonne was inspired by stories of early New Zealand colonial life, making her first Happy Hens as tributes to the heritage breeds that came across the sea with European settlers - traditional Old English birds with marvellous plumage, breeds such as Norfolk, Sussex, Plymouth Rock, and Wyandotte.  Her own grandmother kept the big Black Orpingtons and as a child, Yvonne loved to collect the large brown eggs.

Attracted by the brightly coloured patterns, she made a few and took them to a local market - the Happy Hens found an eager market and the business took off.  Originally all Happy Hens were hand-moulded, but as demand increased, Yvonne had to teach herself the slip-casting method of production.

There’s something comforting about Happy Hens. They’re plump, smooth and a little bit silly. Shaped like rounded stones, they’re quite robust and each one is hand-made and therefore unique with its own personality - like the free-range hens of New Zealand's early years when everyone relied on their gardens to feed the family.

Yvonne thinks the reasons for their popularity and on-going universal appeal lie in their shape, distinctive designs and originality - also the fact that every culture can relate to hens and chickens, mostly in a positive way.

“They have their own magic and they sell themselves,” she says. “We have repeat customers including those from overseas who add to their collection and the hens have been called Dunedin’s little ambassadors!”

Happy Hens won a New Zealand Export Award in 1989 and was a finalist in the American Express New Zealand Tourism Awards (souvenir category). Hens have been taken all over the world as official gifts by local dignitaries and national politicians.

Visitors can find Yvonne plying her passion for art and design at Portobello, just outside Dunedin, in a heritage workshop with cobbled floors and lemon walls hung with carousel horses and bunting. On a paint-splattered table freshly-laid hens await feathers and final details with decorations running the gamut of influences from Pop Art to Moroccan ceramics.

The Happy Hens, which can be found in homes from New York to Tokyo and Reykjavik, have spilled over into tableware, nursery sets and printed fabric. There’s even a Happy Hens Collectors Club for those who are most passionate about their Happy Hens.