The story behind Wellington Central Library’s rescued seats

The iconic Carin Wilson seats being saved from Wellington’s Central Library have caught media attention.  Senior Heritage Listing Advisor, Kerryn Pollock, talks to Wilson about the story behind them.

The Wellington Central Library (1991) is one of the best-known and loved works of the late Ian Athfield (1940-2014) and his team at Athfield Architects. In preparation for earthquake strengthening, many of the treasures within its walls are being saved. 

Some of the most distinctive pieces of furniture were designed and made by Carin Wilson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri) at the invitation of Athfield Architects. His curved armchairs and couches reference a whakataukī about a young person sitting on a rock sucking a pebble while listening to a teacher. Carin was deeply concerned to find indigenous exemplars for the furniture rather than relying on colonial models and much thought went into the design process.  

“I searched across the Pacific for clues on how we engaged with the seat as a function of any of our cultural processes,” Carin explains, recognising that historically, Māori sat on the ground or on whāriki (woven mats) rather than furniture. He then came across the whakataukī. "I knew it was the perfect metaphor for the form of a chair and it propelled the design resolution".  

The Kura Kōwhatu chairs are made of mangeao, steel and leather. Mangeao is a particularly strong, flexible timber and was traditionally used to make waka, as well as being harvested for medicinal purposes. They were placed through the three public floors of the library building and were well used by library patrons until the building was suddenly closed on 19 March 2019 following changes to government seismic performance guidelines.  

When the library was entered onto the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero as a Category 1 Historic Place in 2020, the chairs were recorded as chattels that contributed to the building’s heritage value. Cognisant of their importance, the Wellington City Council is currently placing the chairs in storage, along with other key pieces of furniture, under the guidance of a heritage consultant. Carin, who regards the furniture and building as integral parts of a successful project, would love to see the chairs returned to the library when it reopens – hopefully after being restored by him.