Janet Frame's Writing Desk and Landfall

Story by Jane Dennehy and Zsa Zsa Hartman-Hughes

Museum and Heritage Studies, 2015

1930s: Construction

Although it may look like an ordinary piece of household furniture, Janet Frame's writing desk holds deep literary and historical significance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It is likely that construction of Janet Frame's writing desk dates back to the 1930s. Made of rimu here in New Zealand, the desk has a leatherette top and bronzed metal handles.

1940s-1966: The Landfall Desk

The desk was initially purchased from Browns, a furniture store in Dunedin, by Charles Brasch (1909-2004).

Brasch was a poet, and in March 1947, he became the founding editor of New Zealand's longest-running literary journal Landfall.

In 1949, Janet Frame, who was a young writer at the time, made contact with Brasch, beginning a long running working relationship.

1966-1989: Janet Frame's Writing Desk

In 1966, Charles Brasch gifted the Landfall desk to Janet Frame.

Frame (1924-2004) has since been recognised as one of the greatest writers in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The desk was altered twice while in Frame's custody. To make it more comfortable to use, Frame shortened the legs of the desk.

In 1968, the tenants leasing her home sawed the desk in half, explaining it would not fit in a room with a double bed.

Unfazed by the tenants' alteration, Frame pushed the pieces together and continued to use it.

1966-1989: Frame's Publications

Janet Frame wrote her three autobiographical works at this desk

To the Is-land (1983), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985) each won the Wattie Book of the Year award, and An Angel at my Table (1984) won the non-fiction prize at the New Zealand Book Awards.

Janet Frame also penned The Landfall Desk, a poem tellingly recounting this desk's shabby, and stable presence in her home.

1989-present: The Desk at Victoria

In 1989 Janet Frame gave the desk to her neighbours in Levin when she moved to Shannon.

The desk was subsequently rejoined, and used by Kevin McCashin to do the accounts for his book-selling business.

Frame's neighbours gifted the desk to Victoria University in 1996. A conservation report was commissioned, and some further repairs were made. The desk now resides in the entranceway of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML).

On what the desk means to the IIML, writer and Director of the Institute Damien Wilkins says, “the Janet Frame desk is not a holy relic; it’s often buried under fliers and junk. But the desk is a touchstone and it hums with metaphorical power”.

“Janet cutting the legs down to size is the writer’s relationship to the world: I will challenge the status quo. The tenants cutting the desk in half is the world’s relationship to the writer: look out, I have greater power than you.”

“Janet’s response? Glue the desk back together and push on.”

Find the desk at the IIML

International Institute of Modern Letters, 16 Waiteata Rd, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand