Bold, bright, and underappreciated: British furniture at mid-century

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

June 2008 | In the dozen or so years since a new wave of collectors and design aficionados rediscovered furnishings of the mid-twentieth century, works from many countries—France, the United States, Italy, the Scandinavian nations, Brazil—have become prized (and pricey) artifacts. But one state that fostered a large and thriving furniture design and manufacturing community in the years prior to and after World War II has received surprisingly scant attention: Great Britain. The reason, explains Richard Wright, head of the Chicago auction house Wright, which specializes in modern design, is that British work was deemed “just not that interesting compared to the designs coming from other places.” This perception initiated a vicious cycle: because dealers and auction houses offer so little British design, collectors remain largely ignorant of its existence. A review of British design archives and of the wares for sale by vintage design dealers in London and elsewhere, however, suggests that a disdain for mid-century British furnishings is misplaced. A brief survey, herein, of several of the principal British designers of the period reveals work of striking creativity across a broad spectrum of forms and demonstrates that the modernist furniture produced in the United Kingdom merits a much more prominent position in the annals of twentieth-century design.

One of the greatest modern design talents in Britain (or, arguably, anywhere) blossomed in London in the 1930s. Gerald Summers studied carpentry in secondary school and briefly apprenticed at an engineering company, but was essentially an autodidact as a furniture maker. After fighting in World War I, he returned home, worked as a laborer for several years, and in the mid-1920s took a job in a London office. There he met his future wife and business partner, Marjorie Amy Butcher. It was when he hand-built a dressing table and wardrobe for his fiancée that he realized his true calling. Urged on by Butcher, Summers scrimped and saved, and late in 1931 the now-married couple opened their own company, Makers of Simple Furniture.

Summers worked in plywood, and, unlike most other furniture makers of the day, did not feel compelled to cover it in a veneer of a more exotic wood. In 1933 he began to experiment with a special kind of plywood called “aeroplane ply” and, as Martha Deese wrote in the Journal of Design History, “this exceptionally thin and flexible material had a revolutionary impact on Summers’s emerging style. Whereas Summers had previously worked in a geometric idiom of simple rectilinear forms, with his discovery of airplane plywood he began to evolve an organic idiom of curved surfaces and curvilinear outlines, which exploited the inherent capabilities of this pliable material.”1 The following year Summers produced his best-known piece, the bent plywood armchair (Fig. 2). This ingenious chair is made from a single unit of plywood, comprising a stack of seven sheets (each 3 mm thick) glued together and cut to allow for arcing armrests and a forward-thrusting seat, then clamped in a wooden mold until dry. Summers finished the piece with a French polish of oil and shellac tinted white. He went on to create more than 150 designs, including a high-back plywood chair that can be seen as a modernist take on Louis XIV seating, numerous side chairs that counterpoise vertically and horizontally curved sections, as well as tables, shelving, bureaus, and bedsteads. Chronically undercapitalized, Makers of Simple Furniture mainly built pieces to order. Thus when World War II arrived and plywood was reserved for military use, the company had no inventory with which to ride out the conflict. The firm closed in 1940. Though Summers made a couple of unsuccessful forays into design after the war, he ended his working days as the proprietor of a ball-bearing factory.

While Summers and other British modernists of the 1930s worked against the currents of an inhospitable zeitgeist—in a country that had seen an entire generation decimated by war, was nostalgic for a comforting Victorian past, and was gripped in a global depression—the designers after World War II faced an even more daunting task: to rebuild a nation structurally, economically, and psychologically. As Geoffrey Rayner has noted: “Furniture design would take a leading role in projecting a vital, modern, go-ahead image for Britain….Well designed modern furniture was also seen as an essential ingredient for successfully obtaining export orders, so necessary for Britain’s economic recovery.”2 On an emotional level, the job of designers was about “retraining us as a society,” says Pippa Kahn, co-owner of the London design dealership Fears and Kahn. “Their work was about getting people excited about living again,” she says, and the hope was that fresh, new designs would have the equivalent effect on consumers as “eating pineapples for the first time.” Ernest Race attempted to make furniture that met both practical and psychological needs. An interior designer, he produced a side chair in 1946 with a frame made of resmelted aluminum obtained from aircraft scrap. That year he also designed a curvilinear wing chair upholstered with cotton duck fabric used by the Royal Air Force. Race’s buoyant side appeared at the 1951 Festival of Britain. Though wartime rationing measures were still in place (and would be until 1953), the Festival of Britain—timed to coincide with the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the Crystal Palace—was meant to give Britons a glimpse of a bold, bright future. Race’s Antelope chairs were chosen for use at the festival’s terrace café (Fig. 1).3 An elegant design, the chair is made of bent steel rods that support a plywood seat, which Race had painted in perky colors such as red, turquoise, and yellow. (Lightweight and stackable, the chair is still in production today.) He used plywood, beech, and canvas in his stylish, clever Neptune chair, designed in 1953 for the P & O shipping line (Fig. 7).

The Festival of Britain was also a watershed moment in the career of Robin Day and his wife, the textile designer Lucienne Conradi Day (1917–), now revered as the grand old lion and lioness of British modernism. Robin Day, who studied design at the Royal College of Art, had obtained some international notoriety when, in 1948, he and his colleague Clive Latimer (b.c. 1916) won the top prize for their storage units in a low-cost furniture design competition sponsored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (One of the judges was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.) For the 1951 exhibition, Day was commissioned to create seating for the Royal Festival Hall. His masterworks were the armchairs he designed for the hall’s lounge and restaurant (see Fig. 3), which featured swooping backs made of bent plywood covered in rosewood veneer, upholstered seats and backs, and copperplated steel legs. Working mainly for the manufacturer S. Hille and Company, Day went on to work in many mediums, such as contrasting veneers (for example, dark walnut and buttery birch), chrome, glass, and polypropylene, always in a style that was simple, yet sophisticated.4

One criticism of British modernist furniture is that it is too derivative. But designers such as Day have never shied from acknowledging the debt they owe to others.5 Martha Deese noted that Summers was highly influenced by the bent plywood pieces by the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto (1898–1976).6 “They were very upfront about learning from designers in America or Scandinavia,” says Pippa Kahn. “But they took what they saw and changed it; they gave it a twist of Britishness.” A wonderful example is a series of pictorial cabinets designed in 1954 by Robert Heritage (Figs. 4, 4a), who in 1968 would design the restaurant chairs for the new Cunard luxury liner, the Queen Elizabeth 2. The penwork scenery on the door fronts is clearly inspired by the work of the Italian designer Piero Fornasetti (1913–1988), in particular his Jersusalem pattern. But in Heritage’s piece, the Holy City has been turned into a small English village.7

Toward the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, British modernist furniture became more sober in character. Architects John and Sylvia Reid brought their functionalist approach to building design to bear on furniture. Their work was rectilinear in form, and executed in dark woods (see Figs. 5, 6). The only nods to ornament might be the occasional colored door panel (see Fig. 8), or the use of hairpin metal legs. The goal of the Reids, according to Basil Hyman and Steve Braggs, was to make “furniture that was economical to mass produce, but which was of high quality. There was no pretence that this new furniture was hand-made by craftsmen; it was built by machine and was meant to look like it.”8 As stark as it was, the Reids’ furniture is a success. It was a reminder to the public that in a little over ten years they had gone from a life of blitzkrieg, buzz bombs, and rationing coupons to one of stylish and dignified modernity. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous 1957 comment that “most of our people have never had it so good” should properly be taken with a grain of salt.9 But for whatever measure of truth there was in his declaration, British modern design should be celebrated, at the very least, for doing its part to make it so.

1 Martha Deese, “Gerald  Summers and Makers of Simple Furniture,” Journal of Design History, vol. 5, no. 3 (1992), pp. 183–205.
2 Geoffrey Rayner, “Furniture Design,” in Austerity to Affluence: British Art and Design 1945–1962 (Merrell Holberton, London, 1997), p. 11.
3 Alan Peat, “Phoenix from the Ashes,” ibid., p. 8; see also p. 18, No. F.9. For more about Race and a link to a pdf schematic of the Antelope chair, see the Web sites racefurniture
.com and makingthemodernworld.org.uk
4 Lesley Jackson, Robin and Lucienne Day: Pioneers of Modern Design (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2001). See also Rayner, “Furniture Design, p. 20, No. F. 20.
5 Robin Day, Foreword, in Austerity to Affluence, p. 6.
6 Deese, “Gerald Summers and Makers of Simple Furniture,” p. 186.
7 A cabinet with decoration by Piero Fornasetti is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. See also Twentieth Century Art and Design Auction, Wright auctions, Chicago, March 10, 2002, Lot 389.
8 Basil Hyman and Steven Braggs, The G-Plan Revolution: A Celebration of British Popular Furniture of the 1950s and 1960s (Booth-Clibborn Editions, London, 2007), p. 33.
9 See July 20, 1957, at http://news.bbc.co.uk.onthisday.

GREGORY CERIO is a regular contributor to Antiques.