For the Love of Ply

For “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was just the starting point for a surprising journey following in the footsteps of one of the twentieth century’s outstanding designers – and a Soviet spy ring - to one of London’s most revolutionary and glamorous buildings.  Who would have thought plywood could be so interesting?

When you think of plywood (as we all do from to time) what is it that comes to mind?  If tea chests and cheap D-I-Y are all you can think of then the curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum are keen for you to pay a visit. As the museum’s latest exhibition Plywood: Material of the Modern World is quick to point out, despite its humdrum image, plywood used to be seen as a “wonder” material, favoured by engineers and avant garde designers at the cutting edge of technical and artistic innovation. The exhibition features a bewilderingly diverse array of objects - from bi- planes to skateboards -alongside design classics a-plenty by the giants of 20th century design, including Alvar Aalto and Charles and Ray Eames, to tell the story of how plywood made the twentieth century.

Plywood - the technique of layering cross-grained veneers to make a material stronger than solid wood - has been around for a long time; the ancient Egyptians were using it in around 2600BC. But it was only in the early twentieth century that designers began to exploit and celebrate its ability to be shaped into strong, curved forms, when plywood started to be seen as chic. Amongst the exhibits on show one piece stood head and shoulders above the rest; something so jaw droppingly beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks. A symphony of sensuous curves,  the item in question could easily be mistaken for a piece of Modernist sculpture by Henry Moore, but was, in fact, a lounge chair. It was designed in 1936 by Hungarian émigré and Bauhaus golden boy Marcel Breuer and was manufactured by a British company called Isokon. This chance encounter was enough to make me hunger for more. I’ve always believed that every great piece of design has a bigger story to tell and, in this case, that certainly proved to be true. By the end of the day I had traversed London with all the assiduousness of one of Agatha Christie’s detectives. You’ll be hearing more of her later. In the meantime, let me tell you of the story of the incredible house that plywood built.

Let’s start with Isokon. The design studio was founded in 1929 by young husband and wife team Jack and Molly Pritchard. They were idealists and visionaries who passionately believed in the power of good design to change society for the better.  Both had travelled widely in Europe where they were impressed by the new ‘international style’ of modernist design that was emerging there. The Pritchards probably qualify as the unsung heroes of 20th century design in England, mainly known today for the furniture they produced – design classics like the Long Chair and the’ Penguin Donkey’ (not, as it sounds, a nightmarish hybrid from the island of Doctor Moreau but a storage system for paperbacks) – all constructed from plywood.  For most of the 1920s Jack Pritchard had been Sales Manager of Estonian company Venesta, at that point the largest manufacturer of plywood in the world and as a result ply was used almost exclusively by Isokon in the furniture it produced. Pritchard’s contacts within the European design scene meant that by the mid-1930s, as well as Marcel Breuer, Isokon’s payroll included celebrated ex-Bauhaus designers like Walter Gropius and Egon Riss and Isokon furniture was a must have amongst the capital’s in-crowd. But Jack and Molly had plans that went beyond furniture; their magnum opus was to construct a building the like of which England had never seen before; a vast Modernist block of apartments which would not only look revolutionary but which would also offer a radically new way of living. The Isokon building - also known as the Lawn Road Flats - was to be a bold experiment that would introduce the concept of communal living to the middle classes. They decided to bring the revolution right to the heart of respectable middle class Britain and a plot in the leafy north London suburb of Hampstead was bought.

What the Pritchards needed was someone who could make their dreams concrete. In 1932 they found that person in the shape of a young Canadian architect, Gordon Wells-Coates. Wells-Coates turned heads wherever he went. He was good looking, dynamic, slightly eccentric and, according to Jack Pritchard,  “cooked Eastern cuisine and was known to sit comfortably in the lotus position for hours”. Born in Canada to Methodist missionary parents, Wells-Coates spent his childhood in Japan and, as a young man during the First World War, had joined the Royal Flying Corps (where he had flown a Sopwith Camel – a plane largely made from – as if you didn’t know – plywood). After being demobbed, he studied at Whitehall’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. But ever the free spirit, instead of taking a job in industrial design, Coates became a writer for the Daily Express and became part of the 1920s Bloomsbury set; a Martini swilling fixture in the fashionable haunts of Soho and Fitzrovia.  Alongside his appealing personal traits, the young architect shared the Pritchards’ vision of a modern world shaped by good design. It was a meeting of minds and the air between them positively crackled.

Wells-Coates had very little experience of designing buildings, certainly nothing on the scale of  the Isokon building. But what he lacked in practical experience he made up for in charisma and the Pritchards were sold. Their confidence was not misplaced. A trip up the Northern Line showed me that Wells-Coates lived up to his promise and delivered with a super engineered, sleek, jaw dropping, timeless slice of beauty. Sitting among the Georgian terraces of leafy Hampstead the Isokon building was truly revolutionary when it first opened its doors in 1934. Built of reinforced concrete – the first time in Britain this had been used on a domestic building - with cement wash render (white with a hint of pink), the main elevation facing Lawn Road features a cantilevered stairwell  giving access to cantilevered balconies that are carried the full length of the building. Today the streamlined apartment building still feels fresh with its crisp, sculpted outline and floating balconies suggesting a great ocean liner moored among the trees.  Not surprisingly, plywood featured strongly, from plywood wardrobes  and fitted kitchens to the penthouse flat – originally occupied by Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly -  its walls and floors clad in Finnish birch ply.

Jack Pritchard labelled his brainchild ‘an experiment in new ways of urban living’; a bold claim but one which rang true. The flats were intended for young professionals: people who could not afford to buy homes and would otherwise be living in digs presided over by hatchet-faced landladies in curlers, prone to imposing curfews at nine and breakfast at eight. Residents were originally expected to dine and socialise in the communal restaurant –the Isobar - on the ground floor, rather than privately in their flats. It was the UK's first attempt at communal living. In 1930s Britain this really was revolutionary.

The Isokon building offered a raffish escape from grim inter-war reality: nude sunbathing on the roof terrace soon became de rigueur. While the flats were originally intended for the not so well-off, they quickly became the epicentre of North London's avant-garde scene during the 1930s and 1940s, populated by a fashionable elite of artists, writers and other free thinkers.  Laurence Olivier and Vivienne Leigh could frequently be seen in the Isobar sipping cocktails and talking philosophy with Betrand Russell.  Famous residents at this time included the sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth; ex Bauhaus Head Walter Gropius lived there as did Marcel Breuer but perhaps its most famous resident was Agatha Christie, who wrote her only spy novel N or M?while she was living in the flats. Christie often said that she invented her characters from what she observed going on around her and at the Isokon building she would have found plenty of material.           Communal living attracted communist sympathisers.  Alongside its intellectuals and artists, the Isokon building became a haunt of some of the most prominent Soviet agents working against Britain in the 1930s and 40s, among them Arnold Deutsch, the controller of a notorious group of Cambridge spies and Melita Norwood, the longest-serving Soviet spy in British espionage history.

Glamour, notoriety and a whiff of revolutionary fervour, the Isokon building had it all. But from being a shining beacon of modernity the building’s fortunes slid and, by the end of the twentieth century it had fallen on hard times, a haunt of drug dealers and drop outs. Fortunately  a few souls with all the visionary insight of Wells-Coates and the Prtichards saw beyond the graffiti. After an extensive restoration in the early noughties, the Grade 1 listed Isokon building is riding high once again: a tribute to its creators, it will always be the house that ply built.

Swedish Ace

Winter gloom getting you down? If it is and you happen to be in London over the next few weeks I recommend you hot foot it over to Bermondsey where some instant sunshine can be found.

The Fashion and Textile Museum (who knew?) currently have a rather wonderful exhibition about the architect and designer Josef Frank and his work for the Swedish company Svensk Tenn. Linens pulsate with tropical blooms in eye-popping colours; a curtain fabric is printed with an abstracted map of 1940s Manhattan in red white and blue; and floral patterns with names like Dixieland, Himalaya and Hawaii are as fresh as the breath of Spring. It’s Prozac by the yard and a revelation if you thought that 1940s fabrics were all about cut moquette and black out curtains or that design in Sweden starts and ends with the Billy bookcase. But that’s the thing about Swedish design – it packs a punch.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about Sweden this year and it’s all done to one word: Lagom.  Remember hygge? It was the Big Thing from Denmark that you would have to have spent the last six months living as a hermit in a cave not to have heard about. Well, it seems our appetite for all things Nordic remains as healthy as ever. Lagom is a Swedish word which (very roughly) translates as ‘just enough’. It stands for moderation and not going over the top and has its origins in the country’s Lutheran religion. Lagom is central to the Swedish sense national identity and influences all aspects of the country’s life, language and culture. Anyway, it now appears that lagom has the power to enhance our lives in a similar way that hygge had just a few short months ago. I won’t go into details here, lest I have to add ‘Lifestyle Guru’ to my already heaving CV. Oh, but maybe I’m being too harsh. As so often in life, I think it’s a case of “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like”. Personally, I prefer the more tangible aspects of Swedish culture and, for those intent on getting some lagom in their life, I’d say look no further than Swedish design.

Lagom is at the heart of a favourite Swedish saying: ‘enough is as good as a feast’. At its best, Swedish design isn’t about having enough of one thing but the right amount of morethan one thing; a melding of different styles and influences which unite to create something uniquely Swedish. For this reason, the history of Swedish design is a history of happy marriages – the formal with the informal, Neo-Classicism and Rustic, Functionalism and Classical; Modernism and traditional crafts.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: General view of exhibits in the show space during the "Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting" exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum on January 26, 2017 in London, England.. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Fashion and Textile Museum)

Swedish design is about getting the ingredients and the proportions just right. What do I mean? Well let’s go back to where we started. At first sight, you couldn’t get further away from lagom than a room full of Josef Frank’s fabrics, but that’s not how they’re intended to be seen. Used economically, however, on a series of cushions, a blind or to upholster a chair, they bring it that room to life: lagom in action. Used in this way, the mantra of moderation, actually adds to rather than restricts creativity and it’s in the very DNA of Swedish design.

The roots of a distinct design identity in Sweden can be traced to the 18th century, when, after an extended stay at the court of Louis XVI at Versailles,   the future King Gustav III initiated a style of decoration that took its lead from the Neo-Classicism that was sweeping Europe at the time. Gustav III was a patron of the arts, founder of the Swedish Academy and commissioner of the Royal Opera House. Since his death (from a gunshot wound sustained at a masked ball - quite a party, by the sounds of it) the king has become synonymous with this style of furniture. The Gustavian style emphasised elegance, simplicity, lightness and comfort and offered a more liveable and more modest interpretation of Neo-Classicism than that found in England or France. It is a pared back version of French neoclassicism. Large mirrors, which maximised the light during long winters, were gilded, while chandeliers tended to have five or seven arms with candleholders. The style spread from the royal palaces of Drottningholm and Gripsholm to the town houses of the well-to-do and out to their country cottages, where it became more rustic and homespun but was still recognisably Gustavian in its origins: countryside homes were decorated with painted furniture; either white-washed or painted grey or soft cream.  The light painted finishes provided a reflective quality that was desired during the long dark winters. Life in the region was primarily responsible for shaping Scandinavian design. Long, harsh winters with very few hours of daylight kept people indoors for many months. Besides, most people lived in small houses. So it was imperative to make homes feel cosy yet airy, with every object in it reflecting as much ambient light as possible.

By the early 1920s the phrase on everyone’s lips was Swedish Grace. Swedish Grace was born out of Functionalism, the uncompromising aesthetic that sought to eradicate decoration and produce furniture and homes for the Machine Age. But pure Functionalism was always a bit too extreme for lagom loving Swedes and by the following decade designers like Josef Frank developed a style that was a more easily digestible version of Functionalism– still uncompromisingly modern but with the edges rounded, a style that would make a home feel cosy and comfortable, characterised by elegance and simplicity and even a little (whisper it) decoration. But it was in the middle decades of the twentieth century that Swedish design entered its golden age.

When we think of Scandinavian design in the twentieth century, I suppose it’s the Danes with their sculptural furniture in rosewood and teak and the Finns with their Functionalism that tend to grab the limelight. But, for my money, it’s the Swedes, with their ceramics, glass, textiles and love of pattern who provide a particularly sweet filling in the Scandi design sandwich. Let’s take a closer look at some of the people who put Swedish design on the map.

Bruno Mathsson (1907-88)

Bruno Mathsson was a furniture designer and architect. Like Josef Frank Mathsson believed in giving the machine age
a human face and designed furniture with the user in mind. The Evachair (1934) is one of the outstanding designs of Swedish modernism. It features a seat section constructed of moulded solid wood and woven hemp webbing that follows the body’s contours, providing comfort without the need for upholstery. Mathsson once said ‘comfortable sitting is an art – it ought not to be. Instead the making of chairs has to be done with such an art that the sitting will not be any “art”’. Mathsson practised what he preached and the Eva chair is a perfect synthesis of ergonomics and sculptural craftsmanship.

Stig Lindberg (1916-82)

One of the outstanding figures of mid-century Scandinavian modernism, Stig Lindberg was also one of Sweden’s most prolific and best-known designers. He designed across a range of media, including glassware and textiles, but it is probably his ceramics that are his best known work and which sum up mid-century modern Swedish style. Lindberg’s work has two distinct strands. One is sculptural, with elastic shapes and organic decoration, the other colourful and decorative. His Karnevalseries of ceramics, with decoration based on folk art and looking for all the world like illustrations from childrens’ books, was one of Lindberg’s most successful designs and a highpoint in 20thcentury ceramics.

Erik Hoglund (1932-98)

Sweden’s glass industry began to develop in the early 1920s and, over a short period, Swedish glass became a by-word
for restrained elegance and refinement, with firms like Orrefors and Kosta gaining international acclaim. But, for my money, a far more interesting episode in the history of Swedish glass is provided by Erik Hoglund, a man who brought a punk sensibility to the world of glass. Hoglund was chief designer at Boda Glass from 1953 until 1986. His early work at the firm really pushed the boundaries and included a series of heavily textured bowls and vases that was achieved by throwing potato peeling into the furnace. Hoglund’s designs, with their lumpy forms and earthy colours, were in startling contrast to his contemporaries but, despite this, were a commercial success and today Erik Hoglund is remembered as one of the key figures in mid-century Swedish design.

The Charms of a Glasshouse

Orangery or Conservatory, you don’t need green fingers to succumb to the charms of a glasshouse, says Chris Yeo.

Spring is here. The clocks have leapt forward and it’s about now that every garden lover starts getting cabin fever. There is only so much peering at snowdrops and admiring frosted leaves one can do before the desire to start living life alfresco sets in. We head outdoors, ready to be captivated by Spring’s sweet breath and then, straightaway, turnaround and head back indoors. It’s just too cold! The turning of the seasonal wheel seems to have been lost on the English weather of late. What with the Beast from the East and the Pest from the West, any attempt to enjoy the outdoor life is likely to be put off by a carpeting of snow and freezing temperatures. Should we be surprised? For a country on the same latitude as Russia, our love affair with the outdoors might be considered more a triumph of optimism over reality. So just how are we supposed to uphold our claim to be a nation of gardeners when our weather is so often less than clement? You could try houseplants but, quite honestly, who wants to cope with a jungle in the sitting room, especially when it involves having to play handmaiden of the leaf shine lotion to a collection of potted dust magnets? Personally, I’ve always liked the halfway house of, to use an old-fashioned word, the glasshouse. After all, who does not long for the warmth of the sun during the darkest days of January, or dream of the tropics in the midst of a frigid February? The attraction of a conservatory or orangery is more than merely bringing the outside inside. It’s an oasis of tranquillity, a space to indulge a passion for dahlias or date palms, and one of the best places on earth to enjoy a glass of something chilled when the temperature outside is a bit too chilly. Glasshouses may do nothing to end a long winter, but, as has been the case for centuries, they bring the scents and sense of the outdoors in, despite the weather.

Conservatory lovers have Tiberius Caesar, Rome’s second emperor from 14 to 37 AD, to thank for the invention of the original glasshouse. He insisted that his favourite fruits be available all year round and set his gardeners to work, clothing cold frames with mica to capture sunlight. The earliest known glasshouses appeared in England in the 17th century, but not to designs that would be familiar to us today. At that time they were merely stone structures with more glazing in them than the buildings nearby and were designed to protect shrubs such as myrtle and bay from the worst of the winter cold.

People who live in glasshouses should refrain from throwing stones. They should also brush up on their etymology; is it a conservatory or an orangery? ‘Orangery' certainly sounds like the smarter option, but is there really much of a difference? Well, yes. An orangery looks distinctly different from a conservatory. Typically, its walls, pillars and window frames are more substantial than those of a conventional conservatory. The name reflects their original purpose, which was to protect citrus trees that would be raised in tubs and introduced into the building during early autumn. The origins of the orangery are to be found in Renaissance Italy but it was the growing taste for oranges and other citrus fruits amongst the wealthy of northern Europe that saw their popularity blossom. Fittingly, it was William III – Prince of Orange – who is credited with introducing them to Britain, when he became King in 1689. Initially exclusively built and owned by Royalty and aristocracy, orangeries quickly became a vital ingredient of any garden of taste – a space where horticulture rubbed shoulders with high fashion. People suddenly wanted to spend more time in their plant-housing space and orangeries started to become person as well as plant-friendly. It would not be unusual for plants to be removed during the hotter summer months and the area to be used for social occasions, parties and tea-drinking. Often, designed to imitate Greek or Roman temples, originally, orangeries were built as extensions on large buildings, but as fashions changed, it soon became popular to have them separate from the main house.

When the term ‘conservatory’ was initially coined, like the orangery, it referred to stand-alone structures that were often used to house exotic plants. Gradually the name became attached to buildings which, unlike orangeries, were more glass than wall and - here’s the crucial difference - were more likely to be part of the main house. A combination of the hefty window tax introduced in 1696, and the glass tax introduced in 1746, made even the smallest conservatory remarkable and put glasshouses far beyond the reach of the average country squire. To the majority of the population, it was an object of awe and signified prestige, wealth and power – the Georgian equivalent of a private jet, if you like, but things were about to change. By the 1840s both the glass and window taxes were abolished; making glasshouses affordable to a greater percentage of the population. Not only that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the cost of making glass dropped dramatically. New technologies of making plate glass rather than blown glass, resulted in larger, cheaper panes, and coincided with the emergence of cast iron, which was strong enough to carry larger expanses of glass. It was the perfect technological storm and the glasshouse grew and grew, not just in popularity but also size. It also coincided with the introduction of plants from all over the empire collected by a new breed of plant hunters. Travellers and merchants would return from afar with specimens not previously seen in this country. They brought in plants that we now regard as commonplace - such as orchids, lilies and lupins - but back then were heralded as exotic beauties.

The Victorian period was the Golden Age of the glasshouse. This was largely down to one man, Joseph Paxton, a man who did for the glasshouse what Isambard Kingdom Brunel did for railways and suspension bridges. Paxton was the very image of the Victorian polymath, a gardener, engineer, architect, magazine editor, landscape designer and, in his spare time, a Member of Parliament. He blazed a trail in glass architecture. Between 1836 and 1841 he built the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, at the time the large glass building in the world. Shaped like a tent, it was 277 feet long, 67 feet high and covered ¾ of an acre. Eight boilers heated the conservatory through seven miles of iron pipe and it cost over £30,000 to build. There was a central carriageway and when Queen Victoria was driven through, it was lit with twelve thousand lamps. Even she was amused, noting in her diary that it was ‘the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable’. The Great Conservatory inspired the construction of conservatories worldwide but it was only the beginning for Paxton. The following decade he was commissioned to design and build Crystal Palace in London – a global symbol of Victorian Britain’s industrial prowess – that covered 19 acres and required 293,635 panes of glass.  The Crystal Palace helped popularise the use of glass as a building material, and Victorian Britain went glasshouse mad with homes sprouting conservatories of all shapes and sizes as a result of their owners being wowed by Paxton’s epic creation.

The First World War was a major blow to the glasshouse. Many gardening staff left to fight and didn’t return. Homeowners rarely had the labour or money for their upkeep, and many fell into dereliction. Even Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory was demolished in 1920 and the Crystal Palace – on its knees financially - went up in flames in 1936. But it isn’t all a tale of woe. Many of those that did survive have been lovingly restored and today the glasshouse – whether orangery or conservatory – is a proud feature of homes great and small, enabling lovers of nature to enjoy the feel of the garden all year-round.

Image credits: 1-2 Author’s own

Remaining; Chatsworth House Trust