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.

Mid-Century Not Out

Did life exist before Mad Men?* It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot since the peerless series faded to black for the final time (*answer: yes, but it didn’t look as good).

Critics may have focused on the internal machinations at the Sterling Cooper ad agency but, as we all know, the real star of the show was the sumptuous mid-century styled sets: Gorgeous eyefuls of caramel coloured interiors with sleek, sensuously curved furniture and desk lamps that deserved their own mini-series. Has there ever been a tv series so determined to make the viewer drool with couch envy? Of course our love of all things mid-century was already well established by the time Don Draper sparked up his first Lucky Strike. Hard to believe that it’s twenty years since furniture of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s came in from the cold and started making serious headway in the style supplements and salerooms. Fashions come and go; nowhere is this more true than in the conjoined worlds of antiques and interiors, but, two decades on, mid-century is still here, stronger than ever. It remains the chic-style option it always was and, no longer hobbled by its former retroassociations, Mid-Century has taken its place alongside Art Nouveau and Art Deco as an established epoch in 20thcentury design history. Before you embark on a full Mad Men inspired home makeover, here’s my guide to the essentials of mid-century furniture, a style that remains as fresh and innovative in 2016 as it did half a century ago.

What do we mean by mid-century?

As the name suggests, the style dates from the middle decades of the 20thcentury, roughly from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. Rather like Art Deco, the name was coined long after the period in question. When it first emerged, our parents and grandparents knew it as Contemporary, and as a decorative style it influenced everything from the shape of a sofa, a vase or a coffee pot to the pattern on a tablecloth. It was youthful, stylish and bang up to date, and that was exactly what people wanted. Every style comes with its cultural baggage and mid-century speaks of an era of confidence, one which looked ahead optimistically to a bright future of ever increasing economic prosperity with more money and leisure time to relax and enjoy life. Mid-century interiors were all about chic style and ease of living, and this was also reflected in the furniture. Small wonder it appeals to us so much today.

Deciphering the mid-century style can at first seem something of a challenge. Certainly not all modern furniture from this period will be in the mid-century style. Plastic inflatable furniture from the 1960s, for example, is definitely not mid-century (it would be an example of Pop design, in case you were wondering). As anMid-Century Interior  illustration, let’s try this: At first sight a Danish rosewood and leather dining chair by Neils Moller seems to have very little in common with an American high-gloss white fibreglass Tulip chair by Eero Saarinen, yet they’re both hailed as mid-century design classics. So what’s going on? Well, I’d say what unites these seemingly unrelated chairs boils down to three things: simple, modern elegance, functional comfort and fine craftsmanship.  In my view, it’s the mix of those three essential elements which is the hallmark of mid-century design. Mid-century designers had a dictum: Form follows function, in practice this meant no excess decoration or unnecessary flourishes.  In less capable hands it’s a mantra that might have resulted in some very boring furniture. Fortunately for us, the generation of designers who followed it was one of the best the design world has ever seen. With the possible exception of the Regency period in the early 19thcentury, perhaps no other point in history has produced quite the same number of top calibre artists and designers as the 1950s and ‘60s: Charles and Ray Eames, Robin Day, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and scores more. Unlike the Regency period, however, when only the wealthiest could afford the best furniture, mid-century designers were driven by a mission to bring good design to the many rather than the few and embraced mass-production with the result that their designs are still relatively plentiful today and Amen to that. But the mid-century movement is more than a mere roll-call of designer names (nice though that is). The philosophy of good design available to all, which those great designers championed, was taken up by manufacturers at the more affordable end of the market, with many smaller factories producing good quality, well designed furniture within easy reach of the middle class. The names of most of these designers have mostly been lost to history but today, these pieces can be picked up at reasonable prices while still ticking all the boxes for style and quality.

Where did the mid-century style originate?

After World War Two furniture designers began to move away from the hard lines and polished chrome of pre-war German inspired modernism towards a softer, warmer aesthetic. The great architect-designer Marcel Breuer led the way and others soon followed. The mood was for something more human, more organic and for this everyone looked north. Since the 1930s Scandinavian, especially Finnish, designers had developed a soft modernism, relying on wood rather than metal and drawing on their own native skills in cabinetmaking, producing designs that were simple, understated and elegant. This fitted the mood exactly and Finland, Sweden and Denmark moved centre stage, becoming the benchmark for the best of mid-century style. What we tend to think of as classic mid-century furniture, in rosewood or teak with soft, fluid curves and simplicity of form has its roots in 1940s and ‘50s Scandinavia. It wasn’t just the north that had a part to play in the mid-century look. The 1950s was a time of convergence in design, when Italian, French and British, as well as Nordic influences began to merge together, creating a style that was truly international in its outlook. But at its heart the mid-century style was solidly American. America in the 1950s was the powerhouse economy of the world with previously undreamt of levels of wealth and international influence. A new generation of young designers set out to reshape the look of modern America, pushing the boundaries of furniture design by experimenting with new materials and manufacturing techniques.

Harry Bertoia (1915-78) was born in Italy and moved to the USA in 1930. He studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Fine Arts near Detroit, Michigan and eventually became head of the metal working department at the academy. Bertoia brought a sculptor’s eye to his furniture designs, particularly in the series of wire mesh chairs he designed in the early 1950s. The Bird lounge chair, designed in 1951-2 for Knoll, has been described as looking like a piece of sculpture suspended in space. The chair, which was mass-produced but by hand rather than machine, was made by welding a sheet of metal mesh into shape and then welding it on to the wire legs.

Mid-century designers eagerly embraced the possibilities created by new materials like plywood and plastic. Eero Saarinen (1910-61) was particularly influenced by developments in the field of plastics. His Tulip chair was one of the first chairs designed with a single pedestal base and was revolutionary when it was introduced in 1956. A true Modernist, Saarinen’s chair was a solution to what he saw as the clutter of chair legs under a dining table. A design classic, the Tulip chair anticipates the Pop design movement of the 1960s by a good ten years and is every bit as striking today as it was when it was new.

Although America and Scandinavia drove the mid-century look, other countries produced significant designers whose work is highly desirable today. In Britain, William Plunkett (1928-2013) was a designer with a background in engineering who worked in a highly individual style. Like Harry Bertoia, he combined his engineering skills with a sculptural flair and created a series of elegant metal-framed seating that won many design awards.

An essential ingredient in the mid-century interior was lighting. Lighting has, of course, always had a practical use in the home but was now more closely integrated in the overall decorative scheme. The floor lamp, designed in 1950 by George Rispal is a highpoint in mid-century lighting design. The coolie shade and cylindrical shade provide task and ambient lighting respectively, while the strikingly organic form, inspired by the work of German-French artist and sculptor Hans Arp (1886-1966), means it works as a piece of sculpture every bit as much as a lamp.

Well designed, refined, slick without being cold, at times a little decadent but never camp and very grown up; the appeal of mid-century furniture is highly seductive and it’s easy to understand why, twenty years after its rediscovery, it’s in ruder health than ever.

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.