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.

The Room Outside

Spring is springing up everywhere.

With the arrival of the first crocus, our thoughts inevitably turn to the outdoors and the garden - or the terrace, or the backyard, or the window box. Whatever the extent of your plot, one thing’s for sure, we love our gardens. It’s true to say that, over the last few years, the garden and all things horticultural have undergone a major image change. Gone are the days when having a nice garden meant little more than a well-tended lawn and herbaceous border. These days we expect our gardens to be every bit as stylish and distinctive as our homes – a Victorian style patio set and water feature just won’t cut it.  Planting and landscaping might be a garden’s backbone, but it’s the added structures and embellishments that transform it into something really special. But, while many of us are used to furnishing our homes with antiques, how many of us would consider buying period pieces for the garden?

Our love of gardening is as old as civilisation itself. The ancient Greeks were the first people in Europe to create gardens and adorned them with marble and bronze effigies of gods and mythological heroes. The Romans were equally keen on their gardens; some of the oldest surviving examples of garden furniture are in the gardens of Pompeii. Our Celtic ancestors cultivated small enclosures and the Tudors had their knot gardens – tightly clipped box hedges laid out in intricate patterns.  But it was in the late 1600s that the fashion for decorating gardens really took off in England. This period saw the fashion for highly formal French-style gardening, modelled on the works of Andre Notre, Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles. When Charles II regained the English throne in 1660, one of the first things he did was to ask King Louis if he might borrow Le Notre. The aristocracy were keen to follow suit and before long, grand parterres and avenues, complemented by numerous statues designed to invoke classical settings and terminate views, were the order of the day. At first the taste was for statues depicting figures from Greek and Roman mythology – the Borghese Gladiator and Hercules swinging his club were particularly popular. The earliest ornaments were carved from stone, or, for the very wealthy, marble or cast lead. As the fashion for French style gardens took hold amongst the Francophile aristocracy and those eager to copy them, a vast repertoire of ornaments were introduced into the garden, including classical vases, fountains, obelisks, balustrades and furniture. By the middle of the eighteenth century the strict formality of the French garden had yielded to something softer. Designers now sought inspiration from the landscape itself. Rolling lawns and serpentine ponds became the order of the day and, in the hands of designers like William Kent, the garden became a complete work of art. Ornaments in the form of statues, temples or follies took centre stage with every element carefully chosen to work in harmony with its neighbour. Iconography was the order of the day and the positioning of garden ornaments often had a deep symbolic meaning which, although less decipherable today, would have been easily understood by most educated people at the time. This period saw the creation of the celebrated gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Stourhead in Wilstshire. Garden “ornaments” might include a replica of the Pantheon in Rome, a temple dedicated to Apollo or an underground grotto, containing that mid-Georgian garden essential: a live hermit, who would be employed full-time as a curiosity for visitors. The job of a hermit could be fairly lucrative but there were strict conditions attached to the job description – a hermit wasn’t allowed to speak and nor could he cut his hair or fingernails.

Whilst few of us have the sort of garden that can accommodate miles of gravel paths and numerous classical temples (or hermits), a well-placed statue or urn can bring a flavour of eighteenth century grandeur to a modern day garden, acting as a focal point and adding a sense of drama. Early examples from the 17th and 18th centuries are rare and, on the rare occasions they do appear on the market, command high prices. More easily available are statues from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of these were made of composition stone or terracotta both of
which became popular in the Victorian period as way of producing good quality garden ornaments that were cheaper than stone. Henry Doulton started making terracotta garden ornaments in the late nineteenth century and by 1900, Doulton were England’s main manufactures, with a range that included window boxes, fountains and sundials. Terracotta is highly durable and has the advantage of being frost proof, enabling it to survive the rigours of an English winter. Composition stone was invented by the Romans but also took off for garden ornaments in the Victorian era. Figures and ornaments are moulded rather than carved, so multiple copies of the same piece could be produced relatively cheaply. Properly weathered, a piece made from composition stone is difficult to tell apart from a carved-stone original.

Garden furniture only started to appear widely in the nineteenth century. Before then the only seating used in a garden would have been benches of marble or stone and these would have only have been within the reach of the upper classes. In the early nineteenth century, as gardening for pleasure started to become a pastime of the middle class, wrought iron seating started to appear. This would have been made to order by the local blacksmith and, for this reason, no two pieces of wrought iron furniture will be identical. Wrought iron fell out of favour as the century progressed but remained popular on the Continent, particularly France where furniture by Arras was made for use in public parks well into the twentieth century.

The Victorian era saw a return to formality with terraces, elaborate flowerbeds and manicured lawns, complemented by a plethora of ornaments once again being de rigeur. Mass production, thanks to the Industrial Revolution brought garden furniture within the reach of an aspiring middle class, eager to ape the taste of the gentry in the big house. The invention of cast-iron made their dreams an affordable reality. There were many foundries making cast-iron garden furniture but perhaps the best known is Coalbrookdale.  Based at Ironbridge in Shropshire, the firm began by making architectural ironmongery, such as drainpipes and gutters but by the 19th century it was producing a vast number of garden seats, plant stands, urns and fountains, and all manner of other paraphernalia for the well-dressed garden. Leading designers of the day were commissioned to produce designs and, in its day, Coalbrookdale was a by-word for quality. The foundry is still in business and, as the maker of the Aga stove, still plays a big part in middle class aspirations.

It’s often the case that the most distinctive garden ornaments are made from objects that weren’t originally intended for the garden. If it’s a quirky, original look you’re after, you need to think outside the (window) box.  All that’s needed is a bit of lateral thinking: for example, a gargoyle head can make an excellent wall fountain. Stone troughs, originally used for animals to drink from, were at one time a feature of every village. Bedded out with plants they make an imposing statement and are highly sought after today. Beaten coppers vats, originally used for boiling laundry or making cheese, are solidly constructed with rivets and take on a wonderful patina with age. They are now enjoying a new popularity, not for laundry but as vast bedding planters. It’s not just large items that make a statement. Vintage garden tools used for gardening can be used as smaller decorative elements leaned against fences or left on tables. Wheelbarrows and old carts are the perfect containers for planting out vivid summer blooms, while garden rollers simply need propping up against an old brick wall to look good. Terracotta flower pots, trowels made of metal from the 1950s, rakes with handmade teeth and branch handles and early 20th century metal buckets and enamelware watering cans all add a distinctive personal touch.

Rolling acres or roof terrace, rustic or urban: antiques offer a stylish way of decorating the “room outside” and there’s not a gnome in sight.

Velvet Goldmine

Does the 1970s deserve to be remembered as the decade taste forgot? Absolutely not, says antiques expert Chris Yeo. It was a time of bold experiments and high glamour.

There is, they say, nothing new in fashion. Is there anything new in design? Whatever your thoughts it can’t be denied that the lure of the past has always been a potent source of inspiration. The Romans took their style tips for everything from togas to temples from the Ancient Greeks, the Elizabethans got dewy eyed over the Middle Ages and the Victorians were besotted by anything Medieval (apart from Chaucer, who was far too dirty for them). Not much has changed except that, latterly, we have tended to take a leaf from the more recent pages of style’s back catalogue. Anyone who was around in the 1970s will remember that the 1950s held a powerful draw and now it’s the turn of the ‘70s itself to be the focus of our rose-tinted spectacles. Ah, the Seventies. They called it the decade taste forgot. Of course, “they” were the 1980s, which, if we’re talking taste, is nothing short of the pot calling the kettle black. But now the decade that brought us Abba, the hostess trolley and the three-day week is being mined by a new generation of tastemakers. Fashion has been nostalgic for the 1970s for the last few seasons, with tinted sunglasses, long floral dresses and straw handbags omnipresent on the high street and catwalks alike. However, when it comes to interior design, it’s been a different story. For years, the very mention of the word ‘Seventies’ was enough to strike fear and loathing into otherwise reasonable, aesthetically broad-minded people and it seems old prejudices die hard. Style pundits from Wallpaper magazine recently collated a shortlist of the most egregious design faux pas of the past half-a-century and guess which decade came top? But look beyond the avocado bathroom suites and macramé plant pot holders and a different picture soon emerges.

In the 1970s, interior design reached a level of exuberance that has never since been equalled. The decade centred around bold patterns and textures, strong colour schemes, and a playful approach to the adaptation of space. The austere 1950s had picked up on straight-lined 1930s modernism and run with it; the radical social changes of the 1960s threw familiar aesthetics up in the air and dropped them back to earth in a psychedelic explosion and, as the mid-century slid into the 1970s, a bold new design era settled in. The great titans of 20th century design – Mies, Marcel and Arne– hung up their pencils and went into retirement leaving the playing field clear for a new generation of designers with fresh ideas. Decorating, too, shook off its formalism, mixing patterns, time periods, materials, and colours in fresh, exciting and occasionally shocking ways. And in the decade that taste apparently forgot, certain design groups were aiming to overthrow the idea of “good taste” altogether. The so-called radical design groups such as Archizoom, formed in Italy at the turn of the new decade, were up for creating playful and provocative furniture and lighting which became the building blocks for Post-Modernism in the 1980s. 
The Seventies was a study in contrasts and contradiction: austerity and decadence, muddy earth tones and eye-popping colours. Trends that began life in the hippy communes of Haight-Ashbury grew-up, got a haircut and went mainstream. Italian designers schmoozed the world with their take on high-tech, high gloss futurism and, all over the world – from Studio 54 to Abigail’s Party – a mood of defiant decadence reigned supreme. As David Netto in The New York Times memorably put it:“The 70s were sensual and decadent. People were unafraid to take risks. The furniture was made for hanging out, lounging or sex — activities infinitely more tempting than what was going on in the places where post-war design made its mark. Imagine trying to make out on a Barcelona Chair."

Decadence and glamour were the twin beats that throbbed throughout a decade that was bookmarked by Bowie at its beginning and Grace Jones at its end – oh, be still my beating heart! They were the torch bearers of the new mood that thrived in a world filled with the harsh realities of economic uncertainties and political strife. In a decade that saw two miners’ strikes, countless I.R.A. bombing campaigns, runaway inflation and powdered orange juice, what to do but loose yourself in a whirlwind of hedonism? A mood of defiant decadence was abroad, whether it was glam rockers “gender bending” – as contemporary parlance had it – on Top of the Pops or Bianca Jagger riding into studio 54 on the back of a white stallion (because, let’s face it, how else do you let people know it’s your birthday?) In London the mood was encapsulated, branded and retailed to perfection at Big Biba, opened on Kensington High Street in 1973. Biba had started life as mail order fashion outfit but over just a few years had come to dominate the UK fashion scene. Big Biba was the firms last great shout before bankruptcy in 1975 brought an end to its reign of fabulousness. Housed in Art Deco splendour at the former Barker’s department store, complete with live flamingos on the roof garden, Big Biba offered an interior vision that took elements of Hollywood’s Golden Age and mixed it louche colours, peacock feathers and peacock chairs, crushed velvets and Art Nouveau prints. It was bold, daring and worked perfectly a world jointly ruled by Marc Bolan and Pan’s People (ask your parents).

At the same time as Biba was refashioning homes in the UK, Willy Rizzo (1928-2013) was introducing a chic – not to say disco – sensibility into furniture design. Rizzo had started his career as a fashion photographer but, at the suggestion of his friends and clients – the great and the good of fashion and film, he took a sideways step into furniture design. He was soon swamped with orders and requests. Rizzo designed and produced more than thirty pieces of furniture: sofas, consoles, hi-fi furniture, coffee tables and lighting, all of which were handmade. Rizzo’s world is one where coffee tables rotate like a vinyl disc on a turntable and then open up to reveal an integrated ice bucket – perfect for those pre or post-club Campari. He opened boutiques across France and Europe and had points of sale in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. However, in 1978, Rizzo gave it all up to return to photography, his first love. Rizzo’s furniture design channelled the sophistication of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, his pieces combining clean, simple lines with bold geometric forms and a delicate handling of materials. The result is classic modernism and very chic.

Willy Rizzo operated at the glamourous end of the sleek International style, a movement which took basic Form Follows Function Modernism and added a sheen of Jet Set sophistication. Luxury was the watchword and materials like rosewood, bronze and chrome were in. The interior design world’s new face could, in a way, be summed up in a single word: plastics. Technological advances had begun to create more flexible varieties that could be moulded into striking, sensual forms—strong but weightless, often without any hard edges. Designers revelled in the creative possibilities offered by new materials, especially plastics, which could be coloured boldly, mass-produced and, therefore, enjoyed by a wide audience. Lucite was the brand name for a clear acrylic plastic resembling glass or rock crystal, which really took off in the ‘70s. This lightweight material was easy to mould and carve and was an instant hit for everything from costume jewellery to furniture and, of course, lighting. Lucite gives an instant hit of space age glamour, as intoxicating now as it ever was.And it seems you can’t keep a good decade down. These days the once maligned ‘70s are bang on-trend, with designers, architects and style savvy buyers all eagerly embracing the decade’s bold and brash personality, from Tom Dixon’s gloriously retro copper globe pendants to a renewed love for houseplants, via bold, clashing patterns and old-school gold accessories. That the decade should be ripe for plundering for inspiration should come as no surprise the question is how could it take so long to happen?

We’ve included a few iconic items within this blog but please browse our website for many more incredibly cool 1970’s pieces.
Images: Lorfords own & Willy Rizzo