Alvar and I

Musings about vintage design furniture

Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Breuer

Modern Britannia

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Old Blimey is not usually where vintage design hunters would set their sights in their quest for the finest pieces, rather going for France, Italy or the Nordic countries. This would be missing important early modernists and excellent 50s furniture. Also, the UK was an important market for modernist furniture, being for instance the first export market for Aalto furniture (distributed by Finmar Ltd) and there is nice vintage from other designers as well.

Gerald Summers and the beautifully named Makers of Simple Furniture is said to be the most innovative UK designer of the 1930s. This claim is easily supported by his armchair (1933-1934) a masterpiece of modernism. Uniquely, for the time,  the chair was manufactured of a single sheet of plywood following an ingenious design. This solution was motivated by the intended use of the chair in tropical climates where metal joinery would not have resisted humidity. Unfortunately Makers of Simple Furniture was active for only 11 years from 1929 to 1939 when it had to shut down because of restrictions on the importation plywood. Summers never really went back to design. Only 120 armchairs were produced.

Gerald Summers- Armchair – Makers of Simple Furniture

Isokon was founded on the same year as Makers of Simple Furniture and ceased its activities in 1939 for the exact same reason. We are very found of the idea that Isokon was founded by a bacteriologist, a sollicitor and economist! Isokon was closely associated with the Bauhaus, and harbored German designers fleeing the Nazi regime. Walter Gropius was controller of design there between 1934 and 1937. He recommended Marcel Breuer whose most striking design is his armchair, a translation of an earlier metal design for Wohnbedarf in Switzerland. Another iconic design is the Penguin Donkey by Jack Pritchard and Egon Riss. Jack Pritchard was managing the company and went on to relaunch Isokon in 1963 and work with Ernest Race (more on him below). The company was relaunched a third time in 1999 under the brand name of Isokonplus.

Marcel Breuer- Chaise Longue- Isokon

Jump forward to 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, where two major names of British design, Ernest Race and Robin Day came to the fore. The Springbok chair by Ernest Race was picked for the Festival’s cafe. This design is now slightly forgotten for the more famous Antelope and Unicorn chairs.

Ernest Race – Unicorn chair- Race Furniture Ltd

Bukowskis-Unicorn chair

Robin Day was commissioned at the Festival of Britain to design the Royal Festival Hall seats. The Royal Festival Armchair is a particular favorite. He and his wife Lucienne, a textile designer, went on to become the much loved British equivalent of Charles and Ray Eames and embody British modernism. Lucienne Day sadly passed away last month. Robin Day established a successful collaboration with the furniture maker Hille. The Polyprop and Polo chairs they produced together were huge successes.

Robin Day- Armchair for the Royal Festival Hall

The 1950s and 1960s saw several good designers and editors producing modernist furniture, inspired by Scandinavian and names like Ercol, Heritage, Archie Shine, G Plan, Merrow Associates and Stag are coming back into fashion. Here is a good BBC Homes and Antiques article and links to good UK dealers of these design. Hurry while they are still affordable: prices are rising fast and new pieces constantly appear on the market. You can also  pay a visit to Concrete Box and Mark Parrish who offer a very good selection of British vintage designs.


Webbings we like

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Aalto, Grabbe, Mathson, Risom: what do these four giants have in common? They all used webbing in some of their most famous designs. There is something both elegant and cheap to furniture using webbed canvas, and for a good reasons as often these designs were borne out of necessity.

Aalto is the precursor, with his Model 406 “Pension” Chair, designed in 1933 and a successor to the Model 41 armchair, with a higher back for comfort. But what makes this chair remarkable is the use of a cotton canvas webbing after many years of experimentation with laminated wood. The webbing offers smoother support and better airflow.

Alvar Aalto – Model 406 Chair – Artek

Bruno Mathsson successfully borrowed from Aalto the use of canvas webbing, which offered lightness and durability. Mathsson experimented with different woods and webbing materials from jute to paper. Further reading can be found here courtesy of Webvg.

Bruno Mathsson – Pernilla Chair

Jens Risom used webbing for his first collection for Knoll in the US. Wartime restrictions lead him to use webbing made out of parachute fabric and walnut. We particularly like the use of color in his designs.

Jens Risom – 654 W Side Chair – Knoll


Like Risom, Klaus Grabbe used military fabric due to wartime restrictions for his 1948 Chaise Longue. The thick exagerated section is very reminiscent of Risom’s chair, but made of plywood. Breuer is said to have inspired Grabbe, who also designed this other pretty striking reclining model .

Klaus Grabbe – Chaise Longue

Chaise longuee

Update: we ought to add this one, recently seen at RetroModern Design

Axel Larsson – Side Chair- Bodafors

Written by Alvar and I

February 28, 2010 at 1:01 pm