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

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.”

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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