Antelope chair by Race Furniture, all images courtesy of Race Furniture
It’s almost 75 years since the birth of Race Furniture and so it seems timely to revisit the work of this great British designer, who in a relatively short career produced some of the most iconic designs of his generation. It was a treat to be invited by the Managing Director of Race Furniture, Stuart Finlator, to visit their Gloucestershire factory, have a root through the archives and learn more about their reissued ‘Classic Collection’. An article and full set of photographs is published in MidCentury issue 07, but here are a few additional questions I asked while I was there!
Antelope and Springbok chairs at the Festival of Britain, 1951, courtesy Race Furniture
How did Ernest Race come to be hired?
Engineer Noel Jordan, the founder of Race Furniture, saw the potential after the War of producing furniture. He needed a lead designer and put an advert in The Times. Ernest Race was among the 300 designers who responded. Jordan stated in a letter to Ernest Race that, given the shortage of hard woods at the time, the demand for furniture of first class artistic merit would be tremendous, explaining that the designs should not simply follow in the footsteps of the Old Masters, but should utilise the materials available (namely aluminium, steel, and ply wood) to give durability and functionality as well as visual appeal. What’s more, the designer would be given a free hand in naming his work!
The most celebrated Ernest Race design is perhaps the Antelope chair of 1951, the winning entry in a competition for a Festival of Britain chair. What made this chair so special?
The design was influenced by the wire-framed terrace chairs you see in the South of France, and typifies the light joie de vivre spirit with which Race designed. He simply took a line and created a silhouette. It sits quietly in a space, the gaps between the bars allowing it to melt into its surroundings. The style represented an English take on the Modern world and reflected a national lifting of spirits following the gloom of the post-war years; this was briefly termed ‘New Elizabethanism’ after the Coronation in 1952. The Antelope chair demonstrates a quirky, English spirit that arguably has never been captured again. It’s rather wonderful.
DA chair by Race Furniture
How did Ernest Race adapt his designs for the more compact living spaces of the 1950s?
In 1946 Ernest Race created the ‘DA’ chair, putting his own stamp on a staple favourite, the quintessentially English Wingback chair. He deconstructed it and built it back up again for the modern environment, diminishing its bulk to create a more streamlined design. Race Furniture explains to its customers in its 1951 catalogue, ‘Bulk and weight are not synonymous with comfort’. Interestingly though, the chairs seem to be marketed to a traditional consumer – the advertisements display them in traditional interiors, the man of the house smoking his pipe in the high-backed model, his wife doing her knitting in the low backed one. In this way Ernest Race’s designs were distinct from International modernism and indeed the work of some of the more purist British designers, like Robin Day; there is still a snoop back at the past in Race’s work.
DA chairs in a foyer at the Royal Festival Hall, photo by David Potts, courtesy Race Furniture
What do you think the Ernest Race brand was so successful?
The success of the Race Furniture designs was brought about through the combination of Noel Jordan, an engineer who understood the structural properties of each chair, and the very graphic qualities and wit in Ernest Race’s design mind.
Do you have a favourite Ernest Race design?
The BA Chair stands out for me as the finest piece of design, due to its simple, elegant lines. It is very British and evocative of the time, it’s surprisingly comfortable, nicely compact and is also as tough as old boots!
BA chair by Race Furniture
Does Race Furniture still adhere to the design ethos of Ernest Race?
He is there in spirit, in the desire for simplicity and clean-looking design. Our manifesto hasn’t changed that much, but our markets have; 90% of our business is now in fixed seating. I would say that the name and heritage sets us apart from other British fixed seating companies and we are not complacent about this. We create seating with neat, clean design in mind, rather than solely engineering considerations. Our semi-retired upholstery manager has worked with the company since 1962 – it’s a great thing to have someone who can recall how the pieces were finished originally. We also still have a lot of the original jigs for the Antelope chairs and some of the original tooling, and we still use the original dies for the aluminium castings in the chairs we re-issue. There are ingenious details on the original drawings that we still utilise too, as the engineering was so good.
Festival dining hall with BA chairs, courtesy Race Furniture
Is the manufacturing at Race Furniture still done on site?
Pretty much. We don’t have a foundry on site, so the aluminium castings are made elsewhere but we are still more of a manufacturer than most. All the upholstery is done in house.
Who buys the Race Furniture Classic Range?
It’s a combination of domestic and contract clients. For example we’ve produced a lot of Race ‘Rockers’ for Google’s London HQ. The BA chair that you’re sitting on (a pared down model with a bent ply seat and aluminium frame) is a sample we made for the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch – they wanted a clear lacquer on they frame to accentuate the raw look of the aluminium. An impressively cool clientele then.
Where is the Race Furniture Classic Range available to buy?
Twentytwentyone has the biggest range and we also have a relationship with Nest and Heals – the DA chair was originally designed for them and they’re becoming more aware of this. We tend to deal with the contract sales side.
Antelope bench by Race Furniture
For more information on the Race Classic Furniture collection, visit racefurniture.com
To buy vintage Race Furniture, check out the dealers listed in our Directory
For a more detailed look at three Ernest Race chair designs, see our article Ernest Race: Three Classic Mid Century chairs
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