Following on from our Buyer’s Guide to Isokon furniture in MidCentury issue 07, we wanted to share a little more of the inspirational story behind a brand that is still in production today.
All photographs courtesy of Isokon Plus
Isokon furniture: A British brand with longevity
In 1982, founder of Windmill Furniture Chris McCourt, brought back to life the furniture brand Isokon, a name synomous with the entrepreneurial spirit of British design enthusiast Jack Pritchard and the 1930s designs of a team of Bauhaus pioneers including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Lázló Moholy-Nagy. Isokon Plus, as the company is now known, have since reproduced licenced versions of the original pieces as well as championing contemporary work from the likes of esteemed designers BarberOsgerby and Michael Sodeau. As London-based Scandinavian design store Skandium prepare to partner with Isokon Plus in launching a number of pieces from the Isokon archive never put into production before, we ask Magnus Englund, Managing Director at Skandium, to tell us about the history of the company that inspired the project.
Isokon furniture: links with the Bauhaus
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, an influx of continental architect-designers arrived in Britain – they were the radical thinkers, the modernists on the political Left, who had come to Britain seeking asylum from Nazism in Europe. In 1935, Jack Pritchard, who had co-founded London-based architect-design company Isokon in 1932, invited the former Head of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, to be Isokon’s Controller of Design. Gropius lived in the only building designed and built by Isokon, the Lawn Road Flats, for a few years himself. Prior to leaving England for the US in 1937, he recommended Marcel Breuer, a former colleague at the Bauhaus and fellow Lawn Road resident, as his replacement.
Isokon furniture: plywood in Britain
Jack Pritchard had been Sales Manager of Estonian company Venesta, the largest manufacturer of plywood in the world in the 1930s and as a result ply was used almost exclusively by Isokon in the furniture it produced. Venesta had factories in London’s Silvertown and in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Paris, Moscow and Calcutta. The company’s growth in Britain had largely come about because of the tea trade. Tea was transported by ship in plywood crates made by Venesta, which were sealed with their patented glue to make them water-tight – even Scott packed his food in Venesta crates when he went to the South Pole!
Isokon furniture: Marcel Breuer and Egon Riss
Marcel Breuer was responsible for many of Isokon’s signature pieces. The Long Chair was probably Breuer’s most notable legacy for Isokon, which was in fact a recreation of a chair he’d made in Switzerland in 1933 that was constructed with an aluminium frame. It’s likely that Jack Pritchard recognised that metal furniture may be a step too far for British taste, and requested that Breuer design a wholly timber structure. The ply seat was produced by Venesta in Estonia, and the arms were manufactured by Isokon in Britain. The seats were actually packaged in ply for transportation, and Isokon re-used this material for the arms. Breuer eventually followed Gropius to the US and Egon Riss, an Austrian émigré, took his role, designing the Penguin Donkey. Production ceased with the outbreak of war in 1939. Graphic designer László Moholy-Nagy completed the ex-Bauhaus team at Isokon in 1935, creating sales leaflets and the striking Isokon logo that is still so recognisable today.
Photograph courtesy of Skandium
Isokon furniture and Ernest Race
Jack Pritchard revived Isokon furniture in 1963, hiring British designer Ernest Race to update the design of their iconic bookstand, the Penguin Donkey, known as the ‘mark II’. In 1968 Pritchard licenced John Allan Designs to produce the Long Chair, Nesting Tables and Penguin Donkey mark II, which the company did until 1980 when production again ceased.
Isokon Plus and Barber Osgerby
Isokon Plus, as it is now known, is owned by Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture, who took on the licence for Isokon products in 1982. And the designs didn’t stop there, as Isokon commissioned the then recent RCA graduates Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby to add to the bent plywood range, which they did very successfully in designing the Loop table.
Isokon Plus: a new project with Skandium
Isokon Plus and London-based Scandinavian design store Skandium are now going one step further, working together to offer consumers a range of pieces from the archive that have either long ceased to be manufactured or indeed were never made at all. Magnus Englund, co-founder of Skandium says, “There are about ten Isokon pieces that haven’t been in production since the ’30s. There are also a few prototype pieces that never made it into production in the first place, including a coffee table by architect Walter Gropius. We hope these will be manufactured for the first time.”
Visit contemporary brand Isokon Plus
Find out more about visiting the Isokon Gallery
To buy new Isokon furniture, take a look at Skandium’s collection here
Find out about other work by mid-century British designer Ernest Race
Read about Marcel Breuer and his link with Bristol here
Learn more about the Isokon Trust and the UEA collection here
You can view the V&A Isokon Collection here
Find out more about the designs of Barber Osgerby here