By Peter Wyeth
It is perhaps strange to think that the designers working for post-war British manufacturers was often one of the backroom boys, their contribution to a product going largely unacknowledged. James Leonard, designer for the Educational Supply Association (ESA), is a case in point.
James Leonard chair: designs for schools
James Leonard created a school chair in 1946/7, the X201, which was innovatively constructed in aluminium from decommissioned weapons left over from the Second World War, when wood was scarce and the government encouraged manufacturers to use new materials. But it was with a lesser-known chair, the X202, or ‘Master’s’ chair, that he made perhaps one of the most undervalued contributions to 20th century design. Both designs were part of a range of aluminium furniture for schools designed by James Leonard and launched in 1947/8.
James Leonard chair: Scandinavian style in the classroom
Immediately after the war James Leonard persuaded his boss at the ESA, an eccentric character called Jonny Appleton, to take a trip to Scandinavia in his Bentley. Through this journey James Leonard was able to facilitate the epiphany necessary to convince Appleton that modern Scandinavian design was just what the company needed. The trip resulted in James Leonard’s radical designs for the new aluminium range. In order to produce this range — in what was basically a woodworking factory — James Leonard had to persuade Appleton to buy a high-pressure diecasting machine and his boss duly invested the then almost unimaginable amount of £50,000 to import an American machine capable of producing nine chairs a minute.
James Leonard chair: making the X201 and X202 chairs
By 1966 the ESA had sold over one million of these chairs. The range included the X201, a stacking table with ‘compass’ legs (designed three years before Prouve’s comparable and more widely celebrated table), an elegant ‘Master’s’ desk and the X202 ‘Master’s’ chair. Few examples of the X202 chair are known to survive and finding one is like my own quest for the holy grail! The X202 was made up of two large aluminium castings, one for each side of the chair, incorporating the legs, chair side, back support and an elegant arm design — all in one piece. There are three interesting points about the design. First, although it is an industrial casting for a school chair, there are no simple parallel sections — each part recedes towards a point, giving the whole piece a dynamism you would not expect to see in such a modestly-priced chair. Second, the back legs exemplify that dynamism by projecting from the seat-back to quite an extravagant degree, and are angled slightly towards each other. They are also highly practical, as the projection makes it more difficult to lean back on the legs and tip the chair over. Thirdly, the arm extends in one piece from the seat side to the backrest via an elegant curve that pinches the shape where the strut meets the armrest. Such rare sculptural beauty would be a delight in any chair, let alone a budget model for schools.
James Leonard chair: an end to post-war optimism
In 1951, just four years after it had first been manufactured, the original X202 was dropped for a cheaper replacement with wooden arms adapted from the X201. The factory initially insisted on a simple oblong block for the arms, but James Leonard fought for eighteen months for a complex curved shape to fit the sitter’s arm. After thirty years at the ESA, James Leonard still had to fight for every detail — and, on this occasion, he won.
It was a brief period of post-war optimism that gave James Leonard, as the designer, an opportunity to push the boundaries in terms of school furniture design, and with the X202 chair he created a classic British mid-century chair design, making it’s rarity today all the more poignant.
The full article James Leonard and the Curious case of the X202 Chair was published in MidCentury issue 04
There’s more from Peter Wyeth in Ernest Race: Three classic Mid Century chairs