Photograph courtesy of V&A Publishing
Modern British Furniture: Design Since 1945 by Lesley Jackson
Lesley Jackson’s Modern British Furniture offers just what our book shelves have been missing – a detailed survey of British mid-century furniture design. This book is not simply a record of furniture produced in that period, rather it focuses on spotlighting the more innovative companies and particularly ingenious examples of design. Her survey is broad, featuring many lesser known examples of furniture and more obscure design names, meaning there’s something in here that’s bound to surprise, whatever your level of expertise.
Another surprise might be the book’s large time frame. Its 300 plus pages run right up to the present day. Modern British Furniture is divided into three sections – ‘The Conquest of “Contemporary”’ (1945 to 1960), ‘Furniture in the Space Age’ (1960 to 1980) and ‘Import Export’ (1980 to 2013), but the book’s intention to highlight previous neglected areas means that (pleasingly for MidCentury readers) the first, earliest section is also the biggest.
Modern British Furniture: 1950s and the rise of the ‘Contemporary’
Within each section, Lesley Jackson gives an overview of each period, before providing more detailed case studies that focus on individual designers and manufacturers.
Antelope Bench, Ernest Race, 1951. Photograph courtesy of V&A Publishing
The overviews are great in setting the British context for the designs, and a reminder that politics and economics can have as much influence on design as individual tastemakers or wider design movement. While 1946’s Britain Can Make It exhibition whetted the public appetite for modern design – further excited by Ernest Race’s Antelope and Springbok chairs at the Festival of Britain – the Utility furniture scheme didn’t fully end until December 1952.
Even then, shortages of materials still impacted design, forcing companies to innovate to fulfil demand for the new ‘contemporary’ style. But the 1950s weren’t a complete break with what had gone before. For example, it was wartime mechanisation that made the E. Gomme factory more efficient, paving the way for post-war expansion and the launch of G-Plan from 1952.
Jason stacking chair, Carl Jacobs for Kandya, 1953. Photograph courtesy of V&A Publishing
The overview also makes you appreciate some of the nuances of British taste in the 1950s. One fact that leapt out was that in 1955 only 1.25% of furniture sales were imports and exports were only 1.3%. Increasing imports from places such as Denmark disrupted this balance. It meant British companies couldn’t compete in the domestic furniture market and caused the likes of Race and Kandya to focus on the contract field instead.
Modern British Furniture: highlighting overlooked designs
The case studies, meanwhile, contain all the obvious big hitters, such as Ercol, Race and Robin Day, as well as providing invaluable information given on designers that are lesser known today, such as Robert Heritage. For collectors, it’s probably the case studies that will be of most interest. They give details and dates of individual designs and ranges that will be fantastically helpful for identifying and comparing pieces. There are also some wonderful descriptions to enjoy, such as the one given to the D3000 Dining Set 1952 by Heal’s, which “with its two seats of tripod legs, had a decidedly animalistic quality, as though it might scuttle off like a crab.”
The book is generously illustrated, with most of the major pieces represented, either with a handsome colour photograph, or with a reproduction from an original advertisement or marketing brochure, showing how the piece was presented to the world for the first time. That was even sometimes innovative in itself, as makers sold to the public directly, rather than going through retailers.
Hamilton Sideboard, Robert Heritage, 1957. Photograph courtesy of V&A Publishing
And, although perhaps it should go without saying, these case studies also help underline how post-war furniture designers weren’t working in a bubble. They also tried to reflect changing times and homes. Robert Heritage’s Hamilton sideboard (awarded Design of the Year in 1958) was inspired by a visit to Harlow New Town in Essex, for example.
Flamingo armchair, Ernest Race, 1957. Photograph courtesy of V&A Publishing
Modern British Furniture: 1940s to today
A disadvantage of Modern British Furniture’s three-part structure is that the stories of larger companies such as Hille and Terence Conran/Habitat are split between sections. But that’s really a minor quibble, as it helps Jackson make wider points about changes that have happened in the British furniture industry. While post-war hardship inspired inventiveness, prosperity in the 1960s seems to have led to complacency in many of the larger companies.
When the story reaches more recent years – covering the decline in manufacturing and the closing of many once prosperous businesses – it can make for depressing reading. The comfort, however, lies in the fact that although Britain’s furniture industry is much smaller today, it does appear to have its design confidence back. It’s international looking and, Jackson argues, with something of the urge for innovation that drove its post-war predecessors. Definitely a reason to keep reading…
Storage system, Robin Day for Hille, 1951. Photograph courtesy of V&A Publishing
Modern British Furniture: Design Since 1945
By Lesley Jackson
Published by V&A Publishing
Dimensions 270 x 216 mm
Read Lesley Jackson’s article on the links between Danish and British furniture design in MidCentury 08
Buy a copy of Modern British Furniture here
Discover more about Race Archives
Learn more about British mid-century classic, the Stag S Range sideboard by John and Sylvia Reid, in our Buyer’s Guide