All photographs courtesy of Race Furniture, www.racefurniture.com
2013 is the centenary of Ernest Race’s birth, and it therefore seems timely to revisit the work of this great British designer, who in a relatively short career produced some of the most iconic work of his generation.
It wasn’t until after World War II that Ernest Race began working as a furniture designer, responding to the government’s call for furniture to be manufactured from the limited list of ‘unrestricted’ materials available. He used cast aluminium and steel rods, the manufacture of which had been refined in the wartime production of aircraft and armaments, to produce his first chair in 1946: the BA3 dining chair. It consisted of elegant pieces of cast aluminium bolted together and this was to win him the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale in 1955.
We’ve asked Peter Wyeth, previously Consultant at Race Furniture, to walk us through three of Ernest Race’s most iconic chair designs.
Ernest Race and The Rocker, 1948
In 1948, the same year the Eames were devising their own take on a rocking chair on the other side of the Atlantic, Ernest Race decided to rework the Victorian rocking chair into the Rocker. This unfashionable form was brought smack up-to-date, the eccentricity of the curving rear wire supports adding to its charm while it remained entirely functional, with extended seat sides to add rigidity to the rear rail. This was a typical example of Race confidently adapting a historic design to look forward, combining a classic aesthetic with an imaginative use of modern materials and a very English sense of fun.
Ernest Race and The Antelope, 1951
The Antelope chair, was designed for the 1951 Festival of Britain, which put Race up against the best designers of that wonderful period of post-war optimism. And he impressed. Gordon Russell, chair of the judges and one of the most eminent furniture makers of the earlier generation, thought Race’s designs ‘miles ahead’ of his contemporaries. Jack Pritchard, of Isokon, declared the Antelope had ‘Form, Wit and Grace’.
Its form came from the airy nature of its steel wire design, its wit from the playful reference to English chair design of the 18th Century, with that wavy arm and angled back, and the grace from its proportions and how lightly it sat upon the ground. Its contemporary ball feet may perhaps reference molecular structures, part of that post-war determination to look forward. The combination of new materials and a nod to traditional chair design made the Antelope a genuinely iconic chair.
Ernest Race and The Heron, 1955
The Heron easy chair would appear to be Race’s tribute to Eero Saarinen’s Womb chair (1948). However the curves of Saarinen’s design are replaced by more angular planes, and the mounting of the skinny aluminium legs on the outside of the fabric adds a Modernist touch. Using the same techniques that he devised for the Rocker in 1948, Race screwed the legs into a welded steel rod frame beneath the fabric. It was the use of latex foam though that enabled him to create the clean-cut shape that still looks so modern today.
Race Furniture today: useful links
Race Furniture are still in operation today, now based in Gloucestershire, and while they specialise in the design and manufacture of auditorium seating systems, the company have recently reissued the BA3 chair, Rocker chair, Antelope chair and Heron chair as part of the Race Classic Furniture Range. These are available through a number of contemporary furniture suppliers in the UK.
Vintage examples can be sourced through the dealers in our Directory
To read Peter Wyeth’s article on Ernest Race’s fellow British designer James Leonard, see MidCentury issue 04