Image courtesy Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Marcel Breuer furniture in The Ken Stradling Collection
Housed in central Bristol, The Ken Stradling Collection is an extensive and personal collection of 20th century design from Britain and Scandinavia; from Ernest Race to Gordon Russell; Alvar Aalto to Arne Jacobsen. Gathered over 60 years it includes some of the greatest names in mid century furniture, ceramics and glassware. Through his work with the Bristol Guild, Stradling has championed the work of Modernist designers since 1948 and knew first-hand many of the individuals behind these great works. An encyclopaedia of anecdotes, he is the living link between the pieces and their designers.
Some of the most interesting items in The Ken Stradling Collection are the Marcel Breuer pieces designed for local furniture manufacturer P. E. Gane. We were fascinated to find out more about this collaboration and how it came about, and it was a privilege to spend a morning with Ken himself and learn first-hand about the collection and the intriguing link between Bristol and Marcel Breuer.
Bauhaus in Bristol
Few people are aware of Bristol’s significant bit-part role in the course of Modernism, yet it touched, and has been touched, by some of its key protagonists. Notably Berthold Lubetkin (1901–1990) founder of architectural group Tecton, designer of Highpoint and the iconic penguin pool at London Zoo, who retired to (ironically!) a Regency terraced house in the Clifton area of Bristol. But it is Bauhaus master, Marcel Breuer (1902–1981), designer of the Wassily chair and a central figure in the Bauhaus movement, who provides the most interesting link with Modernism in Bristol. Following the disbanding of Bauhaus, he spent a couple of years in London from 1935, designing furniture for Isokon, before moving to New York to further his architectural career.
Walter Gropius and Bauhaus
The progressive Modernism of Bauhaus, the design movement founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, continues to trickle its ‘less is more’ philosophy into today’s interior and industrial design, Apple being the most famous contemporary example to cite Bauhaus as an influence. Marcel Breuer had joined Bauhaus as a student in 1920, becoming ‘Master’ of the furniture workshop in 1925 and pioneering the use of tubular metal to create minimal, lightweight structures such as the famous Wassily chair and S32 chair. These designs complemented the sparse, functional living spaces designed by Marcel Breuer and Bauhaus peers Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. When the politics of pre-War Germany forced the Bauhaus movement to shut down, many of its design staff moved to Western Europe and the USA where there was an increasing appetite for their architecture and design; this became known as the ‘International Style’ of Modernism.
Bauhaus and the Isokon Furniture Company
Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, spent three years in the UK. He worked as Controller of Design at the Isokon Furniture Company, set up in London in 1935 by Jack Pritchard, a great admirer of both the Bauhaus movement and also the work of Le Corbusier in France. Walter Gropius convinced Pritchard to bring Marcel Breuer to London and succeed him as the firm’s designer and Breuer would go on to be responsible for some of Isokon’s most important furniture designs including the Isokon Long Chair in 1936. It was during this London stop-gap that the owner of a Bristol-based furniture manufacturer, Crofton Gane, engineered an introduction to Marcel Breuer.
Marcel Breuer partners with P.E. Gane
Crofton Gane had inherited his father’s traditional furniture manufacturing business, PE Gane, shortly before. He had been exposed to Modernist furniture design from travel around Europe and was keen to take the company in a new direction. He struck up a friendship with Marcel Breuer, who became P.E. Gane’s design consultant, commissioned to design furniture for the company, as well as the interior of Gane’s own house in Clifton, Bristol. The Edwardian house was transformed Breuer-style, with a complete interior reworking including the first open-tread staircase in the UK and became a showcase for the company’s work.
Marcel Breuer also designed the Gane Pavilion, to house the P.E. Gane collection at the 1936 Royal Show in Bristol’s Ashton Court. A simple, elegant building in an unmistakably Modernist style, Marcel Breuer added a local twist with the use of Pennant sandstone blocks rather than concrete painted white. Like the temporary pavilion, Breuer’s time in Bristol was short-lived, and yet its legacy can be seen in the work that followed. In 1958 he even named the Gane Pavillion, along with the UNESCO building in Paris, as his two favourite works.
Ken Stradling is a font of knowledge on this rarely documented link between his South West hometown of Bristol, the local furniture manufacturer P. E. Gane, and the Modernist designs of Marcel Breuer. This link survives through the Breuer designed furniture in his collection, as well as in his role as Chair of the Gane Trust, a charitable body set up in Crofton Gane’s memory to provide grants to people working in design, arts and crafts.
Useful Links and Information
There’s more on Marcel Breuer in our interview with Bristol collector Ken Stradling in MidCentury issue 03