I first saw inside the Isokon building, a Grade-I-listed 1934 masterpiece otherwise known as the Lawn Road Flats, in London’s Belsize Park some months ago, but I was recently lucky enough to be invited back by the residents of the incredible top-floor penthouse apartment: Magnus Englund, co-founder of London-based Scandinavian design store Skandium, and his wife Gjøril Reinecke.
The Isokon building: the penthouse apartment
The penthouse apartment has got pedigree – it originally belonged to Jack and Molly Pritchard, co-founders of British company Isokon, which they founded with architect Wells Coates in 1932 to design and construct modernist houses and flats as well as the furniture for them. It was Isokon in fact that built the Lawn Road flats, and naturally Jack and Molly got the pick of the apartments for themselves.
Magnus and Gjøril have lived here since July 2013, when they moved from a redbrick mansion block in Earls Court. Magnus tells me that they found the apartment purely by chance, “I had the idea to produce some films for the Skandium website and I figured that if we were to shoot them in Britain rather than in Scandinavia, then where better to start than the Isokon building. As it happened, one of my employees lived in the block, and we used her place for the film. She happened to mention that the penthouse was up for rent, so I rushed to see it.”
Magnus describes the flat, “The bedroom is small, the kitchen is small, and the bathroom is pretty much non-existent, and then you have this overblown terrace”. And he’s right – the terrace is larger than the entire interior of the flat, so spacious in fact that it recently hosted Magnus and Gjøril’s wedding, a charming case of history repeating itself, as Jack and Molly Pritchard’s son Jonathan got married up here in 1955.
This is actually one of the larger flats. Many are just 250sq feet (23m2), designed to function as bedsits, for modern professionals with little time for housekeeping. In fact early advertising stated ‘All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture’. Residents were originally expected to dine in the restaurant and socialise in the bar on the ground floor (both no longer in existence), rather than privately in their flats, encouraging a communal ethos.
I was interested to find out how Magnus, renowned for his knowledge of Scandinavian design, views the British mid-century movement. He tells me, “I moved to Britain because I am an anglophile; I grew up as a Mod driving a Vespa and listening to British music, I loved the whole sub-culture. Then in 1999 [when he and business partners Chrystina Schmidt and Christopher Seidenfaden founded Skandium], I found myself in this odd situation where I’d become the spokesperson for Scandinavian design in Britain!”
The Isokon building: a plywood interior
The penthouse apartment certainly pays homage to its history. Jack Pritchard had been Sales Manager of the Estonian company Venesta, the largest manufacturer of plywood in the world at the time, so it is perhaps no surprise that the interior walls and floors in his flat were clad with plywood – Finnish birch ply to be precise. Even the front door is made from a material called Plymax, a metal-faced industrial plywood that Venesta were marketing at the time. The worn patina of the surfaces gives the place a soft warmth reminiscent of a Scandinavian log cabin, an aesthetic that is helped along by a striking antelope head mounted on the living room wall.
The Isokon building: plywood furniture
The apartment is packed with ply Isokon furniture, both new and old. I spot an Isokon Long Chair, an Isokon Short Chair, an Isokon sofa and an Isokon dining table with matching chairs, all originally designed by Marcel Breuer in the 1930s. The couple have the Isokon Penguin Donkey mark I (designed by Egon Riss in the 1930s) and the latter version, the Donkey mark II (designed by Ernest Race nearly thirty years later). There’s an array of ‘60’ stools by Alvar Aalto, each from a different period of manufacture, and Magnus points to one of the pre-war Aalto stools in his collection, which has had decoupage roses added to the seat, “Someone British thought it wasn’t sweet enough!”, he laughs. There’s also a Bakerlite radio designed by Wells Coates in 1934, the same year that the Isokon building opened. It was made to look like wood and cost £6. Magnus tells me that they still use it, “It’s amazing; the speaker inside makes even contemporary voices sound like they’re from the 1930s! We’re half expecting World War Two to be declared at any moment.”
The Isokon Gallery
So passionate is Magnus about the Isokon building that, shortly after moving in, he led a campaign to realise a long-since-planned gallery on site, obtaining permission to house it what had originally been the garages. “People say that the Brits don’t build Modernist buildings, but that’s not quite true. It was this early Modernism that paved the way for the Mid-century Modern and Brutalist architecture of the 1960s. Many of the architectural trainees worked as assistants in the offices of the Modernist architects in the 1930s and further developed the style in the ’60s”.
With support from the National Trust among others, the gallery is open to visitors at weekends from March to October each year, telling the inspiring story of the Isokon building and the people who lived here – there’s a fantastic array of archive photographs, original furniture from the Isokon range, and even one of the original kitchens re-installed in there!
We’ve also published The Isokon Building: Russian spies, Bauhaus emigrés and Agatha Christie
Find out more about visiting the Isokon Gallery
Visit contemporary brand Isokon Plus
To buy new Isokon furniture, take a look at Skandium’s collection here
Learn more about the Isokon Trust and the UEA collection here
You can view the Isokon collection at the V&A here
See our article about the vintage Artek 60 Stool
For more on Marcel Breuer, see Marcel Breuer furniture: Bauhaus and Bristol