Furniture for Decent Ordinary People

Friday 6 July 2018

The development of Gordon Russell Ltd could be defined by the great markers of the last century: two world wars sandwiched by depression, a period of austerity and reconstruction. The response to these challenges owed much to the character of the man himself. As Ray Leigh, a former company director and current chairman of the Gordon Russell Trust, put it: “Gordon was very pragmatic. His own designs were Arts & Crafts in style but he always enjoyed the design challenge.”

Russell's own assessment of his approach owes less to any particular style and more to the idea that function, quality and skill will lead to successful design. A document in the Gordon Russell Museum, at the old workshops at Broadway, states: “As far as I can remember I didn't attempt to make it look old or new, I was just solving a problem. I looked at old things for inspiration, not in order to imitate. To transform a design into an article of use you must have skill, a design is meaningless without it. The designer should have a thorough knowledge of methods of production, whether by hand or machine.”

Ray, who with Trevor Chin and Brian Newbury, established the museum, said: “Gordon was an Arts & Crafts man till the day he died but the big difference was he accepted the machines which would enable him to make furniture, as he put it, for decent ordinary people.”

Recovery after chaos

Returning from the trenches of northern France in 1919, Russell spoke of recovery after chaos. “It was a poor age that could make no contribution of its own. I had no qualifications beyond a burning belief that my own age might recover its self respect, a sound knowledge of old furniture and an interest in the possibilities of the machine.”

The Arts & Crafts movement initially questioned his interest in machine production. Said Ray: “He designed Arts & Crafts furniture to be made by machine which led to a falling out with the other practitioners.

“The wounds healed and Gordon eventually became president of the Design Industries Association and master of the Art Workers Guild in the same year.”

By 'teaching the machine manners' Russell succeeded in his ambition to produce decent furniture at an affordable price and the company flourished throughout the 1920s. “It was a huge step forward. Suddenly there was nicely made furniture which was affordable.

“Modernism in Britain was growing, to some extent stimulated by what was happening in Scandinavia and at the Bauhaus in Germany, with people like Alvar Aalto, Finn Juhl and Mies van der Rohe.”

However, the movement remained an expression of the avant-garde. With his interest in good design Gordon Russell recognised the significance of the developments taking place around him and encouraged his younger brother Dick to train at the Architectural Association in London.

Surviving Depression

1929 was a significant year for the company, with heavy investment in new machinery, the opening of a new showroom in London and the return of Dick Russell from his studies. Then came the Wall Street crash, the aftermath of which left the company floundering until Gordon received a call from an electronics engineer saying: “My name is Frank Murphy, I'm an engineer and I have just started making radio sets. Your name was mentioned as being especially interested in good design. What about it?”

The resultant collaboration with Murphy Radio led to the development of some of the most iconic examples of Modernist design. Up to 200,000 radio cabinets were being made a year at a purpose-built factory in London. Gordon's faith in the potential of machines and Dick's Modernist design influence saved the company, allowing it to make modern furniture throughout the 30s.

Niklaus Pevsner was one of many exiles from Europe to arrive in Britain at that time. He was already a well respected art historian and critic when he arrived at Gordon Russell Ltd as a buyer in 1936.

“Pevsner started to open this company's eyes. As well as talking about European design, he encouraged us to start importing furniture. We bought in designs that were employing different manufacturing techniques like Thonet's bent wood and Alto's laminated chairs,” Russell related.

The relationship with Pevsner consolidated the company's reputation as a leading exponent of modern design and the showroom became a favourite haunt of avant-garde architects and designers.

Wartime production

“Firms like us were given over to war production, making aeroplanes – including prototypes and wing sections of the Mosquito bomber – aircraft recognition models. Some would be making motor torpedo boats, anything that involved making things in timber.”

For Gordon Russell himself the war presented a challenge of unprecedented scale. He joined the Utility Furniture Advisory Committee where he became responsible for providing furniture for citizens who had been bombed out.

Said Ray: “Gordon was brilliant in solving the problem, to project manage a range of furniture which was economical in its use of materials, simple in design and could be well made by thousands of little companies across the country.”

To some extent the necessities of war propelled one of the priorities of Modernism to the fore: that a minimalist form must follow function, that an 'efficient' aesthetic could be useful and beautiful.

As Terence Conran once said: “The war effectively allowed Gordon to impose on the great British public what he had been trying to sell

them for the last 20 years. They had no choice.”

Russell also anticipated the democratisation of design and the notion of lifestyle promoted by Conran's Habitat. Russell furniture had always been displayed in the showrooms in the context of a complete interior, a practice well established by architects.

Utility furniture

“The control of all that must have been pretty remarkable. The utility thing covered everything from furniture, carpets, clothing, china and curtains. Gordon was responsible for the furniture and he helped bring together all these people.”

Gordon and Dick Russell were key figures in the Britain Can Make It and The Festival of Britain exhibitions in 1946 and 1951, and Ray began his relationship with the company as an architectural student working for Dick on The Festival of Britain.

The Bauhaus principle of 'machines for living' was instrumental in rebuilding a poverty-stricken, shattered Europe. What started as a philosophical exercise in efficiency in design became a necessity and Modernism began to flourish.

The exhibitions were an escape from the years of war and austerity, an opportunity to reassess the past. It was also a time to embrace the pre-war developments in design that were to become a mainstream hope for a brighter future.

“Britain was pretty grey after the war. Much of London was still devastated. With these two events the whole country started to have something to celebrate. The move toward simplicity was almost a natural outcome of the war in that the restrictions almost defined the result but after the war it was a bit like the cork out of the bottle.”

Classic Modernism

The subsequent explosion of energy propelled the company into a leading position promoting Classic Modern, the post-war expression of pre-war developments.

“Classic Modernism carried on the pre-war themes: quite simple in terms of design, using good materials. Impeccable quality, that's the thing people seize on. I think that is what the company became renowned for.”

That isn't to say their place was secure. Gordon Russell Ltd was a founder member of the Contract Design Association with a remit of establishing an international British reputation for modern design.

“The Modernists were still fighting a big battle with the reproduction industry. If we went to an international show like Cologne there'd be 60 British firms, 50 would be marketing 'brown'furniture.

“The Europeans lapped it up. They loved it. Modern manufacturers could make a much more effective impact by exhibiting collectively. You couldn't miss us on a common exhibition stand which stretched right across the whole space.

“Leading companies began producing really interesting stuff which was quite distinct. If you went to an exhibition you didn't need to have the name over the top. You knew it was Ercol, HK Furniture, Lucas and so on. The one that broke the mould domestically was Conran. Habitat was an enormous move forward.”

Gropius & Morris

Gordon Russell Ltd was identified with excellence in design for more than 60 years. Russell's success in Arts & Crafts and Modernist arenas may seem puzzling until we examine the era and the priorities of both movements.

The Bauhaus emerged from the revolutionary turmoil engulfing Germany in 1919 around the time of Russell's return from the trenches.

Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, was heavily influenced by the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin, who are considered to be the founders of the Arts & Crafts Movement. It is confusing until we accept they were all driven to reject the 'barbarism' of their respective ages. Morris sought his solution in the priorities of medieval craftsmanship, Gropius in the possibilities of the machine age and modern materials.

Their fundamental concerns were how the individual could maintain self-respect while relating to a society in turmoil. While Morris emphasised the dignity of the individual craftsman, Gropius promoted the citizen's right to a reasonable lifestyle.

I suggest Gordon Russell's extraordinary contribution was his ability to embrace the priorities of both movements while maintaining a conviction about the importance of good design, function, affordability and quality in build and materials. He seems to have managed, for a time, to fulfil the needs of both the craftsman and 'decent, ordinary people.'