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Betty Joel – From Arts and Crafts to Modernism

Friday 6 July 2018

The glamour of the 1930s may have been generated by Hollywood's silver screen, but it was brought to reality in Britain by designers, decorators and furniture manufacturers among whom Betty Joel was pre-eminent.

The daughter of British diplomat and renowned art collector, Sir James Stewart Lockhart, Betty was born in Hong Kong in 1894 and there she was educated. In her early twenties, through the years of the First World War, she remained in China with Sir James, learning about art.

Early designs

Betty moved to England after the war and began designing furniture in Portsmouth. This design career began in 1921, springing accidentally from the need to furnish her modern home in a suitable style. Her husband, Commander David Joel, was designing the furniture but was heavily criticised by Betty who was then challenged to do better.

Her designs were simple and straightforward and admired by friends who encouraged the couple to enter into business, placing orders for repeat examples. A thriving business was soon underway.

Modern aesthetics

Having been brought up in the Far East, Betty Joel, quite extraordinarily, became one of the small number of designers who assimilated the modern aesthetic and produced a uniquely British response to the needs of the post-war period.

While there were more radical designers in Britain in the 1920s and 30s, none produced so extensive a body of work, which consistently addressed modernity with the traditional quality of execution derived through the Arts and Crafts ethos of the previous era. Above all she was a confident realist, not concerning herself with design theory, political ideology or an art movement.

She set herself the achievable goals of producing fine, practical furniture for the modern home and revealed, nonetheless, strands of modernity, which link her to the Modern Movement. She was successful in introducing a version of modernity to a wider public, albeit via an affluent clientele, and subsequently through other manufacturers who imitated her style.

Exotic materials

Struggles for a viable modernity in the years between the wars involved theories and texts, even dividing families. No change however, was driven more powerfully than by the development of new materials. Betty Joel deployed many of these, notwithstanding her reputation for using fine and exotic timbers and veneers from around the Commonwealth. Furniture design was traditionally constrained by the system of the panel and the frame, which historically were the main structural elements of good furniture.

In the repertoire of this remarkable designer, a synthesis is evident through which strands of influence have been woven. It is this happy confluence that created the delight in Betty Joel's work, and here we have her contribution to the story

of British furniture.

Oriental influences

She brought with her from China the restraint and dignity of the best of Oriental tradition. She inherited the ethos of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and brought the manufacturing standards and techniques of the boatbuilding trades where she and her naval officer husband started out their married life and their careers in furniture making.

From modest beginnings in a Hayling Island workshop, possessing no formal design education, Betty Joel advanced to splendid Knightsbridge showrooms and an architect-designed factory on the new Kingston bypass. By 1937 she was the most revered name in bespoke furniture in England, with clients ranging from show business and professional names to industry and Royalty.