18 September 2017


Yesterday we visited Isokon, the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, built in 1934 by Wells Coates, which was part of the Open House weekend in London. Three of the residents invited us in. The flats were designed for busy professionals who wanted an uncomplicated life, very small with tiny kitchens originally provided with one hotplate and a grill, so you couldn’t eat much more than beans on toast. There was a restaurant but it turned out that residents weren’t quite ready for that degree of collectivisation and it was replaced by a bar, designed by Marcel Breuer. The flats were intended to be fit for purpose, to discourage excessive consumption and to spearhead social reform. Among the early tenants were Breuer, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Agatha Christie - I like to imagine the conversation between Gropius and Christie. They also had, over the years, a disproportionately large number of Soviet spies.

Jack Pritchard, the owner and developer, worked worked for Venesta, the Estonian plywood company, and specified extensive use of plywood, including walls, floors and furniture. Gropius was the design director of the Isokon company which was set up to produce the furniture. Some of the Lawn Road fittings are currently on loan to the V&A’s Plywood exhibition.

It was interesting to hear that this modernist Grade I listed building is uncomfortable to live in, cold and damp in the winter. Public housing similarly constructed in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was notorious for damp and condensation. Design and construction have moved on and the Lawn Road Flats are really a museum.

Isokon Plus produces some of the original designs that were made for Lawn Road. The the original Isokon company was committed to standardisation of parts, rationalisation of process and methods, and modern industrial design based on the principle of conspicuous economy, all of which imply low cost, but Isokon products are very expensive now - the famous Isokon Penguin Donkey, for example, is £670. This is conspicuous consumption and runs counter to ideas of producing simple, well-designed products that everyone can afford. The baton has been picked up by Ikea where you can buy comparable products at a tenth of the price.

15 September 2017


Gordon Baldwin

Gordon Forsyth, who I wrote about yesterday, was well-known to Dora Billington, who taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts for thirty-five years and who is also famous for her sympathies with factory pottery; but she had an ambivalent attitude towards her home town of Stoke-on-Trent and I don't believe she ever worked there after leaving Hanley art school in 1912. Nevertheless, after the second world war she made a term in The Potteries a compulsory part of the course at the Central.

The history of studio potters offering their talents to industry is not happy. Michael Cardew, who we think of as one of the most anti-industry potters, was inspired by a temporary interest in Marxism to work in one of the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, but they considered his work too “Art and Crafty”. Lucie Rie had a better relationship with Wedgwood, but her prototypes were not put into production. David Queensberry started on the Central course in the early 'fifties but found that no-one there knew anything about designing for industry and transferred to Robert Baker's course at the RCA.

Gordon Baldwin told me about his experience as one of Billington’s students. “We all had a sort of down on what had gone on in Stoke-on-Trent,” he said. “We were breaking free of Leach, we were breaking free of Stoke-on-Trent, doing all manner of things.” But he enjoyed his term at Burslem art school, visiting potteries, finding out about industrial techniques, sitting in in with paintresses, learning rosebud painting and how to put on transfers, all of which he used in a different way.

14 September 2017


László Hradszki posted a picture on Facebook of a tile by István Gádor with a leaping horse that he'd bought recently. As it happens, I'd been looking at another picture of this tile (above) (or, more likely, another cast from the same mould) in Gordon Forsyth’s book 20th Century Ceramics, published by The Studio in 1936.

20th Century Ceramics is a good account, one of the best ever written, because it's an even-handed survey of both factory and studio pottery and it covers studio pottery from around the world in an impartial manner. Forsyth was principal of the Stoke-on-Trent schools of art and a fine designer, known particularly for his decorations in lustre for Pilkington, rather in the style of William de Morgan.

The book covers pottery from Britain, the USA, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. It's good on Hungarian and Italian potters. The Hungarians are Gádor, Géza Gorka, Margit Kovács and Lili Márkus. I was interested to see some of Kovács’s vessels (above), as she is known mainly for her sculpture, but these vessels are decorative pieces rather than tableware. Forsyth shows a bias towards studio pottery in his coverage of the continent, unlike his excellent coverage of the best British factory pottery, and there is nothing from the well-known factories of Herendt or Zsolnay. The Italian potters are Guido Andlovitz and others of the Società Ceramica Italiana, Dante Baldelli, the Cantagalli pottery, Industria Ceramica Salernitana, Giuseppe Mazzetti, Ugo Zaccagnini and others of the Monteolivito pottery, Mario Morelli, Gio Ponti, Ricardo Ginori, and Luigi Zortea. From Austria, there is pottery made by Lucie Rie (below) before she left for London.

Forsyth occupied that thought-provoking position between factory and studio pottery and he expressed views that were common in the 1930s:
"A wholly artificial gulf has been created between the studio potter and the large-scale manufacturer. Sometimes studio pottery is dismissed as being ineffective "Art and Crafty" productions, technically defective. This is in the main wholly erroneous and unjust criticism of studio potters, but it is equally erroneous for studio potters to think that all manufacturers are Philistines and only concerned with commercial and technical success. 
"We feel very strongly that progress in industry has been considerably retarded by unbalanced enthusiasts on both sides, and the time has now arrived for co-operation between the individual experimenter and his collaboration with large-scale producers. The position at the moment is that all such stupid prejudice that has hitherto kept artists and manufacturers apart should be immediately dropped, and that industrialists must find a solution of the problem of incorporating the best artists that can be found and bring them into industry. 
"Many of our first-class studio potters who at present are having a struggle as individual manufacturers could be well employed within mass production concerns without loss of their own individuality or lowering their own ideals, and with far larger scope and far greater security than they at present enjoy. We look forward to the time when there will be no gulf between the studio potters and the manufacturers."

13 September 2017


Marianne Brandt, 1929, with jewellery for a metal party at the Bauhaus

I decided to find out more about Marianne Brandt’s geometrical metal teapot, which I used to illustrate a recent post. It looks “functional” (i.e. plain) but I wondered whether it worked as a teapot. Whether it does or not, it has become an icon of the Bauhaus (where it was made) and, by extension, of a rational approach to manufacturing, food preparation and domestic life. I said that it was aggressively original and it may be seen as the image of a teapot, the realisation in three dimensions of a Constructivist poster (below), rather than a teapot that you can actually make tea in.

El Lissitsky's poster, "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge," 1919

Brandt produced it when she was a student in the metal workshop at the Weimar Bauhaus, where she studied under Moholy-Nagy, whose appointment in 1923 marked a change from the Bauhaus’s original craft ideology to an ideology of mass production. But Brandt’s first version, now in the British Museum (BM), is still visibly a craft object, with hammer marks on its curved surface. Judy Rudoe of the BM says that the Bauhaus had little experience of designing for industry at this stage.

Brandt's iconic teapot

Brandt was born in Chemnitz in 1893 and she trained as a painter before joining the Bauhaus, where it was unusual for a woman to study metalwork. She was Moholy-Nagy's star pupil and after he left she took over from him as metalwork leader. She later worked for Gropius in private practice and then for the Ruppel metal goods factory in Gotha, a curious appointment because Ruppel were old fashioned, but Brandt rationalised their product range and introduced new, radical designs (below). Like Moholy-Nagy she later turned to photography. She remained in the east and her later career was in art education, compromising with the Nazis and the Communists, both of whom had contempt for the Bauhaus.

Marianne Brandt: clock designed for the  Ruppel metalwork company

Because Brandt became a decisive and influential industrial designer after her experiments at the Bauhaus, scholarly authors like Brockhage and Lindner are said to pay little attention to her early work, but their publishers still put the iconic teapot on the cover of their monograph.

12 September 2017



I was right to be reminded by Ladislaw Sutnar's 1929 tea set, which I mentioned in my last post, of Habitat in the 1980s, because Habitat did indeed produce a  similar teaset, their popular Kristina range, which came with either a pink or a blue rim. Sutnar's was porcelain and Habitat's was earthenware, but they are otherwise similar, even in the shapes of the cups and saucers, so similar that Sutnar may have been the direct inspiration for Habitat's designers. There was also a porcelain range, Sienna (below), without a teapot, that was cheaper than Kristina. The pictures are taken from Habitat's 1983-4 catalogue.


Other Habitat china was inspired by 18th century models - their Old Colonial and Sharon ranges (below) were produced for fifteen or twenty years (I had pieces from both.) You could choose a sleek, modern image from  Habitat or a more countrified, cottagey look.

Old Colonial


11 September 2017


A Brown Betty teapot.

Is this what a functional teapot looks like? The question was prompted by Keith Savage asking me whether the Torquay ware teapot I wrote about recently (below) poured well or whether it was just decorative. It's clean inside and I don't think anyone has ever made tea in it. I'd put it on a shelf and hadn't thought of using it, but when I read Keith's comment I tried it. It does pour well. The flat shape makes it stable, the position of the handle gives a good lift and the spout doesn't drip. It takes half a pint of liquid, two cups.

Aller Vale teapot, c.1920

It's not what you think of as a functional teapot - the word suggests the long-established Brown Betty, or perhaps Marianne Brandt's Bauhaus teapot (below), not the ornately decorated Torquay pot made by the Aller Vale pottery. Functional implies that if you design for use, form follows inevitably and there will be little or no ornament. David Pye, late professor of furniture at the RCA, concluded that the idea of function as the quality of an object was incoherent and that a useful object's appearance, though constrained, was not determined by its intended use. The choice of form is aesthetic and there is no design without style. Pye makes you wonder why you didn’t realise these things before he said them. For example, nearly every ceiling is flat and smooth, but flatness and smoothness are not requirements of of a ceiling, they are aesthetic choices. What came to be understood as functional meant a smooth, streamlined shape or economy and cheapness. 

Marianne Brandt's Bauhaus teapot, c.1924

"When any useful thing is designed", said Pye "the shape of it is in no way imposed on the designer, or determined by any influence outside him, or entailed. His freedom in choosing the shape is a limited freedom, it is true, but there are no limitations so close as to relieve him or the maker of responsibility for the appearance of what they have done."

The ornate Torquay ware teapot, designed at about the same time as Marianne Brandt's teapot, works as well as the Brown Betty and I guess it's a more useful teapot than the Brandt. The Brandt sold for £361,000 at Sothebys New York in 2007. The Torquay pot cost £10 in a charity shop.

Tea set by Ladislaw Sutnar, 1929-32

Ladislaw Sutnar's simple porcelain tea set (above) lacks the ornamentation of the Torquay pot and the aggressive originality of the Brandt. Except for the cups, which are made for an older style of tea drinking, it's hard to date. It could by Habitat in the 1980s; in fact it was manufactured in Czechoslovakia in 1929-32. It looks as if it works.

10 September 2017


The V&A facsimile of News from Nowhere

The V&A and Thames & Hudson have produced a facsimile of William Morris's utopian novel News from Nowhere in a nice edition at a reasonable price. It was written by Morris and printed by him at the Kelmscott Press in 1890 in Golden Type, which he designed himself.

It's one of the great socialist novels and sets out Morris's vision of a world without private property, big industry, poverty, crime or marriage. He had been a political activist in the 1880s, during which time he became less interested in design, but by 1890 he was worn out by the petty squabbles in his Socialist League and by the fanatics who were only interested in him for his money. The Kelmscott Press was his last venture, into which he poured most of his energy.

From the British Library scan

News from Nowhere has a charming quasi-medieval look. The British Library scan of the original edition  shows the typeface very clearly (above). Although pretty, it is not very legible. It's too black and there isn't enough contrast between thick and thin strokes. John Lewis and John  Brinkley (Graphic Design, 1954) say that, in designing it, Morris took Nicholas Jensen's 15th century Venetian typeface (below), gothicized it and trebled its weight.

Nicholas Jensen's typeface, 1476

“To more than one version of this very black typeface," they say, "he designed and cut on wood rich borders of entwined leaf and flower forms. He had a rough rag paper made, and with a clean but heavy impression he printed his books, which were bound in vellum and tied with silk ribbons. His greatest printing achievement was the folio Chaucer, with decorations by Burne-Jones. This monumental work he finished within a few months of his death. The Kelmscott books were completely out of the tradition of European printing. They could not be imitated for they were unique. To the lover of Renaissance typography, they may appear heavy and ugly. Their virtue in our opinion, was in the attention they drew to good workmanship, to careful presswork, to fine materials and to considered design. The principles that Morris established were later to be practised by every typographer and designer of note and in a wider field were to be the keystone for the teaching of the most influential design school of our age, the Bauhaus.”

8 September 2017


I'm exhibiting with the Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild at Kingsbury Barn St Albans, built by St Albans Abbey for threshing in the fourteenth century. It's a wonder of vernacular building, its beauty of form and texture arising simply from the methods and materials employed. I've borrowed the excellent pictures from the Kingsbury Barn website because they're better than any I could take and give a very good impression of the structure. The barn was restored about ten years ago at cost of £1 million.

The Abbey was a major landowner at the time of building and the barn obviously represented a huge capital investment, its size indicating the extent of their lands and the amount of grain they harvested. It's supposed to have been part of the Abbey's programme of attracting farmers after the the Black Death, but the increase in the price of labour gave the peasants confidence and there was a major revolt in 1381, led by William Grindcobbe, whose name suggests that he was a miller with a grudge against the Abbey's monopoly. The revolt focused on the Abbey gatehouse, but I'd be very surprised if the peasants didn't attack the Kingsbury Barn half a mile away.

It's now used for weddings and exhibitions and local residents complain if there's too much noise. Grindcobbe, you have been warned.

6 September 2017


The Müller House, Prague

After writing about how British design promoters were shy of ornamentation in the 1930s, I thought I ought to go to the ur-text, Adolf Loos’s essay Ornament and Crime (1908). Influential designers and architects are bound to be opinionated but I hadn’t realised quite how opinionated Loos was. The essay was a response to the critics of his landmark Vienna building for Goldman and Salatsch in the Michaelerplatz, designed as one in the eye for the Secession.

Loos said that ornamentation belonged to an earlier stage in cultural evolution and that using it in the 20th century was no longer appropriate. But he said it more forcefully:

"The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oar, in short, everything that is within his reach. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal and a degenerate. Those who are tattooed but are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder."

“The evolution of culture,” he said, “is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.”

Ornament was wasteful because decorated items soon bored their users, who replaced them before they needed to, and it impoverished the worker because he was not adequately compensated. Ornament “represents a crime against the national economy, and, as a result of it, human labour, men and material are ruined.”

But Loos’s buildings don’t  meet the expectations created by Ornament and Crime. They are lavishly finished. In the Müller House in Prague (1928-30) there were few white walls, as there were in some of Voysey's Arts and Crafts houses, which are puritanical by comparison. Surfaces were painted dark green, grey-green, brick red, navy blue and yellow, veneered in mahogany and maple or constructed of travertine and Cippolino marble.

The living room, Müller House

Loos specified decorations, light fittings, furnishing and pictures. In the living room there is a simple brick and marble fireplace but patterned carpets. He chose Chippendale chairs for the dining room, which has a coffered mahogany ceiling. The Library is also furnished in mahogany, with deep-buttoned Chesterfield sofas and a Dutch tiled stove.

The library, Müller House

5 September 2017


Something quite different from the didactic exhibitions of industrial design I've been writing about recently -  a Torquay ware teapot (above). I bought this one from a charity shop today. I'm sure these popular items would have been execrated by the leaders of good taste.

I wrote about Torquay ware in another post, saying that it was made from the local brown clay, was covered in white or blue slip and then decorated, either by scratching through the white to make a line of brown, or by painting with coloured slip. It was made for tourists, who paid sixpence for it, and although it's pretty and cleverly made, the sheer quantities manufactured means it's still cheap in the shops.

Typically, my teapot has a motto round the top in Devon English (below), "Cum me artiez 'elp yersels"  Geddit?

It was made by the Aller Vale Pottery, which closed in the 1920s, so it has been kept on a shelf for at least ninety years and well looked after. The "Scandy" pattern (rather like Prince of Wales feathers) on the side was used by many of the potteries in the second decade of the century - they ruthlessly plagiarized one another in search of the holidaymaker's sixpence.