I went to the Cotswolds yesterday to find out more about the Cotswold slipware potteries that I wrote about earlier. Before calling on Dinah Kunzemann, who used to run the Evenlode Pottery with her husband Dieter, I visited the Gordon Russell Design Museum in Broadway.
Russell was a first-rate furniture designer, a successful businessman, a humane influence on industry and an influential figure in 20th century design politics. The Museum traces his life through his work, from the early part of the century to the 1980s. A phrase that recurs is his wish to “teach the machine manners”. He came from an Arts and Crafts background but he wanted to make practical, modern furniture and he combined hand and power tools in his factory. The pieces on display are wonderful examples of the cabinet maker’s art.
|Gordon Russell “Double Helix” sideboard, 1950s|
He was said to have made an English compromise with modernism, producing modern furniture that everyone could be comfortable with. He believed that an age that didn’t make its own contribution to design wasn’t worth much. He pointed out all the innovations in 18th century furniture, and wondered how poor we’d be if furniture makers had stuck to 17th century models. He led the production of Utility furniture during the Second World War, designing things that didn’t require a lot of labour and that didn’t use imported timber. He was the first director of the Design Council.
I suppose my first connection with Russell was in my 1950s childhood through our Utility furniture. Because of Utility’s use of native timbers, there was a lot of oak in our cupboards and chests of drawers. I cut them down and made shelves from them when my parents disposed of them – they’re still in use.
Russell’s approach was like that of Charles and Ray Eames, who tried to make the best things for the least cost for the most people. My visit to Broadway made me think about my recent post on British housing, much of which is imitative, expensive and bland, housing that is not making a 21st century contribution to design and planning. These failings seem to me to be connected with the way the housing market is rigged.
I’m not a housing economist and my ideas about this are probably naïve, but I think the root of our design problem is the fact that we treat houses as investments. There’s no other necessity of life that we want to get more expensive. A fall in house prices is regarded as a disaster by every owner, estate agent and developer. Scarcity is in their interest and cheap, plentiful housing is not. Risky design is to be avoided. In the 1950s, when there were millions of publicly-owned houses built, design was of the time and of a high standard – something like the comfortable modernism of Gordon Russell’s furniture.