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Aristocrats of design

12 February 2001Written by ATG Reporter

Robin & Lucienne Day: Pioneers of Contemporary Design by Lesley Jackson, published by Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 1840002395. £30 hb.

IN the autumn of 1999, Habitat launched 20th Century Legends, a collection of designs from seven top designers available at Habitat prices. These were pieces by designers who changed the way people thought about their homes, all mostly working in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when an explosion of creativity took place with vibrant new shapes, new materials and a whole New Look appearing in the applied arts. Robin and Lucienne Day were just two of those “iconic legends”.

Published as a tie-in with an exhibition at the Barbican the author is a specialist in 20th century design; her ground-breaking book Design in the Fifties, an appraisal of post-war design history, discusses a period when the practice of design was virtually unknown.

Here she tackles Britain’s most distinguished designers of the post-war period who shot to fame in 1951 at the Festival of Britain, when Robin Day’s radical plywood and steel chairs for the Festival Hall hailed a new era for British furniture and Lucienne Day transformed the textile industry with Calyx, a bold abstract furnishing fabric for the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. Feted as the British equivalent of the American design duo Charles and Ray Eames, the Days’ pioneering and bold style became known as Contemporary – now highly collectable.

Looking rather like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the Fifties black-and-white pictures of them here, the celebrated 50-year career of this golden couple is discussed throughout with Lesley Jackson’s customary and intense attention to detail – including two end pages of chapter notes, 13 pages of lists of designs and an excellent bibliography.

The book tells the Days’ story decade by decade, with each designer’s work discussed independently and in tandem.

It’s an absorbing and well-told story; Robin Day’s partnership with furniture manufacturer Hille culminating in his Polyprop range in the 1960s and ’70s. This “multipurpose side chair at a very low cost” stacked, was cheap and robust and was mass-produced by the million. Day targeted his designs at architects and his practical and economical furniture is widely used today. He designed radios for Pye – teak cabinet, vinyl covered and with linen speaker covers – and interiors for BOAC planes. There is a gouache by Robin showing the bulkheads’ suggested decoration with an enlarged engraving of the celestial planisphere by Albrecht Dürer. Not something EasyJet appear to have copied.

Textile and wallpaper designer Lucienne Day’s 1951 textile Calyx design for Heal’s is a knockout still and its highly original pattern used in lime-yellow, vermilion and black-on-olive for the Festival with a cupped abstract flower pattern, spawned an avalanche of lookalikes, always an indication of commercial success. Her work for Heal’s and textile designs Black Leaf from 1960 and Graphica from 1959 give only a small inkling of her influence.

The 20th century has been the century of the designer and this book, on two of its most gifted design luminaries, is well-produced, illustrated and written, and a good sourcebook for decorators, designers and collectors of all things contemporary.

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Written by

ATG Reporter

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