Collection

Meg's chair

Collection: When modernism goes bad

Category: Furniture

Date: 1966

Designer: Robin Day OBE

Nationality of Designer: British

Manufacturer: Hille

Manufacturers Location: Burnley, Lancashire (UK)

Material: Expanded foam, metal, textile

Dimensions: Height 120cm, width 60cm

Purchase Price: N/a: Donation

Abstract:

Swivel armchair

Provenance:

This Cumulus chair was a precursor of the classic 4-4000 armchair of 1970 - Robin Days’ signature work - and was originally covered with a dark green minimalist tweed.
This chair was donated to the Collection by Meg Falconer a long time supporter of Grizedale Arts. It was bought by the donor in Newcastle in 1967 for £60 - a huge sum at the time for a young art student to invest in a piece of modernist furniture. Meg paid for the chair through a hire purchase scheme, a problem at the time as women were not able to sign up for the scheme but this technicality was ultimately waived by the shop owner.

Personal history/nominator:

Before donating it to the Collection, Meg owned the chair for 40 years, its position in her life and home changing through that time. The chair eventually ending up in the box room, broken and worn out. Meg moved to the Lake District in 1978 and her interests evolved away from her early enthusiasm for the brave new (and expensive) world to an interest in British folklore and the arts and crafts movement - arguably the very antithesis of the chair’s raison d’etre.

Adaptions/renovations:

Fabric: the chair was recovered for Virtually Grizedale (A Foundation Greenland Street for the Liverpool Biennale 2006) with a fabric that we felt the designer would have most abhorred, a faceless floral pattern drawn from traditional medieval tapestry style upholstery popular throughout the 1950’s.

The upholstery was undertaken by Michael Dixon who is based in Haverthwaite, the material being a traditional floral Covertex 220/2.

Why it's in the Collection:

Robin Day is a link between the high ideals of early modernism and the British arts and crafts movement through the mantra of “design for all”. Day’s designs probably represent everything that the contemporary vision of the Lake District tries to deny, embracing mass production, cheap ‘unnatural’ materials, and bright colours. There is an honesty about this approach, a genuine reflection of the times for which it was made. Day was a product of the Royal College of Art, though leaving prior to the establishment of the formalized industrial design course. Day is arguably the latter-day exemplar of British modernism, bringing together the multiple threads of the development of industrial design, and ‘fit for purpose’ ideologies into the flowering of UK design of the 1950’s.

Day’s work almost acts a rebuke to the dishonesty of the current lust for pseudo-natural materials and environmentally friendly design espoused by property developers and regeneration consultants. The chair perhaps most fittingly belongs in the Collection due to its personal history.

About the Designer/Maker:

Robin Day, born 1915 in Buckinghamshire, graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1938. Ten years later Day established a design studio together with his wife, the textile designer Lucienne Day, practicing graphic and industrial design. A major retrospective at the Barbican in 2001 reinforced both Robin and Lucienne Day’s reputation as the most important UK designers of their era.

Robin Day was associated with furniture company Hille from 1949. He began designing for the company after winning first prize in the New York Museum of Modern Art International competition for low-cost furniture. He soon became Hille's Director of Design and was responsible for all the visual manifestations of the company up until it changed hands in 1982. Although best known for furniture design, his long career has covered a wide spectrum, including aircraft design, office and restaurant interiors, designing for the television and radio, exhibition work and graphics.

Over the last 50 years Day has designed furniture for many important buildings in the UK and abroad, notably for concert halls and theatres, airports, stations and sports stadiums. An estimated 14 million Polyprop chairs have sold to date, which is described as the most democratic piece of 20th century design. His 1951 designs for the Festival of Britain Homes and Gardens display led to the commission to design seating for the Royal Festival Hall auditorium. A testament to the quality of the design, (or to the lack of funding available to commission new designs) the seating is still in place today.

You can also find Day seating throughout the Japanese rail system and for anyone who was educated in the 1970’s Day will have been a ubiquitous design presence as the designer of much office and low cost school furniture. His ambition for low cost products was in line with modernist ideals and was probably one of the key reasons for its loss of popular appeal (too cheap and too familiar). In common with modernist design icons (Breuer, Corbusier etc) Day’s mid-century work has recently achieved status as a symbol of design chic and sophistication in the home of the young professional.

Day was awarded an OBE in 1983 - around the lowest ebb of his popularity.

Bibliography & Further information

Robin and Lucienne Day: Pioneers in Modern Design Jackson, Lesley, 2001, ISBN-10: 1568982712

Hille

Robin and Lucienne Day

Meg Faulkner