School Dining Chair
From Bolton Boys school, Lancashire. From a contract for 2,000 chairs
Harvey Wilkinson - Curator at Blackwell Arts and Crafts House (Baillie Scott) near Windermere Cumbria - introduced Gordon Russell to the collection as a maker/designer that spanned practically the full period and subject of the collections.
'I was brought up near Broadway and went to school in the town (to age 7). I remember Russell and the Lygon Arms being talked about with a slight air of suspicion and an inference that it was crazy expensive. I don't think I really registered what it was - other than woodwork. I was more concerned at the time with fossils, ponys and sweets'.
A set of 12 gifted by Harvey Wilkinson.
This example owes a clear debt to rural revivalists the Ernests, Barnsley and Gimson, also working in Gloucestershire in the early 20th century. The chair illustrates a particularly puritan strain of Arts and Crafts with it's subtle decorative detail - note the delicate scribing and prominent pegging alongside the elegant shaping of the spindles and structure. The emphasis being on the use of traditional tools, techniques and materials with a suggestion of country kitchen, straight backed utility, the honest working man ideal.
In the context of Lawson Park, the chair hints at the relationship between the farm and the artist. The chair has the look of - what we now see as - the quintessential 'artists chair' as depicted by Van Gogh in 1888 (12 years before the Gimson workshop was established), part of a reappraisal of the rural and indeed an appropriation of the visual language of the working class by the middle class. These translations of the rural remain as an all pervasive influence, particularly strongly translated back into the rural context, as farms become lifestyle statements.
There is an interesting correlation between Zola and his championing/critique of the rural, and it's depiction by artists and Ruskin and his concurrent body of beliefs and themes.
Russell's amalgam of influences - his fathers involvement with antique furniture (Georgian - Sheraton) combined with the veritable Arts and Crafts hothouse location of Broadway - close to Chipping Camden and Ashby's school, the Snowshill utopia, Barnsley and Gimson workshops, Stanway and Kelmscott Manors and many other Arts and Crafts influences - alongside the local venacular, medieval housing stock of the area. This all filtered through Russell's inquisitive and broadminded approach, making Russell the quintessential English designer. Born in the last century, his work spans from this early example of Arts and Crafts tradition to office modernism and Memphis influenced anti-design.
There are examples of Russell throughout the collection, his influence is far reaching arguably touching practically all of 20th century British design.
Sir Gordon Russell (1892-1982) was influential in virtually every aspect of British design in the 20th century. He headed the governments wartime utility furniture scheme, influenced the Festival of Britain, and was involved in turning the Design Council into a significant institution.
After WWI, during which Russell experienced the trenches and the emergence of modern warfare, he returned to Britain with the desire to create beautifully designed hand-made furniture for future generations to enjoy. His work embodied a kind of return to traditional values, an attempt to stave off the inevitable modernization and mechanization, the same issues that the Arts and Crafts movement tried to address - Russell struggled with the same conundrum, hand craft versus cost, how to make design affordable and available to the wider population to change, as well as enrich and improve lives. Russell was more successful in his ambitions but was also arguably responsible for the retro obsession following WWII and his forcing of modernism through the Utility scheme.
In the inter-war years and with the build up towards WWII, Russell's ideas shifted towards designing "decent furniture for ordinary people", which became his long held by-line. He set up S B Russell & Sons workshops in the early 1920s behind the Lygon Arms Hotel in Broadway - owned by his family and a smart-set bastion of British values hosting the Hunt Balls and other cornerstones of the rural establishment. The workshops remained in Broadway employing 400 people at their peak, they closed in the 80's. It is now a Lottery funded museum to Russell and the workshops.
Following the outbreak of WWII, Russell was appointed the Chairman of the Utility Furniture Design panel, a role he greatly relished. He used the position to extend the influence of his developing ideas, the scheme gave him the opportunity to roll out the arts and crafts ideals and genuinely reach the wider public. His rules for the scheme and it's ambitions to conserve resources included:
- Creating a set of designs by the best of UK designers
- Selecting 700 workshops to produce these designs under licence - furniture could only be purchased within 15 miles of the maker.
- Enforcing the execution of the designs and the materials used (principally oak) - altering or embellishing the designs was an in-prisonable offence.
Through the purchase scheme he was also able to impose the complete design package on the new householder. The furniture and textiles became hugely unpopular, they still are - check ebay. The scheme arguably created a response that set British design back 100 years, not redeemed until IKEA appeared on the scene in the 1990s.
In the 70 and 80's, Russell moved into office furniture, both utility and high end, creating magnificent desks for the captains of industry and quality office furniture for the workers. His company kept pace with the times employing contemporary designers and embracing the 80's zietgist and Memphis stylings of Ettore Sottsass.
Russell retired in 1959, returning to his beloved home in the Cotswolds. He died shortly before the first Thomas Kinkade Gallery in Britain opened in Broadway.