A LASTING LEGACY
“Making the best furniture by hand…making the best-designed modern furniture by machine, selling through others, designing modern furniture on a national scale, and so in the end directing a whole national movement towards good modern design – no personal development could be more logical and more satisfying.”
Sir Nicholas Pevsner
TOWERING FIGURE IN BRITISH TWENTIETH CENTURY DESIGN
Gordon Russell stands as a towering figure in British twentieth century design. His influence as a designer, manufacturer, administrator, and educationalists, writer and thinker is still felt in modern British design. Yet all the depth of his experience, and breadth of his achievements, and the substance of his international reputation can be traced back to a single place – Broadway, a jewel of a village hidden in the Cotswold Hills. As he explained in Designer’s Trade Magazine:
‘I never cease to be grateful to my unknown but deeply revered teachers, the builder of these little towns and villages. I came to them to learn and they taught me many things for lack of which the world is poorer today. They taught me that to build beautifully is quite different from beautifying a building. They taught me how to handle fine materials with respect. They taught me to employ direct, workmanlike methods and to try and apply the searching test of honest to all work and actions.’
This passion for quality and excellence, commitment to high standards and attention to detail, partnered with an ability to motivate and inspire drove both Gordon Russell and his company succeed through two world wars, economic slumps and market changes. The designs that flowed from both Gordon and the company encapsulated the twentieth century, from the Arts and Crafts influence of his early work to the crisp Modernist lines of Dick Russell’s iconic radio cabinets for Murphy radios, W.H. ‘Curly’ Russell’s fluid domestic suits of the 1950s and Trevor Chinn’s and Ray Leigh’s supremely elegant contract furniture of the 1970s and 1980s. Not only have many of the designs produced, such as the 2,000 chairs for Coventry Cathedral designed by Dick Russell, become design icons, but the company, in the later part of the 20th Century under the guidance of Ray Leigh, built a worldwide reputation for design and impeccable standards of manufacture.
Throughout his life Gordon Russell’s great skill was making connections between hand and machine, craft and design, theory and practice, landscape and architecture. He built bridges between the history of furniture and new trends, private industry and state policy, local traditions and national movements, and British design and international markets. His contribution – from design and manufacture to writing and lecturing – touched on all these aspects and they in turn touched him. As an unrivalled international ambassador for British design, he could study the Shakers in America or visit Aalto in Scandinavia, yet he remained a Cotswolds countryman at heart.
When Gordon Russell died in 1980, John Gloag wrote in his obituary that he had ‘a perceptive awareness of country skills and crafts; not just the hothouse artificiality of the arty-crafty revivalists, but the innate sympathy and understanding of materials and methods.’ That of course made his own furniture and that of his company so essentially English.
According to Sir Terence Conran, Gordon Russell was ‘one of those peculiarly English geniuses who are not given the full recognition they deserve.’ The founder of Habitat and patron of the Design Museum regards Russell’s work as a major influence on the direction he has taken. There are many uncanny parallels between the two men’s work: in the furniture they have designed, the books they have written, their entrepreneurship and retailing, their mutual interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement and their commitment to design education. Conran recalls that Russell’s outbursts about he state of furniture retailing struck a chord when he opened his first Habitat store in 1964. Russell in turn admired the style of furniture Conran produced and sold. Both of these men have shaped the history of modern British design, with their creative interplay of innovation and tradition, a commitment to quality and originality, which continues to define our dynamic design culture.
GORDON RUSSELL'S LEGACY
Keith Grant talks about the considerable impact that Gordon Russell has had on the design world. How his lecture on the subject of crafts made to the Royal Society of Arts is still quoted today. He also describes the lasting impact he made by his work in establishing and then heading up the Design Council, creating high standards both for practitioners and in design education. Jeremy Myerson tells how Russell’s prophecy about the correlation between hand and machine production has been brought in reality by digital manufacturing.
COVENTRY CATHEDRAL CHAIRS
Trevor Chinn describes the impressive qualities of this ‘completely engineered’ chair, which was designed in 1960 by Dick Russell. The chairs had to be strong, to simulate pews, to stack, and to be used around a table. Martin Blakeman, who was an apprentice at the time of their manufacture, tells their story from the apprentice’s point of view and also talks of their lasting strength. Not only did these chairs fulfill their remit, but Laurie Wolder then describes how they went on to bring in new commissions in the United States.
Revival of the British Classic: The Coventry chair in collaboration with Luke Hughes watch the video below:
Further video showing the Coventry chair: past, present and future here