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The London-based Isokon firm was founded in 1929 to design and construct modernist houses and flats, and subsequently furniture and fittings for them. Originally called Wells Coates and Partners, the name was changed in 1931 to Isokon, a name derived from Isometric Unit Construction, bearing an allusion to Russian Constructivism.
Unusually for a design company, its directors were the bacteriologist and later psychiatrist Molly Pritchard, the solicitor Frederick Graham-Maw, son of Frederick James Maw, the founder of the law firm Rowe and Maw, and the economist Robert S Spicer. In actuality, the company was run by Molly's husband Jack Pritchard whose initial involvement was to handle the economics, publicity and marketing, but who later went on to hire designers and direct the company. Jack Pritchard had become the British marketing manager for the internationally successful Estonian plywood company Venesta (A. M. Luther) in 1925 and had hired Charlotte Perriand through the architect Le Corbusier to design a trade fair stand for the company at Olympia, London in 1929. Despite his involvement with Lawn Road Flats and the Isokon Furniture Company, Jack Pritchard continued to work for Venesta until 1936.
The Isokon Furniture Company was never commercially successful. The end came with the outbreak of World War II when its supply of plywood from Venesta in Estonia was cut off due to the Soviet invasion of Estonia when the Venesta factory in Tallinn was confiscated. The Isokon Furniture Company ceased trading in 1939 but was restarted in 1963. Since 1982, the furniture is made by Isokon Plus, formerly known as Windmill Furniture, with the approval of the Pritchard family.
Lawn Road Flats
Isokon's key project was the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, since 1972 called the Isokon building, which was formally opened on 9 July 1934. It was designed by the Canadian architect Wells Coates after a brief by Molly Pritchard, based on the Minimum Flat concept presented at the CIAM (Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne) conference of 1929. In 1931, Wells Coates, Jack Pritchard and Serge Chermayeff had visited Germany to view new housing developments, including the Bauhaus in Dessau, which was a major influence. The building process of Lawn Road Flats and the opening event was photographed by Edith Tudor Hart (née Edith Suschitzky) who was educated at the Bauhaus school in Dessau, and also a Soviet spy. Intended to be the last word in contemporary modernist living, the block of flats was aimed at young professionals. It contained 22 single flats, four double flats, three studio flats, staff quarters, kitchens and a large garage. Services included shoe cleaning, laundry, bed making and food sent up by a dumb waiter at the spine of the building. In 1937, a restaurant and bar designed by Marcel Breuer and F. R. S. Yorke named the Isobar – located on the ground floor with a decked outdoor area – was added to the complex. Its first manager was Philip Harben, who after World War II became the first TV celebrity chef at the BBC. Jack Pritchard also set up a supper club called The Half Hundred Club, so named because it could have no more than 25 members who could bring 25 guests. They dined either at the Isobar, at Pritchard's penthouse flat in the Isokon building or at more exotic locations, such as London Zoo.
The flats and the Isobar became famous as a centre for intellectual life in north London. Residents included the novelist Agatha Christie and her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, the Soviet NKVD spy Arnold Deutsch who was the controller of the group of Cambridge educated Soviet spies who came to be known as the Cambridge Spy Ring, the German born economist and Soviet spy Jürgen Kuczynski, the author Nicholas Monsarrat, ethnomusicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and textile designers Jacques Groag and his wife Jacqueline Groag, architects Egon Riss and Arthur Korn and the author Adrian Stokes. The British architects Sir James Stirling and Alec Bright, later director of the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Colombia were resident during the 1960s. Regulars at the Isobar included the sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and the painter Ben Nicholson as well as Sir Julian Huxley, secretary of the Zoological Society of London 1935–1942.
Jack Pritchard remained in London during World War II while Molly Pritchard and their children Jonathan and Jeremy left for the United States and later Canada. The building was popular as a residence during the war due to being made out of reinforced concrete, and despite near bombs, survived the Blitz. It was repainted brown during the war as it was feared its white surface would serve as a guiding pointing for German bombers.
In 1955, Jack Pritchard staged a 21st-birthday party for the building on its roof top terrace. Philip Harben returned to make the food, architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner made a speech and letters from Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were read out. Wells Coates as well as many pre-World War II residents attended the event.
The building was sold by Jack Pritchard in 1969 to the magazine New Statesman, who demolished the Isobar and made it into flats. They then sold the building on to Camden Council in 1972 for twice the price. The building was listed Grade II in 1974 by English Heritage and listed Grade I in 1999. Despite this, it received very poor maintenance from Camden Council and deteriorated badly. During this period it was chiefly used to house single men with drug, alcohol and mental problems. After a long campaign to save the building, it was sold to the housing association Notting Hill Housing Group in 2003, in a joint bid with the modernist building restorer firm Avanti Architects, headed up by architect John Allan, with the pledge that a museum would open in the building. It now contains 36 flats, most that are owned on Equity sharing basis by key workers such as nurses and teachers. In July 2014, the building's garage was finally converted into a gallery space with a permanent exhibition that tells the story of the building, its residents and the Isokon Furniture Company. It is operated by the not-for-profit charitable Isokon Gallery Trust and is open 11 am to 4 pm each Saturday and Sunday from early March until the end of October every year.
Bauhaus in Britain
In 1935, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, became Controller of Design for The Isokon Furniture Company. He had arrived in England on 18 October 1934 with his wife Ise Gropius. They lived in flat 15 at Lawn Road Flats until March 1937, when they left for the United States as Gropius was offered to become Professor of Architecture at Harvard University . A month before he left for the USA, Gropius recommended Marcel Breuer, a former colleague at the Bauhaus who had moved into flat 16 in the building in early 1935, as his replacement as Controller of Design. The furniture Breuer designed whilst at Isokon are highly influential pieces of the modernist movement, and included chairs, tables and the Long and Short Chair.
László Moholy-Nagy, another former Bauhaus teacher who also lived briefly in the building with his wife Sybil Moholy-Nagy, became involved with Isokon when he arrived in Britain from Holland in May 1935. Moholy-Nagy designed promotional material for the Isokon Furniture Company, including sales leaflets, show cards and the logo of the Isokon firm itself, which was an outline of a curved plywood chair. He later formed The New Bauhaus in Chicago.
The fourth Bauhaus teacher at Lawn Road Flats was Naum Slutzky, a Russian born goldsmith. He remained in Britain for the rest of his life.
Isokon furniture revival
Jack Pritchard revived the Isokon Furniture Company in 1963 after his retirement. Changes in the manufacture of plywood meant a redesign of some of the key pieces in the Isokon portfolio, for which Pritchard hired Ernest Race, former furniture designer for the Festival of Britain. In 1968, Pritchard licensed John Alan Designs, based in Camden, London to produce the Long Chair, Nesting Tables and the Isokon Penguin Donkey Mark 2 designed by Ernest Race, which the company did until 1980. The Isokon Penguin Donkey Mark 2 became a sales success due to the support of Allen Lane, the founder on Penguin Books.
Jack and Molly increasingly spent more time at their new home designed by Jack's daughter Jennifer Jones (née Tudor Hart) and her husband Colin in 1966, although they kept the penthouse at Lawn Road Flats until the mid 1970s. The modern bungalow, called Isokon, turns heads to this day in Blythburgh, Suffolk. That building is still owned by the Pritchard family.
In 1982, Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture was granted the licence to manufacture the historical Isokon furniture pieces by Jack Pritchard. From 1999, the Isokon furniture is sold through his now renamed company Isokon Plus, previously based in Chiswick, London. Since 2014, Isokon Plus is located in Hackney Wick, East London.
The first furniture to be added to the Isokon portfolio since 1963 was designed by the duo BarberOsgerby. Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby had recently graduated from the Royal College of Art when they designed their first piece, the Loop Table, in 1996. The iconic bent plywood design was to be the first of several furniture pieces that the designers created for Isokon Plus. The most recent is the Bodleian Chair for the University of Oxford's historic Bodleian Libraries.
Isokon furniture designs
- Isokon/Venesta Stool (designer unknown, 1933)
- Isokon Book Units (designed by Wells Coates, 1933)
- Desk made from Isokon Book Units (designed by Wells Coates, 1933)
- Aluminium Waste Paper Basket (designed by Walter Gropius, 1935)
- Side Table GT2 (designed by Walter Gropius, 1936)
- Isokon Nesting Tables (designed by Marcel Breuer, 1936)
- Isokon Dining Table (designed by Marcel Breuer, 1936)
- Isokon Stacking Chair (designed by Marcel Breuer, 1936)
- Isokon Long Chair (designed by Marcel Breuer, 1935-6)
- Isokon Short Chair (designed by Marcel Breuer, 1935-6)
- The Pocket Bottleship (designed by Egon Riss, 1939)
- The Penguin Donkey (designer by Egon Riss, 1939)
- The Pocket Bottleship Mark 2 (designed by Ernest Race, 1963)
- The Penguin Donkey Mark 2 (designed by Ernest Race, 1963)
- Loop Table (designed by BarberOsgerby, 1996)
- Flight Stool (designed by BarberOsgerby, 1998)
- Wing Unit (designed by Michael Sodeau, 1999)
- Home Table (designed by BarberOsgerby, 2000)
- Shell Table and Chair (designed by BarberOsgerby, 2002)
- Portsmouth Bench (designed by BarberOsgerby, 2002)
- Donkey 3 (designed by Shin & Tomoko Azumi, 2003)
- Bodleian Libraries Chair (designed by BarberOsgerby, 2014)
- Isokon Gallery – Gallery space telling the story of the Isokon building, notable residents and Isokon furniture
- Jack Pritchard – The Pritchard Papers, UEA Norwich
- John Craven Pritchard (Jack) – Archives Hub
- Isokon at Blythburgh – Alan Mackley
- Isokon Designers – Isokon Plus
- BarberOsgerby – Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby