The London-based company Isokon was founded in 1932 to design and construct modernist houses and flats, and furniture and fittings for them. The name Isokon derives from Isometric Unit Construction, alluding to Russian Constructivism. Isokon was headed by Jack Pritchard, sales manager for the Estonian plywood company Venesta, and his wife Molly, as well as the architect Wells Coates. Their first building was the Lawn Road Flats in Belsize Park, north London, completed in 1934 and designed by Coates. After a fall-out between Coates and Pritchard, they parted company, but the Pritchard’s continued with the furniture manufacturing.
In 1935, Walter Gropius, the former head of the Bauhaus, became Controller of Design for Isokon. Gropius had arrived in United Kingdom in October 1934 and lived at No. 15 Lawn Road Flats until March 1937, when he and his wife Ise left for Harvard University in the USA. Before he left, Gropius recommended Marcel Breuer, a former colleague at the Bauhaus and fellow Lawn Road Flat resident, as his replacement. The furniture Breuer designed for Isokon are highly influential pieces of the modernist movement, including the famous Long Chair. After Breuer had followed Gropius to the USA, Austrian émigré Egon Riss designed the Penguin Donkey for Isokon, made to fit this new format of affordable books. The end of Isokon came with World War II, with the supply of plywood from the Baltics cut off. The Isokon Furniture Company ceased production in 1939.
Jack Pritchard revived Isokon in 1963. Changes in the making of plywood meant a redesign of some key pieces, for which Pritchard hired Ernest Race, including an updated version of the Donkey. In 1968, Pritchard licensed John Alan Designs to produce the Long Chair, Nesting Tables and the Penguin Donkey mark II, which the company did until 1980, when production again ceased.
In 1982, Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture met with Jack Pritchard and took over the license to manufacture Isokon furniture. Some years later Jack & Molly passed away, but production continued. In 1996, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby had recently graduated from the Royal College of Art when they designed their first piece of furniture, the Loop Table. The iconic Barber & Osgerby bent plywood design was to be the first of several furniture pieces that the designers created for Isokon Plus, as the company is nowadays known.
Ernest Race (1913-1964) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He took a three-year study in interior design at London's Bartlett School of Architecture, and after graduation was employed as a draughtsman for the lighting firm Troughton & Young, which supplied fittings to many of the leading Modernist architects of the 1930s. Through this career Race was able to meet many of the leading British and émigré European Modernist figureheads, including Walter Gropius and the founder of Isokon, Jack Pritchard. In 1937 Race spent four months in India with his missionary aunt, who ran a weaving village near Madras, and upon his return to London opened a shop in Motcomb Street, Knightsbridge, to sell handwoven textiles and carpets of his own design. The shop, which lasted until 1939, was highly influential.
Race spent the war as a fireman in London. At the war's end Race answered an advertisement in The Times that was to alter his career and establish him as the most innovative British furniture designer of the period. Placed by the engineer, J.W. Noel Jordan, he sought a collaborator who could design utilitarian, mass-produced furniture. In 1946, at the Victoria & Albert Museum's morale-boosting exhibition "Britain Can Make It", Race unveiled his range of cast-aluminium furniture. By 1947 the aluminium was die-cast using a technique previously used for making incendiary bomb casings. The furniture, raised from the floor by tapering legs, had a visual lightness that contrasted greatly with the heavier, lower, pre-war Modernist furniture, precipitating the move towards the Contemporary look of the 1950s. The Antelope chair, featured at the Festival of Britain in 1951, reflected the spirit of the age. With it's slender steel rod frame and balled feet, the Antelope chair echoed the scientific progress of the era into molecular physics.