Grade I Listed Isokon Building turns 80 on 9th July 2014
Opening of public exhibition with the support of the National Trust
Unveiling of National Trust plaque to celebrate its architect and creators.
The Grade I listed Isokon Building, also known as Lawn Road Flats, Hampstead, London NW3, was almost lost to the nation but luckily saved ten years ago. Now the Isokon Gallery Trust has fulfilled an intention of that rescue project by creating a public gallery in the building, exhibiting the story of the Britain’s first modernist block of flats and how members of the Bauhaus, Soviet spies, artists, architects and authors including Agatha Christie came to live there.
The Lawn Road Flats – also know as the Isokon Building – was the creation of Jack & Molly Pritchard and architect Wells Coates. Opening on 9th July 1934, it was not only the first modernist block of flats in Britain, but also the home of notable émigrés, including Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and László Maholy-Nagy, head teacher of art at the Bauhaus school. It also attracted tenants like Arnold Deutsch, the NKVD (KGB) spy and recruiter of the Cambridge Five (a group which included Kim Philby), an episode that inspired John le Carré when he wrote Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Between 1941 and 1947 the building was the home of Agatha Christie, so it seems fitting that she wrote her only spy novel, N or M, when she lived there.
To accompany the building, Jack Pritchard created the Isokon Furniture Company in the early 1930s and enlisted Coates, Gropius, Breuer, Egon Riss and later Ernest Race. In 1982 the production was taken over by Windmill Furniture, now Isokon Plus, which has worked with designers Barber Osgerby and others to extend the Isokon range.
The Isokon Gallery Trust has been established by John Allan and Fiona Lamb of Avanti Architects, who with the Notting Hill Housing restored the building in 2004, and Magnus Englund, MD and co-founder of Skandium.
On the 9th July 2014 – the exact 80th anniversary of the opening on Lawn Road Flats – a plaque unveiling has taken place in the presence of the families of the original architect Wells Coates and the clients Jack & Molly Pritchard, as well as the current owner Notting Hill Housing. The gallery, now open, is showing the fascinating history of Lawn Road Flats, minutely orchestrated and executed by Skandium’s Magnus Englund.
‘The biggest challenge was knowing which stories to tell,’ says Magnus Englund, MD, Skandium.
The Isokon Gallery has opened to the public on the 10th of July in the building also known as the Lawn Road Flats – in Hampstead. Built in 1934, the daringly modern apartment block was the epicentre of North London’s avant-garde circle during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Isokon Gallery, once the residents’ garage, certainly has no shortage of material to exhibit. Walter Gropius, Paul Nash and Agatha Christie were among its famous residents, and its gatherings of leading architects, artists, writers and thinkers in the building’s Isobar restaurant were legendary.
Also the penthouse has been immaculately restored to its original state. Honey-coloured curved plywood lines every wall (the building’s founders Jack and Molly Pritchard were plywood specialists). ‘The Pritchards were a remarkable couple, and plywood is the thread which runs through the story,’ says Englund. On moving into builfing, Englund discovered there had been a plan to open the gallery a decade before, and he contacted Avanti Architects, who had renovated the entire building in the early noughties, and embarked upon raising the funds for the gallery.
As well as providing a potted history of the building, its founders, its architect Wells Coates, and its famous residents, the gallery also features furniture, produced by Jack Pritchard under the Isokon furniture brand. Throughout the 1930s, he collaborated with many of the building’s architect residents, among them Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Lazlo Moholy Nagy to create pieces for the flats. Originals such as the ‘Penguin Donkey’ bookstand by resident Egon Riss and Breuer’s ‘Long Chair’ are on display alongside photos of the flats in various states of repair.
Isokon was billed as North London’s only concrete home during the war, and housed spies and intelligence agents – as documented in a recent book by David Burke. It then slowly fell into disrepair and by the 1990s was virtually derelict before its renovation. With the new gallery, it is more complete than it has ever been.
Wallpaper Architecture / 10 Jul 2014 / By Emma O’Kelly
The entire renovation project of this building, executed by Avanti architects, is a masterly achievement. Not only because the building was a complete wreck with many constructions faults (due to ever lacking monetary funds from building start), down to total neglect during the years, ending up looking like a stranded Russian tanker, sitting there in all its ugly glory. Now Isokon the building is back to its former strength and beauty with most of the initial faults under reasonable control. Why all the fuss about a building? Because it is a significant landmark of the modernist idea, not just relating to architectural ideas and living interpretations but to everything the modernist movement was looking to be, searching to freeing society from stuffy thinking, moving forward; socially, politically, intellectually, emotionally.
The building was an important hub for the initiators of the Bauhaus movement at a time when they where forced to leave their homes and country. At Isokon they found refuge and means to survive. It was very modest but it meant life for them.
History again so fascinatingly illustrates how we all are connected, despite coming from many different walks of life.
Magnus answers a number of questions about the Isokon furniture.
- What characteristics define the Isokon aesthetic?
While most of the Isokon furniture was designed during the 1930s, they have a timeless look that point forward to US and Scandinavian 1950s ply furniture. The start of Isokon came about because of its founder Jack Pritchard’s work for the British company Venesta. This was a sister company of the Estonian plywood manufacturer Luther, which had factories both in Estonia, Finland and before the revolution, in Russia. Plywood is therefore the material of choice for all Isokon furniture. Aalto’s furniture designs from the 1930s certainly had an influence, not surprising as Aalto furniture was widely sold in Britain through Finmar at the time.
- Which designers have worked for Isokon?
The most famous designer is without doubt Marcel Breuer, who stayed in London for some years in the 1930s. His Isokon Long Chair is the most important piece in the collection, and is featured in museum collections around the world. Walter Gropius also designed for Isokon, but none of his pieces made it into serial production. Jack Pritchard and Wells Coates made the first designs for Isokon before the arrival of Breuer and Gropius in London, and Egon Riss designed the first Donkey just before the war. In 1963 Ernest Race designed an updated version of the Donkey that fitted Penguin pocket books, and more recently Barber & Osgerby, Shin & Tomoko Azumi and Michael Sodeau have contributed to the collection. There was also a stool made and designed by Venesta in Estonia that Isokon marketed in Britain before WWII, which is generally considered part of the Isokon collection, but the designer has never been identified. It was later made by Isokon Plus in Britain.
- Over what time period were classic pieces like the Penguin Donkey, the Isokon Long Chair and Nesting Tables manufactured?
The first Penguin Donkey was introduced in 1939 and was only made for a brief period of time, because the outbreak of war cut off the supply from Estonia. This makes 1930s made Donkey’s very rare indeed. The Long and Short chair and the Nesting Tables and Dining Tables were introduced earlier and therefore longer in production, but were never made in large quantities. In the 1960s John Allan, who was the husband of Jack’s secretary, took up production of the Long Chair and Nesting Tables again, this time in Britain. This ceased around 1979, and in 1982 production was taken over by Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture, whose version of the Long Chair is more faithful to the 1930s version than the 1960s/70s production, which had been modified.
- What is it, in your opinion that makes these pieces still resonate with buyers today?
Firstly they have a scale that makes them very useful, and considering they are hand made in Britain in small batches, also well priced. All three versions of the Donkey are very useful around the home, and the Long and Short chairs are incredibly comfortable. Owning a piece of Isokon also means owning a part of British modernism and design history. The fact that they are now made in Hackney Wick, and until recently in Turnham Green, both in London, resonates very well with those who care about supporting British manufacturing.
- Do you feel that there is their continuity between the designs of the 1930s and those of contemporary designers BarberOsgerby?
When Chris McCourt decided to incorporate the designs of Barber & Osgerby into the Isokon collection, then fresh out of college, he had to decide whether their design could stand next to the work of Marcel Breuer, arguably the most important furniture designer of the 20th century, without mimicking the look. The material and technique are certainly the same, but the language is different, and that’s what tipped the decision to their favour.
- To what extent is there a British character to the Isokon portfolio? Were those early designs aimed at a solely British market? Were they widely available outside of the UK?
The choice of material was both influenced by Jack “Plywood” Pritchard’s love of the material, and his view was that tubular steel, the choice of Breuer and the Bauhaus, would not work in Britain. The connection with Allen Lane’s Penguin books also makes it very British. Some sales were made into the US before WWII, but on a very small scale, and in more recent times Japan has imported some Isokon Plus furniture. But most sales have been in Britain.
- Do they make good long-term investments?
Pre WWII Isokon pieces are incredibly rare and fetch serious money at auctions. When a collection by Breuer that was used in a flat in Lubetkin’s Highpoint came up at auction some ten years ago, the V&A imposed an export ban so save them for the nation and also acquired some pieces for its own collection. 1960s to 1970s Long Chairs are also popular, and more current production pieces usually fetch close to their original list prices, so they certainly make good investments. The piece in widest circulation is the Ernst Race Isokon Donkey Mk II from 1963 that was advertised together with the pocket books, and originally cost £6. It now sells for up to £500, depending on condition.
- Have you observed any buying trends in relation to Isokon furniture over the last few years?
The most popular pieces are the Donkeys, with sales spread equally across all three models. The last few years have seen the same trend in woods that has affected Alvar Aalto furniture, in that walnut and oak has been more popular than birch, but this trend is now shifting and lighter woods are making a comeback.
- What considerations and potential pitfalls should a buyer look out for?
Luckily there are no copies, but birch veneer like all woods can break if dry. Early Long Chairs can be fragile and might not withstand the weight of a modern person. The pre war Venesta stool came with small metal feet that sometimes have fallen off, while the Isokon Plus production of the stool never had any feet as they might scratch wooden floors.
- How concerned should a buyer be about condition?
There is no such thing as a standard fabric for the Long Chair, so reupholstering a poor fabric will not greatly reduce the value, but of course should be kept if possible. Some pieces have been painted over, but that can also have its charm. Very early pieces were sometimes stained in a dark colour to fit with 1930s interiors. Look out for repairs underneath the Long Chair.
- What is the price structure for these pieces and when is it worth paying a lot?
The most affordable are the later productions by Isokon Plus, and the Donkey Mk II from the 1960s. Original 1930s Venesta stools are also relatively easy to come by, and all these pieces go for around £500. The most expensive pieces are the pre war Breuer pieces, where a Long Chair can fetch as much as £5,000 or even more.
Skandium has been intensely involved in the Isokon Gallery opening in the original, Grade I listed Lawn Road Flats building in Belsize Park in July 2014, on the 80th anniversary of its original opening. With its Baltic origins, modernist heritage and Scandinavian look, we now stock the entire Isokon Plus collection, and we are also encouraging the reintroduction of a number of pieces.
The gallery is open every Saturday and Sunday from 11-4pm, from 12 July until 26 October
The Isokon Gallery
London NW3 2XD