Jack Pritchard was one of the most prominent designers in Britain during the 20th century, creating iconic pieces like the bentwood dining table and the Penguin Donkey that can be found in top museums around the world today. Find out more about Jack Pritchard’s life and career by reading this profile of one of Britain’s most respected designers.
Jack Pritchard (1899 – 1992) was a British designer and manufacturer. He was a member of the Design and Industries Association. His work is exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of London.
He studied engineering and economics at Cambridge University to 1922.
He began working in 1922 for Michelin tires in France and, in 1925, for Venesta Plywood in Britain. After seeing Le Corbusier’s ‘L’Esprit nouveau’ pavilion at the 1925 Paris ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,’ he invited the architect to design a stand for Venesta. He also worked with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and hired Wells Coates to design a stand for Venesta at the 1931 ‘British Empire Trade Exhibition’ in Manchester.
Attempting to apply ‘modern functional design to houses, flats, furniture and fittings,’ Pritchard, his wife Molly, and Coates formed Isokon in 1931. Isokon primarily produced furniture in plywood; one of its best-known designs was the 1936 bentwood dining table and chaise longue, both by Marcel Breuer, and the Penguin Donkey, the bookcase designed to hold the paperback books published by Penguin.
In 1932, Coates designed Lawn Road Flats, one of the first International Style concrete buildings, on land owned by Pritchard in Hampstead, where refugees Breuer, Moholy-Nagy, and Walter Gropius lived for a time; they all designed for Isokon. Though Pritchard designed furniture pieces himself, his significant contribution was introducing the International Style to Britain.
The London-based Isokon firm was founded in 1929 to design and build modernist homes and furniture. Originally named Wells Coates and Partners, the name was changed to Isokon in 1931. Directors included bacteriologist and later psychiatrist Molly Pritchard, solicitor Frederick Graham-Maw, son of Rowe and Maw founder Frederick James Maw, and economist Robert S Spicer. Pritchard initially handled economics, publicity, and marketing, hired designers and ran the company after Coates left. Pritchard became the British marketing manager for Venesta (short for veneer Estonia) in 1926. The company had 5,000 employees, a factory and wharf in East London, and offices in the City of London. Pritchard hired Charlotte Perriand through Le Corbusier to design a 1929 trade show stand. Pritchard worked for Venesta until 1936 despite his involvement with Lawn Road Flats and Isokon. Isokon furniture was mainly made at A M Luther in Tallinn, an Estonian company that owned 50% of Venesta and was Europe’s largest plywood manufacturer in the early 1900s. Isokon wasn’t profitable. World War II ended when the Soviet invasion of Estonia and confiscation of A M Luther cut off its plywood supply. Pritchard restarted Isokon in 1963, with production in Britain. The Pritchard family has approved Isokon Plus, formerly Windmill Furniture, since 1982.
Lawn Road Flats
Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead now named Isokon Flats opened on 9 July 1934. Wells Coates designed it based on Molly Pritchard’s brief and the Minimum Flat concept from the 1929 CIAM conference. Wells Coates, Jack Pritchard, and Serge Chermayeff visited Germany in March 1931 to see new housing developments, including the Bauhaus in Dessau. Edith Tudor Hart, a Bauhaus graduate, photographed Lawn Road Flats’ construction and opening. The flats were designed for young professionals as the last word in modernist living. It had 22 single, four double, three studio, staff quarters, kitchens, and an oversized garage. A dumb waiter at the building’s spine delivered shoes, laundry, and food. The Isobar, designed by Marcel Breuer and Maxwell Fry, was added to the complex in 1937. Philip Harben was the first BBC celebrity chef after World War II. Pritchard also started The Half Hundred Club, a supper club with 25 members and 25 guests. They ate at the Isobar, Pritchard’s Isokon penthouse flat, or London Zoo.
The flats and Isobar became north London’s intellectual hub. Agatha Christie and her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, Soviet NKVD spy master Arnold Deutsch, who recruited the Cambridge Five, German-born economist and Soviet spy Jürgen Kuczynski, author Nicholas Monsarrat, ethnomusicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, architect Jacques Groag and his wife, textile designer Jacqueline Groag, architects Egon Riss and Arthur Korn, and author Adrian Stokes all lived there. During the 1960s, British architects Sir James Stirling and Alec Bright lived in Bogotá, Colombia. Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson, and Sir Julian Huxley frequented the Isobar.
Pritchard stayed in London during World War II while Molly and their children Jonathan and Jeremy moved to the U.S. She lived with Walter Gropius and his wife Ise while the children attended a Canadian boarding school. The reinforced concrete building was famous as a wartime residence and survived the Blitz. During the war, it was repainted brown because its white surface could guide German bombers. Pritchard held the building’s 21st birthday party on the roof in 1955. Nikolaus Pevsner gave a speech, and Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer’s letters were read. Wells Coates, pre-World War II residents, Robin and Lucienne Day, and Alison and Peter Smithson attended.
Pritchard sold the building to New Statesman in 1969, which turned it into flats. Camden Council bought the building for twice as much in 1972. English Heritage listed the building as Grade II in 1974 and Grade I in 1999. Camden Council neglected it, and it deteriorated severely. It housed single men with drug, alcohol, and mental health issues during this time. After a long campaign to save the building, it was sold to Notting Hill Housing Group in 2003 in a joint bid with Avanti Architects, led by architect John Allan, with the promise of a museum. It now has 36 apartments, most of which nurses and teachers own. The building’s garage was converted into a gallery in July 2014 with a permanent exhibition about the building, its residents, and Isokon. It’s run by the non-profit Isokon Gallery Trust and is open from early March to late October.
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, and later their adopted daughter Ati joined them. Gropius lived in flat 15 at Lawn Road Flats until March 1937, when they left for the United States for Gropius to become a Professor of Architecture at Harvard University. A month before he left for the US, Gropius recommended Marcel Breuer, a former colleague at the Bauhaus. The latter 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 modernism 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 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, became involved with Isokon when he arrived in Britain from Germany in May 1935. Moholy-Nagy designed promotional material for the Isokon Furniture Company, including sales leaflets, showcards 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 who had worked at the school in Weimar. He remained in Britain for the rest of his life.
Isokon furniture revival
Pritchard revived the Isokon company in 1963 after his retirement. Changes in the manufacture of plywood meant redesigning some of the critical 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 of Penguin Books. In 1982, Pritchard granted Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture the license to manufacture the historical Isokon furniture pieces. From 1999, the Isokon furniture was sold through his renamed company Isokon Plus, first based in Chiswick, West London and from 2014 in Hackney Wick, East London. The company was later sold to VG&P, which retained the Isokon Plus brand. The first furniture to be added to the Isokon portfolio since 1963 was designed by the duo Barber Osgerby in 1996. Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby had recently graduated from the Royal College of Art when they designed their first piece, the Loop Table. The bent plywood design was to be the first of several furniture pieces the designers created for Isokon Plus, the most recent the Bodleian Chair for the University of Oxford’s historic Bodleian Libraries.
Wikipedia contributors. (2022, June 15). Jack Pritchard. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:28, July 29, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jack_Pritchard&oldid=1093307793
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