Collection

School chair

Collection: When modernism goes bad

Category: Furniture

Date: 1948

Designer: James Leonard

Nationality of Designer: British

Manufacturer: Esavian for The Educational Supply Association, London

Manufacturers Location: Stevenage, Hertforshire (UK)

Material: Cast aluminium frame, pre-formed beech-ply seat, plain grey vinyl covering

Dimensions: Height 73cm, width 40cm, 50cm depth

Purchase Price: N/a: Skip find

Abstract:

A metal-framed chair with upholstered seat and back

Provenance:

These chairs were being disposed of by Highlands and Islands Royal Infirmary (Inverness, UK) whilst it was being modernised in 1998, and were rescued by Grizedale Arts director Adam Sutherland, then director of art.tm in Inverness.

Personal history/nominator:

The chairs have been well used at Adam Sutherland’s home since 1999. Like many of the furnishings acquired second hand, at the time the significance of the design was not known and the chairs purely enjoyed in their own right.

Over the years these chairs have seated the likes of artist Mark Wallinger, actress Tilda Swinton, director Ken Russell and artist Gerald Laing and the many artists and friends working at Grizedale.

They were later re-covered and became part of the collection in 2006, being exhibited in Virtually Grizedale alongside the Liverpool Biennale.

Adaptions/renovations:

The replacement fabric was designed by William Morris in 1868, re-worked later as a wipe-clean machine-made product by Liberty and purchased from their London store in 2006.

Why it's in the Collection:

The chair reflects the manufacturing techniques of the 2nd World War. In common with Ernest Race, English Rose and other ‘modernist’ styled designs, it utilises aluminium casting technology developed for aircraft manufacture: modernism of a kind, strongly linked to necessity as many traditional materials were in short supply in the post-war years. However, the style was associated with Utility and quickly fell out of popularity (if it was ever in), for its associations with poverty and the war, thus dealing another blow to modernism.

The seat and back fabric was produced by Liberty & Co. the London store that championed the arts and crafts movement in the 19th century . This version of the fabric is a machine-produced wipe clean vinyl – unimaginable and most likely repellent to Morris whose philosophy was centred on hand-made low volume production.

The art nouveau style was revived in the 1960’s (by labels such as Biba and further popularised in the 1970’s as part of a renaissance of high Victorian style largely reinterpreted to be arts and crafts. Although the roots of modernism can be clearly linked to the arts and crafts movement, it was its hippy-era revival that finally destroyed, or at least suspended, the modernist aesthetic.

William Morris is famous for his maxim ‘Have nothing in your house that is not beautiful or useful’. This chair extends this edict, being functional, beautiful and meaningful.

About the Designer/Maker:

There seems to be very little information available on James Leonard. Few examples of his work, beyond this chair design and associated table with their many variations, exist. He was represented in international design magazines shortly after World War II and then seems to abruptly disappear from view.

Please contact us of you can provide any further information on this designer.

About the Manufacturer:

There is a film in the British Film Institute’s archive called The Esavian Door which was made in 1952. This demonstrates what an important company Esavian were in the post war years of functional design.

Founded in 1917 in Stevenage, Hertfordshire (UK) as a timber manufacturer they quickly utilised modern materials and technologies. Esavian was also the trade name for the Educational Supply Association, which ensured schools had low-cost, good quality furniture – but doors were their thing and they became best known for innovative folding classroom partitions and the aircraft hanger door that “opened within thirty seconds” and is still in production today.

The Esavian name is now trading under the name of Jewers Doors.

Bibliography & Further information

Liberty’s

Biba

Jewers Doors

1939 Esavian Advert