- When modernism goes bad
- Neil Morris
- Nationality of Designer
- H. Morris & Co.
- Manufacturers Location
- Glasgow, Scotland (U.K)
- Teak, tweed
- 77 x 51 x 47cm
- Purchase Price
- £150 (incl. accompanying 'Cumbrae' table)
Four upright armchairs
Bought on ebay by Adam Sutherland
Reupholstered in Harris and Welsh tweed
Why it's in the Collection
Neil Morris was a key innovator in post-war furniture manufacturing. He is little celebrated today but played a pivotal role in developing new techniques for the British market adopted and adapted from American technologies. The chairs' simple, robust, and economical design was intended to meet the specification of the British government’s Utility Furniture Scheme: a form of rationing developed in part by Gordon Russell and applied in 1941 to manufacturing materials like wood which were scarce post-war (a parallel scheme was applied to clothes). The Scheme demanded durable furniture with frugal use of materials which led to a summary rejection of decoration. It became a criminal offence to adapt Utility Scheme furniture as elaboration or ornamentation was deemed necessarily wasteful. The British government also endorsed around 700 firms scattered across the country to complete the scheme. In a bid to reduce transportation costs the public was required to buy locally with their issued coupons.
The Utility Scheme favoured a strictly functional form of modernism. In the case of these four Morris chairs and their accompanying Cumbrae table set, the pieces' uncluttered silhouettes with restrained curves and tapering diagonals suggest the aeronautical shapes that would have been familiar to the Morris factory during the war. The Cumbrae table and chairs can be understood as a stripped back Utility precursor to Morris & Co.'s Allegro suite designed with Basil Spence. Although the Allegro is much more elaborate in shape and application of laminate wood, several characteristics are shared between the two sets.
Their reupholstering in Welsh and Harris tweed highlights the fusion of Victorian and modernist taste as these objects met with predominantly conservative households which were at best only mildly interested in modern design and at worst openly antagonistic to the Utility Scheme's preferences. Tweed and tartan were used in the Victorian era to simulate rural economies and often specified a particular craftsman, locality, size of cloth, and dye in order for it to be considered an authentic product.
About the Designer/Maker
Neil Morris, son of Harris Morris founder of Morris & Co., joined his father's company in 1938. He quickly gained a reputation for innovating with new technologies for manipulating wood, particularly laminate. He is quoted as saying "I cannot express the excitement aroused by the use of a new machine, the start of a new job, the discovery of a new material, or a new way of doing something." During the war Morris & Co. had made Spitfire cockpits and by 1946 this search for novelty led to the company being one of the first suppliers of helicopter blades. Neil Morris also sought out collaboration with prominent designers including Basil Spence, helping Morris & Co to feature prominently at post war industry exhibitions such as Britain Can Make It.
About the Manufacturer
Morris Furniture Group was founded in 1884 and has remained consistently innovative throughout its active years. It has expanded rapidly, taking on projects as diverse as furnishing and fitting both the RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, and producing the seats for cinemas where the Jazz Singer, the first film to feature synchronized dialogue sequences, was screened, in 1927. During the post-war period it built its reputation as a domestic furnisher and still attempts to cater for a broad audience of both luxury and affordable furniture for the domestic and professional environment.