Penguin Donkey

When modernism goes bad
Ernest Race
Nationality of Designer
Manufacturers Location
London, England (UK)
Plywood and Cherry
53 x 24 x 39 cm
Purchase Price


Bookcase and Table


Purchased from eBay by Adam Sutherland

Personal history/nominator

I enjoy the humour of the name, the fact that this is the Mark 2, the original being one of the few pieces designed under Walter Gropius while director of Isokon. I bought this piece to inspire a local craft maker to generate an adapted version that he would paint as an actual animal (in his usual style) creating the Penguin Fox. The Penguin Donkey is a popular art reference, a version is being made by artist Abake as part of Harold Offeh's Urbania project for Agrifashionista.

Isokon/Wells Coates is the iconic British modernist company, building the Isokon building (Lawn Road Flats) regarded as one of the most successful embodiments of the 'Machine for Living' ethos, despite the fact that it sort of cheated, aiming itself at young professionals and being home to all the modernist refugees from Europe, rather than housing 'the people'. Isokon and Jack 'Plywood' Pritchard (the accountant and then director) in addition to Wells Coates also employed Walter Gropius and then Marcel Breuer as design directors, followed by Ernest Race on the companies post war revival - an unlikely eye for the right guy. Someone in the company clearly enjoyed the bad pun - the Isokon building had a communal restaurant called the Isobar. All sadly traits I have a fondness for - including being right at the wrong time.

The Isokon piece I really want is the 'Bottleship', another piece from the 1930's - a bar, a table, a bookshelf and another pun, also reworked by Race (not such a great piece of design though).

Adam Sutherland


None, except a few scratches.

Why it's in the Collection

The Mark II Penguin Donkey is an Ernest Race adaptation of the original 1939 Egon Riss/Jack Pritchard Donkey, a much curvier affair made entirely of bent plywood (there were apparently only 100 made). The Race version alters and corrupts the original modernist ambition, making it more classical, removing the quirks and making it easier and cheaper to make. The Mark II was a special offer advertised on the back of Penguin books for 6 shillings. Although it is a quintessential modernist piece, it is also one of the coffin nails, being a popularisation of the modernist aesthetic with its special offer status and flimsy self build construction.

The piece marks the shift from modernism and its ideals of fitness for purpose, truth to materials, economy of means to the 70's precepts centred on manufacturing and a cleaned up world with the maxim of simplicity, standardization, modern configuration.

I love the fact that the 3 point design motto is sustained from the 1850s through to the 1960's. All emphatic statements need 3 points, or rather the same point made 3 times. Adam Sutherland

About the Designer/Maker

Ernest Race (1913-1964) achieved national acclaim during the 1950s with his unique, forward thinking furniture designs. Race's highly individual style was at its height during the post war period and the Festival of Britain of 1951. He rather eccentrically combined Modernism with Victoriana, and mass production with high - spec design. Unlike his contemporaries, who were looking to post war America for influence, Race developed his own idiosyncratic design identity that set him apart from all others in the industry.

Race was educated at St Paul's School, London and studied interior design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, also in London, from 1932 until 1935. He then gained employment as a designer with Troughton & Young of London, the lighting manufacturers, under the direction of Alfred Burgess Read, and after studying hand-weaving in India in 1937 founded Race Fabrics, a textile design firm and shop, to put his designs into production.

During the war, Race served in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London, after which in 1945, in partnership with J. W. Noel Jordan, he created Ernest Race Ltd to design and manufacture his unique furniture. Race was director and chief designer of this seminal firm (renamed Race Furniture Ltd. in 1962) which produced minimal, organic designs with economical use of materials. Seeking a compromise between English traditional and Swedish modern, Race's furniture was characteristically light and easy to handle, with clean lines and thin splayed legs. His 'BA' chair of 1945 and the renowned steel rod 'Antelope' chair for the 1951 Festival of Britain won gold and silver medals respectively at the prestigious 10th Milan Triennale in 1954. These were followed by the 'Flamingo' easy-chair (1959) and the 'Sheppey' settee and chair (1963). The latter was comfortable and ingenious in its design, being assembled from a set of interchangeable, mass-produced components.
In his later years, from 1961 until his death in 1964, Race was a consultant furniture designer for Cintique and Isokon furniture, designing the Penguin Mark 2 Donkey bookcase in 1963.

What Race might have done in the 70's and 80's and the influence he might have excerted are part of the tragedy of his early death.

About the Manufacturer

The London-based Isokon firm was founded in 1929 to design and construct modernist houses and flats, and subsequently furniture and fittings for them. Originally called Wells Coates and Partners, the name was changed in 1931 to Isokon, a name derived from Isometric Unit Construction, bearing an allusion to Constructivism.

Jack Pritchard (1899 - 1992), the unlikely and inspired director - nickname 'plywood Pritchard' for his fondness of the material - hired not only Walter Gropius and subsequently Marcel Breuer but also latterly Ernest Race.

However, Isokon was never commercially successful. World War II marked the end of the company with the supply of plywood from the US ending abruptly - the importance of modernist design as a force for change being suddenly overshadowed by world events. The war created a gap in the modernist trajectory, with the utility scheme and the Festival of Britain relaunching the idiom after the war.

Jack Pritchard revived Isokon Furniture Company in 1963 and employed Ernest Race to redesign some of the key pieces to accommodate cheaper materials and manufacturing processes. In 1968, Pritchard licensed John Alan Designs to produce Breuer's Long Chair, Nesting Tables and the Penguin Donkey Mark II which the company did until 1980.

In 1982, Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture took over the license to manufacture Isokon pieces. Since 1999, this furniture has been sold through the retail arm of Windmill's, Isokon Plus in Chiswick, London.

Bibliography & Further information

V&A Museum