Guest Curator Shanna Shelby introduces our major exhibition showcasing the revolutionary designs of former Chichester residents Robin and Lucienne Day.
Robin (1915–2010) and Lucienne Day (1917–2010) were prolific designers whose talents earned them celebrity status. For over 60 years the Days shared a passionate commitment to creating good, affordable design accessible to everyone. The couple met in 1940 at the Royal College of Art and married in 1942. They rose to prominence during the 1951 Festival of Britain, where Lucienne's textiles and wallpapers were exhibited alongside Robin's furniture in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion.
In the years that followed, Robin designed furniture, exhibits and graphics, while Lucienne concentrated on the design of furnishing textiles. Although their designs complemented one another, husband and wife typically worked independently in different fields and for separate clients, though both received a succession of prestigious awards for their innovative work. Like many designers in the optimistic post-World War II period, Lucienne and Robin believed in the transformative power of modern design. They sought to create beautiful useful objects available to people of all income levels. Lucienne and Robin Day helped overturn the conservatism that characterized pre-war British design, popularizing a sleek new aesthetic in British interiors.
The fabrics in the exhibition are drawn from the American collection of Jill A. Wiltse and her husband, H. Kirk Brown III. Over a decade they have acquired several hundred rare textiles from the post-war period by British designers, both male and female: 'The work of British women designers appealed to us, particularly Lucienne Day,' remarks Brown. 'Lucienne was more than a creator of brightly coloured textiles – she was a revolutionary. After World War II there seemed to be an explosion of design and colour thanks to her work.' In addition to Lucienne Day, the collection also includes other British women textile designers from the era, such as Jacqueline Groag, Marian Mahler, and Paule Vézelay, as well as British male designers such as Terence Conran, John Piper and Henry Moore – all of whom created provocative mid-century designs for furnishing fabrics.
Mirroring this private collection, the exhibition features the furnishing fabrics of Lucienne but also includes a selection of her dishware. Lucienne designed in a variety of media including wallpapers, carpets and ceramics, but her fondness for fabric was seeded while studying at Croydon School of Art (1934–1937) and rooted while specializing in printed textiles at the Royal College of Art (1937–1940). Lucienne's commercial success began with her groundbreaking fabric 'Calyx', printed in 1951. Initially Heal Fabrics, Lucienne's principal client, was skeptical about Calyx's avant-garde style, but they decided to take a chance with the young designer's refreshing and inventive ideas. This proved to be an astute and profitable decision for the manufacturer as Lucienne soon became a leading figure in a new era of British design. Lucienne transformed British textile design in the 1950s by pioneering an innovative, modern expression in pattern and colour.
Inspired by the work of Modernist painters such as Joan Miró and Paul Klee, Day sought to create a similar dynamism in her imaginative compositions. 'I didn't start with the idea that the fabric was going to be a textile,' Day commented about her design process in 2008. 'I started with the idea that each piece was a work of art.' Day's strengths as a textile designer stemmed from her sophisticated colour choices, stylized references to nature and intriguing abstract forms. A gifted colourist, Day worked closely with Heal Fabrics to ensure that her vision was properly executed in each 'colourway' version of the final product. The exhibition illustrates the evolution of Day's design style chronologically, from the playful linearity of her patterns in the early 1950s to her experimentation with bold visual effects using black silk-screen patterns over fields of colour in the late 1950s and early '60s and finally her dynamic Pop style of the late 1960s and early '70s.
Robin's fine craftsmanship can be appreciated in the woodworked furniture of the 1950s which is highlighted in the exhibition where select, very rare pieces are on loan from Target Gallery, London. Robin's early recognition came in 1948 when he, along with fellow designer Clive Latimer, won first prize in the 1948 New York Museum of Modern Art international competition for low-cost affordable furniture. As a result, Robin was contacted by the Hille Furniture Company that year and produced his first furniture design for the company in 1949: the sideboard, dining table and chair are represented in this exhibition, the only examples to survive intact and complete. The relationship between Hille and Robin was long lasting and profitable (not unlike Lucienne's relationship with manufacturer Heal Fabrics).
Robin was not only a furniture designer for Hille but also did graphic work designing letterhead, logos and brochures. The sophisticated design of the packaging of the Tricorn tray in the exhibition is on loan from Ian and Cherrill Scheer. He also designed exhibitions and other products like radios for Pye Manufacturing. The 1965 Pye radio, from the Wiltse/Brown collection, won a Design Centre Award. Robin's first major commission was the 1951 Festival of Britain furniture. The lounge, dining and orchestra chairs are individual and unique designs but together represent a cohesive collection. The chairs are a prime example of Robin's goals as a designer: good design, practical and easily produced in multiples.
The ability to fabricate large quantities of modern, well designed furniture for corporate buyers was something that really took hold in the 1960s. Robin and Hille were early leaders and the Festival of Britain commission foreshadows their dominance in the industry with the 'Polyprop' chair. Another early example of Robin's functional public furniture was the British Rail Bench from 1956, which was awarded the coveted Design Centre Award. Robin attained the ideal in furniture design – a low maintenance, durable, comfortable, yet elegant and aesthetically-pleasing furniture piece.
Throughout his career Robin experimented with assorted functions of furniture, with a variety of groundbreaking production methods such as plastic injection molding and materials like handcrafted wood and polypropylene. The Hilleplan bureau of 1952 cleverly disguises the utility of a desk with a hinged drop flap within the simple design of a bureau and drawers beneath. Always curious, Robin experimented years later with plastics and mass production. Robin is famous for the ubiquitous mass produced polypropylene chair, or 'Prolyprop', which was introduced in 1963 and is without a doubt the best known stackable chair: 14 million (and counting) sold worldwide. It is lightweight, easy to clean, comfortable, cheap to produce and has an attractive and simple silhouette. These principles applied to other chairs and side tables Robin designed from 1972 like the Tote Table and Obo Chair. As their recognition spread, the stylish couple became media favorites, featuring in a 1954 advertisement for a Hillman family car and a 1955 ad campaign for Smirnoff vodka. Magazine articles such as the January 1954 issue of House and Garden spotlighted the Day's London townhouse, allowing eager fans and consumers to peruse their personal choices in home décor.
Enthusiasm for interior decorating in Britain after World War II is reflected in magazines from the era, a selection of which are included in the exhibition. The popular UK edition of House and Garden magazine published feature articles detailing how young couples could set up their first home on a budget. Design magazine, another monthly publication, celebrated emerging designers and highlighted fine design in furnishing fabrics, furniture, carpets, wallpaper and dishware. Advertisements in magazines such as these were a primary vehicle through which consumers learned the popular aesthetic of the age.
Lucienne and Robin Day came to personify the modern style in mid-century Britain and consumers strove to emulate the lifestyle of this talented, successful and attractive couple. Lucienne reinvigorated the British textile industry in the post World War II period, inspiring stylish yet affordable product lines that brought the beauty of modern art into the homes of everyone. Her inventive combinations of colour and pattern remain surprisingly fresh to our modern eyes and in accord with contemporary aesthetics. Passionate about making fundamental changes in design thinking, Robin rightly deserves the designation of the highest profile British designer. With reissues of Robin's earlier work there is a new wave of appreciation for his designs. The title of Royal Designer for Industry (RDI), the highest accolade for designers, was bestowed upon Robin in 1959 and Lucienne in 1962. 'Robin and Lucienne Day: Design and the Modern Interior' showcases the best work by the remarkable British couple, honouring their artistic excellence and contributions to the history of design.
This article is taken from Issue 23 of the Pallant House Gallery Magazine.