ERNEST RACE – textile and furniture designer, manufacturer, retailer – was one of the most inventive and challenging exponents of mid-century British design. Race’s highly personal design vocabulary, at it’s height in the immediate post-war period and at the Festival of Britain of 1951, was a fluid, skilled, and at times eccentric synthesis of Modernism with Victoriana, and of mass-production with intelligent improvisation. Race’s single most important contribution to modern furniture design was his articulation of the transition from the theoretical rigour of pre-war Modernism to the accessibility and optimism of post-war Contemporary.
Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1913, Race took a three-year study in interior design at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, and shortly after graduation was employed as a draughtsman for the lighting firm Troughton & Young, which supplied fittings to many of the leading Modernist architectural commissions of the 1930s. Through this early career as a draughtsman Race was able to meet many of the leading British and émigré European Modernist figureheads, including Walter Gropius and the founder of Isokon, Jack Pritchard. In 1937 Race spent four months in India with his missionary aunt, who ran a weaving village near Madras, and upon his return to London opened a shop in Motcomb Street, Knightsbridge, to sell handwoven textiles and carpets of his own design. The shop, which lasted until 1939, was highly influential despite its brevity. Alongside the textiles, which were comparable in style, colour and technique to the designs produced earlier at the Bauhaus, Race also retailed striking white-lacquered plywood furniture by Gerald Summers’ firm, Makers of Simple Furniture. The abstract designs of Race’s textiles were appropriate for a variety of interiors, especially those of the Modern Movement architects, and were used extensively throughout Walter Gropius’s Impington Village College of 1939.
Race spent the duration of the war as a fireman in the devastated centre of London. At the war’s end Race answered an advertisement published in The Times that was to alter his career and establish him as the most innovative British furniture designer of the post-war period. Placed by the engineer, J.W. Noel Jordan, the advertisement sought a collaborator who could design utilitarian, mass-produced furniture. After six years of war almost all materials, especially wood, were in extremely short supply. The Government ‘Utility Scheme’ of 1942 specified that the use of wood was to be rationed, and any available timber to be directed to the reconstruction of houses. Jordan and Race, therefore, were in 1945-46 obliged to produce affordable furnishings from those materials that were not restricted - aluminium, which had been used for wartime aircraft manufacture, and thin solid steel rods, used in armaments manufacture.
In 1946, at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s morale-boosting exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’, Race unveiled to the public his range of cast-aluminium furniture. The traditional styling of the range concealed revolutionary manufacturing processes. The furnishings included dining, lounge and case furniture, completely manufactured from metals and improvised or salvaged materials. The BA3 dining chairs were, for ease of assembly and shipping, assembled from a basic selection of five interchangeable components produced from sand-cast and hand-polished aluminium. By 1947 the aluminium was die-cast using a technique previously used for the making of incendiary bomb casings. For table tops and sideboard walls Race developed an ingenious system of panelling marketed as Holoplast - a laminated plastic with a highly polished, scratch-resistant mahogany finish. In order to conceal the hollow, honeycomb edge of the table surface, a thin ribbon of aluminium was heat-shrunk around the edge. Overall, the furniture, raised from the floor by tapering legs, had a visual lightness that contrasted greatly with the heavier, lower, pre-war Modernist furniture, and thus precipitated the move towards the Contemporary look of the 1950s.
Race’s metal furniture was enthusiastically received by both the private and contract sectors of the market. One of the first orders was for 1500 chairs and tables for troop-ships that were bringing home demobilised servicemen. In the private sector, the progressive London furniture retailers Heals and Dunn’s both placed substantial orders. Race’s own showroom at the time was stylishly decorated with plain white walls and coconut matting that emphasised the sculptural elegance of his furniture. Despite receiving no formal training as a furniture designer, Race had demonstrated an outstanding ability to assess market needs objectively against material restrictions. The range of aluminium furniture was to enjoy a long history, with the BA3 dining chair being manufactured well into the 1960s. In 1954, nine years after its original date of design, the BA3 chair was awarded the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale.
The Festival of Britain in 1951 brought the work of Race to much wider public attention. Two designs were produced: the Springbok, a stacking steel-rod framed chair with elastic cords for the seat, and the now iconic Antelope, which was available in either single or bench versions. The frame was assembled from bent steel rod and with a simple moulded plywood seat, which would have been painted in the Festival colours of yellow, blue, red or grey. Race’s undisguised use of steel rod was both bold and ingenious: it was a development of his 1948 rocking chair, itself inspired by an 1850s example of the Winfield metal rocking chair that Race had found during one of the wartime metal recycling drives. The fact that Race chose to design a rocking chair is curious, as rocking chairs had been out of favour with commercial manufacturers for over fifty years. Race’s decision to re-design an outmoded and generally unfashionable chair type is reflective of the wider interest, amongst the post-war intelligentsia, in the early machine age aesthetic of the Victorian industrial revolution.
It is, however, on an aesthetic level that the Antelope chair articulates its importance as a leading example of post-war chair design. The chair expresses a whimsical and almost frivolous optimism rare in other international designs from the early 1950s. Whilst the ball feet suggest the molecular and atomic imagery characteristic of the period, the outline of the frame appears almost as if a Saul Steinberg cartoon, a fluid freehand movement of continuous line. The vertical slats to the back recall the Windsor side chairs, a folk form popular in both America and Britain from the Eighteenth century onwards. The Antelope chair, like the aluminium BA3 chair, was also to receive a commendation at the 1954 Milan Triennale. Throughout the 1950s Race continued to experiment with steel rod, producing a number of designs up to 1958. Aanother interpretation of a rocking chair is particularly interesting, with a seat and back of undulating steel wire that are said to have been inspired by the coils at the back of refrigerators. This 1953 rocking chair, the Kangaroo, was designed for the roof terrace of the London offices of Time Life and was not available through retail channels.
In 1952-53 Race was contracted by the P & O shipping company to design a deck chair for its prestigious Orient line. The design brief was for a modernisation of the Victorian steamer chair, able to withstand not only extremes of climate, but also the salt water and caustic soda used to wash down the decks. The Neptune was one of the most ingenious and remarkable designs of his career, requiring only two moulds to create the components which were then secured by resilient webbing straps, permitting the structure to fold. With the Neptune Race had achieved a chair that was extremely simple and cost-effective to mass-produce. This design, and some later derivatives intended for the domestic market, were Race’s only experiments in plywood, but they were conceived with an eye to minimising components and cost-efficiency which is characteristic of Race’s entire body of work.
In Race’s view, if a design for a particular material could be copied in another material, then the designer had failed to exploit the potential of the original material thoroughly. During the height of his success, in the period 1945-1955, Ernest Race produced highly resolved and versatile designs from the most unlikely of materials. Indeed, he appeared to derive his best inspiration when confronted with the apparent insurmountability of the objectives required and materials available. What is most striking is that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not train as a furniture designer. Moreover, it is not possible to discern stylistic influences from or upon any of his British contemporaries, many of whom looked instead to post-war America for inspiration. In retrospect, Race’s highly idiosyncratic design identity can be interpreted as the unique marriage of objective problem-solving skills with a consciousness of the intellectual mood of the moment.
1913 ~ born, Newcastle upon Tyne
1932 ~ Bartlett School of Architecture, London
1934 ~ Troughton & Young, London
1937 ~ India
1937-39 ~ interiors & furnishings retail, London
1939-45 ~ war service with Auxiliary Fire Service, London
1946 ~ BA Aluminium furniture designed
1946 ~ Britain Can Make It exhibition, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
1948 ~ Low-Cost Furniture Competition, Museum of Modern Art, New York
1950-51 ~ Antelope and Springbok steel rod furniture for Festival of Britain, London
1953 ~ plywood furniture for Peninsular & Orient shipping line
1955 ~ Heron upholstered lounge chair
1957 ~ Flamingo upholstered lounge chair, Design Centre award 1959
1958 ~ furnishings for the British Pavillion, World’s Fair, Brussels
1962 ~ Race Furniture Ltd relocates from Clapham to Sheerness, to concentrate upon furniture for the contract market
1962 ~ Ernest Race resigns from Board of Ernest Race Ltd to operate as a consultant designer
1964 ~ dies, London
For more information on British design and fashion go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain