The furniture designer ROBIN DAY (1915-) and his textile designer wife LUCIENNE (1917-) transformed British design after World War II by pioneering a new modern idiom. He experimented with new materials in inexpensive furniture for manufacturers like Hille and she revitalised textile design with vibrant patterns for Heals.
As Britain’s most celebrated designer couple of the post-war era, Robin and Lucienne Day were – and are still – often compared to their US contemporaries, Charles and Ray Eames. However, their working practice was quite different. Whereas the Eames designed as a team, the Days mostly worked independently in separate fields. Placed side by side, Robin’s furniture and Lucienne’s furnishings are remarkably harmonious in ethos and aesthetic, reflecting the creative synergy between them. But it is important not to blur their identity and achievements. Assessed individually, the Days are both towering figures in their own right.
Like many architects and designers during the optimistic post-war period, the Days believed in the transformative power of modern design to make the world a better place. They rose to prominence during the 1951 Festival of Britain, which provided an ideal showcase for their talents. Lucienne’s arresting abstract-patterned textiles and wallpapers were displayed alongside Robin’s steel and plywood furniture in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. Robin also designed the furniture for the Royal Festival Hall.
Significantly, the Days were already in their mid-thirties by the time of the Festival, having trained at the Royal College of Art in London before World War II. This explains the strength and maturity of their early post-war designs as they had been honing their ideas throughout the previous decade. It also explains their astonishing productivity throughout the 1950s. The Festival of Britain, the Days realised, was an opportunity not to be missed.
Robin Day, the son a police constable in High Wycombe, and Désirée Lucienne Conradi, who grew up in Croydon, the daughter of Belgian reinsurance broker, met at a Royal College of Art dance in 1940. She was in her final year studying printed textiles. He had already left the college in 1938, having specialised in furniture and interior design. They married in 1942. It was their passion for design that drew the couple together and formed the basis of their personal and professional relationship. Acting as mutual catalysts, they spurred each other on to realise their ambitions and to produce their most original work.
The war and its government-regulated aftermath delayed their careers, but made them even more determined to succeed. In the interim, Lucienne designed dress fabrics, while Robin turned his hand to exhibition and poster design. In 1948 he and Clive Latimer won first prize in the storage section of the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The cabinets in their flexible, multi-functional storage system were fabricated from a tube of moulded plywood cut into sections – a radical innovation for the time.
Robin’s success brought him to the attention of a British manufacturer, Hille, which had specialised in period furniture, but was eager to modernise. Seizing this opportunity, he designed a series of simple, functional chairs, tables, desks and storage units that harnessed the latest wood and metal-working techniques. Many of his designs were low-cost, such as the beech-framed 1950 Hillestak chair with its moulded plywood seat. Whereas pre-war furniture was solid and ponderous, Day’s designs were pared down and seemed to float above the ground, as with his 1952 Reclining chair. “What one needs in today’s small rooms is to see over and under one’s furniture,” he told a journalist in 1955.
Robin’s inventive response to technology reflected the positive, forward-looking mood of the early post-war era. His sparing use of materials and economical approach to construction, using the minimum number of components, as in the 1953 Q Stak chair stemmed from the enforced austerity of the war years, when materials and labour were in short supply. These habits became deeply ingrained in his design psyche. From the outset Robin Day was a deeply moral and highly principled designer, who was not interested in making a design statement, but in solving practical problems in the most rigorous, efficient and cost-effective way. “A good design must fulfil its purpose well, be soundly constructed, and should express in its design this purpose and construction,” he stated in 1962.
The commission to design furniture for the Royal Festival Hall marked a turning point in Robin’s career. The brief was complex and demanding, including restaurant and foyer furniture, auditorium seating and orchestra chairs, each with specific functional demands. His talents were also evident in the two room settings he designed for the House and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival: one low-cost, one high-cost, both equipped with his latest storage furniture and chairs.
It was for this display that Lucienne created her revolutionary furnishing fabric Calyx, an abstract pattern inspired by plant forms, composed of spindly lines and irregular cupped motifs in earthy and acid tones. Initially her principal client, Heal Fabrics was sceptical about this avant-garde design, but Calyx was so widely praised, nationally and internationally, that the company enthusiastically embraced the ‘Contemporary’ style and championed Lucienne’s work. Over the next 20 years she produced over 70 outstanding patterns for Heal’s, all remarkable for their inventiveness. Lucienne was also much sought after by other textile companies, including Edinburgh Weavers, Liberty and British Celanese.
The originality of Lucienne’s early patterns grew from her love of modern art, particularly the paintings of Joan Miró and Paul Klee. She sought to create a similar energy and vitality in her patterns through dynamic, ebullient compositions, as in 1953’s Spectators and Perpetua, and bold colour contrasts, as in the 1956 Herb Antony. In 1957 Lucienne reflected: “In the very few years since the end of the war, a new style of furnishing fabrics has emerged…. I suppose the most noticeable thing about it has been the reduction in popularity of patterns based on floral motifs and the replacement of these by non-representational patterns – generally executed in clear bright colours, and inspired by the modern abstract school of painting… Probably everyone’s boredom with wartime dreariness and lack of variety helped the establishment of this new and gayer trend.”
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of feverish activity for Lucienne. As well as designing printed textiles, she responded to a flood of invitations from manufacturers to design carpets, wallpapers, tea towels, table linen and ceramics. Among her clients were the German manufacturers, Rasch for wallpaper and Rosenthal for ceramics. She also produced a large body of designs for three leading British carpet manufacturers: Tomkinson, Wilton Royal and Steele’s.
Creating repeat patterns for textiles is a laborious process, but Lucienne’s designs convey an impression of effortless spontaneity. “It is not enough to ‘choose a motif’, nor enough to ‘have ideas’ and be able to draw,” she observed. “There must also be the ability to weld the single units into a homogenous whole, so that the pattern seems to be part of the cloth.” Visually stimulating, but not over-insistent, her patterns are sophisticated and multi-layered, with cleverly balanced assertive and recessive elements, thereby working both from a distance and close up.
The playfulness and linearity of her early patterns was superseded from the late 1950s by a growing interest in architectural compositions, as 1950s Sequoia. After a series of textural patterns during the early 1960s, her designs became bolder, simpler and flatter, as in 1966’s Pennycress. Several of her later designs had full-width repeats, such as 1967’s Causeway designed specifically for the large floor-to-ceiling picture windows then in vogue. An inspired colourist, Lucienne was always meticulous about selecting the colourways for her patterns. She also acted as colour consultant to several clients. Colour relationships were the key feature of her one-off ‘silk mosaics’, a new medium that she developed during the late 1970s.
Right from the start of his career Robin was totally committed to the design of low-cost, mass-produced furniture. With the 1963 Polypropylene chair for Hille, he achieved his ultimate goal. Light, strong, flexible, scratch-proof, heat-resistant and hard-wearing, polypropylene had numerous advantages over other materials in use at the time. Robin was the first designer to appreciate its potential for furniture and to overcome the technical and engineering problems involved in making the shell of a chair.
“Considerations of posture and anatomy largely determined the sections through the shell,” he explained. “I wanted to avoid seeing the frame fixings though the seat of the chair, and designed bosses integrally moulded with the underside of the seat. Another feature of the design is the fully rolled-over edge which helps to give strength and stability against over-flexing.” Although understated, the Polypropylene chair is extremely refined. A worldwide hit, produced in the millions, it has spawned innumerable copies, although none can compare with the subtlety of the original. Robin went on to create a whole ‘polyprop’ family - the 1967 Polypropylene armchair, the 1971 Series E school chairs and the 1975 jaunty indoor/outdoor Polo chair.
Durability and comfort have always been key features of Robin Day’s designs, hence his interest in public seating. A pioneer of ergonomics long before the term was invented, his designs invariably combine practicality with durability. Much of his public seating was used for decades after its original installation, notably his 1960s Gatwick benches in Tate Britain, 1980s auditorium seating for the Barbican Art Centre in London and 1990s Toro and Woodro seating on London Underground.
Design Museum + British Council
1915 Robin Day born at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
1917 Désirée Lucienne Conradi born at Coulsden, Surrey.
1934-38 Robin studies design at the Royal College of Art, specialising in furniture and interior design.
1937-40 Lucienne studies design at the Royal College of Art, specialising in printed textiles and meets Robin at an RCA dance in 1940.
1942 The couple marry and set up home in a maisonette at 33 Markham Square, Chelsea. During the war they teach at Beckenham School of Art.
1945-50 Lucienne designs dress fabrics for companies, including Stevenson & Son, Mark & Spencer and Horrockses, and furnishing fabrics for Cavendish Textiles (John Lewis), Morton Sundour and Edinburgh Weavers.
1946-62 Robin teaches at the School of Architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic, where he meets the architect Peter Moro. They collaborate on a series of exhibitions, mainly for the Central Office of Information. Robin continues to design exhibition stands for ICI and Ekco until the early 1960s.
1948 Robin Day and Clive Latimer win the storage section of the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design organised by MoMA, New York.
1949 Hille commissions Robin to design furniture for mass-production. Over the next 44 years he creates more than 150 designs for domestic and office furniture and public seating.
1950 Heals Fabrics commissions Lucienne to design Fluellin. Their partnership continues for 25 years, resulting in over 70 designs.
1951 Robin designs the furniture for the Royal Festival Hall and two room settings for the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain featuring his furniture and Lucienne’s textiles and wallpapers. Lucienne’s Calyx printed furnishing fabric for Heals is created for this display.
1952 The Days move to 49 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, which they refurbish in the ‘Contemporary’ style.
1952-75 As well as designing up to six printed textiles a year for Heals, Lucienne creates furnishing and fashion fabrics, carpets, ceramics and table linen, as well as joining the Rosenthal international designers’ panel.
1957-65 Robin designs televisions, radios and stereograms for Pye.
1961-72 The Days act as design consultants to BOAC and develop an interior scheme for the Super VC10 and a refreshment tray for Boeing 707.
1962-64 The Days design furniture and furnishings for Churchill College, Cambridge.
1962-87 The John Lewis Partnership employs the Days as design consultants to develop a new house style and to design interiors for John Lewis stores and Waitrose supermarkets.
1963 Robin designs the Polypropylene chair for Hille, which becomes one of the best-selling chairs of all time.
1969-73 Employed as a consultant for the Barbican Arts Centre, London, Robin He designs the seating for the foyer, bar and five auditoria.
1971 Robin designs Series E school chairs for Hille.
1979-91 Lucienne produces over 144 silk mosaics, including 1990’s Aspects of the Sun for the John Lewis department store at Kingston-on-Thames.
1981 The exhibition Hille – 75 Years of British Furniture is held at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
1983-93 After the sale of Hiller, Robin specialises in public seating for sports stadia and auditoria such as the 1984 RD seating for NHS waiting rooms and the 190-91 Toro and Woodro project for the London Underground.
1993 The exhibition Lucienne Day: A Career in Design is held at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
1999 Habitat reissues the Polypropylene chair in new colours, and a duvet featuring an enlarged version of Lucienne’s Black Leaf tea towel pattern.
1999-2003 Robin is invited to design furniture for twentytwentyone and SCP.
2001 A retrospective exhibition, Robin and Lucienne Day – Pioneers of Contemporary Design, is held at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.
2003 Robin designs the Sussex bench for Magis. Several of Lucienne’s early patterns are digitally reprinted by Glasgow School of Art.
Design Museum + British Council
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain