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Those were the Days

Robin and Lucienne Day: Pioneers of Contemporary Design By Lesley Jackson.Mitchell Beazley, 2001. 190pp. £30

The office waiting area and airport lounge will never seem the same again after reading this beautifully designed and illustrated book on Britain's leading husband and wife designers of the post-war era. Though working in very different media, he in furniture design, she in textiles, their joint output serves as a cross-section of fashionable style from the 1940s until the 1980s.

The chairs you sat on at school, or at the Barbican or the Oval cricket ground, the Royal Festival Hall chair I am perched on now, were all designed by Robin Day, while many familiar curtain and carpet designs were made by Lucienne. In the late 1970s she turned to silk hangings, as for John Lewis' cafeteria in Kingston; the familiar John Lewis logo and delivery van liveries were the result of the Days' consultancy between 1962 and 1987. While their work is always complementary, this was a rare example of the two collaborating for the same client. This book brings the strands together, and coincides with the reissue of some of their early work by Habitat and others.

A real book though it is, one must not forget that it was written to accompany the exhibition on the Days which has just opened at London's Barbican Centre. It is a celebration, which may be why it offers no critique of their design work nor of its context, whether in Britain or internationally.

For this one has to refer back to Jackson's The New Look: Design in the Fifties (1991), or to the Fine Arts Society's Austerity to Affluence (1997). The Days outstripped their British contemporaries because their talent quickly found supportive clients, Robin working with Hille from 1949 until 1983, Lucienne for Heal's from 1950 until the mid-1970s, and because they perceptively targeted commercial as well as domestic markets, which led to bulk orders and architects' commissions.

Yet, surprisingly, for so celebratory a volume, Jackson writes coolly and impersonally. The sections on Lucienne Day's fabrics come most to life, in part because in modern colour illustrations the vibrancy and wit of her intricate patterns shine through, in part because much of her work is less well known. The contemporary black-and-white illustrations of Robin Day's desks, chairs and sideboards, with their staged arrangements of pens and ashtrays, lack this immediacy. A Botswana canoe fitted with his polypropylene chairs provides rare humour.

One interesting theme, however, is the long association between Robin Day and Peter Moro, who met when they were both teaching at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

From exhibition work together in 1947, Day went on to design seating for the Royal Festival Hall, Nottingham Playhouse and Moro's own house in Blackheath, while Moro was the architect of Hille's smart showroom and offices in Albemarle Street, opened in 1963.

These specific commissions, including also the Barbican and London Underground, sustain the interest of the book for non-specialists. Churchill College, Cambridge, is particularly intriguing, for they both worked here, although commissioned separately, and they both designed carpets there in addition to their respective furniture and fabrics.

Ultimately, the couple remain strangely enigmatic. Perhaps this is a product of having spent so much of their married lives in the public eye, their home and studio in Cheyne Walk a regular feature of Ideal Home and House and Garden in the 1950s.

But perhaps Jackson is too close, too respectful, and as a result something of the personality of both the people and their work is missing.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage. The Robin and Lucienne Day exhibition continues at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2 until 16 April

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