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Robin and Lucienne Day: Design and the Modern Interior

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Textile designs by Lucienne Day and furniture by her partner Robin Day strongly recall the Festival of Britain era, writes Catherine Croft

Robin and Lucienne Day: Design and the Modern Interior, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 26 June

Both Robin and Lucienne Day died last year and this exhibition aims, in the words of its curator, Shanna Shelby, to honour ‘their artistic elegance and contributions to the history of design’.

Husband and wife are both closely associated with the Festival of Britain (Lucienne’s career took off with her ‘Calyx’ textile design for the festival and Robin designed the seating for the Festival Hall) and the exhibition is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of that landmark event.

A new edition of Lesley Jackson’s book, Robin and Lucienne Day: Pioneers of Contemporary Design, serves instead of a catalogue and the gallery’s magazine carries tributes from Sir Terence Conran and Wayne Hemmingway.

In many ways the show adds little that’s new to the Design Museum exhibition on the Days, curated by Jackson 10 years ago. But it looks good in the Colin St John Wilson-designed Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and makes sense next to Wilson’s collection in the adjacent rooms. Besides, the Days were part-time locals, with a cottage nearby.

The exhibition combines textiles, a few ceramics by Lucienne, collected by a couple in Denver, Colorado, with furniture by Robin, on loan from the Target Gallery in London.

It opens with a blow-up of a black and white photograph of the couple in their London home, 49 Cheyne Walk. It’s big enough to read the date on the copy of The Observer that Robin is reading (26 July 1953). In part the picture conjures up a world of wonder long since eclipsed. ‘London to Australia in only four days – yes it’s true!’ squeaks a baby kangaroo in an ad for Britain’s state airline, BOAC, but there are also strikingly familiar elements. Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food, just published that year, sits on the coffee table; the Victorian sash window contrasts with the white painted, unplastered brick wall; Lucienne is perched on a terrazzo seating ledge, a knobbly rug part covers the exposed floorboards and there are plain woven linen curtains. It’s all very tasteful, and feels contemporary, rather than retro.

Moreover, it is an image of the Days as celebrities. Although they did not work in formal partnership, between them they created a very modern brand as a celebrity couple, which was reinforced not just by magazine editorials (from which the photograph comes) but by their placement in advertisements.

The arch sophistication of the copy in these is as redolent of the period as the most mannered of their own designs.

‘When not more actively engaged in designing highly idiosyncratic furniture and textiles ROBIN and LUCIENNE DAY [sic] are apt to be entertaining visitors from Europe or America … Smirnoff Vodka is invariably accepted with alacrity.’

After seeing so many illustrations and reproductions, particularly of the textiles, the exhibition is a good opportunity to appreciate the textures and weights of the originals, although some are meticulously hand-stitched onto backing and framed as precious art works.

The furniture is more frustrating; it is hard to see how it is constructed and throughout there is very little information on the processes of manufacture, nor any design or construction drawings.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the exhibition is the range of reactions it has provoked. Comments in the visitors’ book range from the affectionately nostalgic: ‘a time capsule of part of my life, happy memories of my first home’, to the mystified: ‘strange to see celebrated what then we took as normal’, to the outright hostile: ‘I hated it then and I hate it now’. ‘Horrible,’ muttered one visitor when I was there.

Almost as much as the Festival of Britain memorabilia on display downstairs (until 8 May), the Days’ designs seem to invite very personal responses. I found myself drawn to Herb Antony (1956). Like Calyx, this is a MirÓ-esque, abstract pattern, this time for Heal’s, the homewares store. My mother made herself a bedspread in this to take to college in the early 1960s and I got it out of the loft and took it back to college a quarter of a century later. We also had in our home a very begraggled version of the ‘Too Many Cooks’ tea towel, now reproduced by Margaret Howell and Twenty TwentyOne.

What one wants to be able to judge is how the later work builds on and compares with the better-known 1950s designs. It is easy to admire Robin’s multi-million selling polypropylene chair from 1963 and see a progression through the Series E chair (1971), the circular cutouts of the Polo chair (1975), which the book shows installed in a cultural centre in Sudan, through to his bar furniture for the Barbican Centre (1981). His snaking, hemispherical Hadrian sofas would look great if only they could be reinstated in the Barbican foyers.

Lucienne’s later printed textile designs, often for public buildings and on a larger scale than her earlier domestic designs, are less compelling. And there are no examples of the final phase of her work, the hand-crafted silk mosaics she moved onto. One of these hangs in Powell & Moya’s 1986 Westminster Conference Centre (currently being assessed for listing) and others were commissioned by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek for their John Lewis store in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1990. In her obituary of Lucienne, Fiona MacCarthy concludes that ‘the reality of “art for the people”, dreamed about by the Victorian William Morris, was finally achieved by a female designer in the middle of the 20th century.’ It’s a great tribute, but why the change of direction? And isn’t it strange that fragments of fabric meant to make good design accessible to all are now treated with such reverence, while on the internet and in the gallery shop digital reproductions, endorsed by the designer, can be made to order for design aficionados who don’t want a vintage, worn look. n

Catherine Croft is director of the Twentieth Century Society

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