Frank Guille: A Life in Design
In 2019 we had the pleasure of visiting Manchester Art Gallery’s Nordic Craft and Design exhibition. For lovers of retro design, it was a small slice of heaven. What the display lacked in size it made up for in other ways and to enjoy a few hours in the company of cheery Cathrine Holm kitchenalia and iconic Marimekko textiles with their bold prints was a heartening way to pass the time. A visual feast, it was wonderful to see designs we can only dream of owning in the flesh and to discover a little about their creators and history.
Nordic Craft and Design exhibition Manchester Art Gallery 2019. Image own.
You may well wonder what a Nordic design exhibition has to do with British designer Frank Guille. The connection comes in the form of a chair. Amidst the fabulous array of designs, one particular piece of furniture really caught our attention. Technically it was very clever, and we spent a fair bit of time ogling it. The construction was so simple and yet so fascinating. Fans of vintage furniture will have already made the connection and correctly guessed that we’re talking about the Jason chair, originally designed by Mid Century Danish designer Carl Jacobs.
The Jason Chair
Frank Guille is a name often associated with the furniture brand Austinsuite but one of his most recognisable designs wasn’t initially his. The original Jason chair was designed in 1950 by Carl Jacobs and manufactured by Middlesex based furniture company Kandya Ltd. The chair’s main body was cut on the flat from a single piece of 5 ply beech plywood and the sloping leg frame was produced in solid beech.
The key element of the chair that intrigued us most was how the bent plywood had been designed and formed in such a way that it seamlessly wrapped around on itself to leave two cut outs to the lower back, which gave an eye like appearance. The design wasn’t only pleasing to look at, form for form’s sake, the ‘eyes’ and sloped base enabled the chairs to be stacked on top of each other. The design became particularly popular in commercial settings and in 1952 three hundred chairs were installed in the South Bank Restaurant, London (original home of the 1951 Festival of Britain).
Dining room with furniture by Kandya Ltd., c. 1952. Includes sideboard, table and Jason stacking chairs with moulded plywood seats and back rests designed by Carl Jacobs. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.
Interestingly, not long after Jason sprang to life it underwent a makeover. The splayed beech legs are a popular element in Scandinavian furniture design, and it was here that Frank Guille came into his own. Commissioned by Kandya to restyle the Jacobs’ stacking chair, Guille sought to retain the chair’s main design feature but recreated it through his own eyes in a style that would come to be one of his signatures. He removed the solid beech leg frame and replaced it with thin steel rod legs. The revised design also came in various painted colourways. The result gives an impression of weightlessness, the plywood shell seems to float on the pin legs. Jacobs’ original design was stunning but Guille’s Model 3C redesign has taken away the heavier base and created an elegance that the original didn’t quite achieve. We appreciate the design aspects of both chairs but the lightness of Guille’s design just seems so right. We would love to hear what you think.
Frank Guille Jason chair with steel rod legs at the Nordic Craft and Design exhibition, Manchester Art Gallery 2019
We have lost track of how many times we have heard the ‘form follows function’ mantra but it was essential to Guille’s work. That said, it’s worth noting that the most well respected exponents of this mantra created some of the most visually stunning designs of the 20th Century. One did not negate the other.
Born in 1927, Frank Guille had a rich design heritage having trained under Robin Day and John Cole at the Beckenham School of Art. That in itself would have served as a firm foundation for a career in design but he also studied Furniture Design at the Royal Academy of Art under the tuition of the highly influential Sir Gordon Russell who was himself about to embark on a journey that would help to found the guiding principles of Britain’s Design Council. The path Guille chose next was to lead him to a lifelong appreciation of Scandinavian design.
Having been offered a scholarship, his own voyage of discovery took him to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen under the acclaimed architect and designer Kaare Klint. Klint would have been in his late 50s, early 60s when Guille went to Denmark in 1950 and had founded the School of Furniture at the Danish Academy in 1924. He believed in the highest quality of craftsmanship and materials to create functional furniture that was designed in its purest form to accommodate the human body. Klint was a forefather of Danish Modern but sadly died in 1954 at a time when appreciation for the movement had gained momentum internationally.
Kaare Klint. Public domain image by unknown photographer.
On his return to Britain, Guille worked for Wells Coates, the renowned Modernist architect. One of Coates’ most famous projects was the Isokon building, a stunning block of flats down Lawn Road in Hampstead, London. The Isokon opened on 9th July 1934 and followed minimalist principles. The building has a whole history of its own and is well worth looking up. Its residents included Agatha Christie, aristocrats of the British arts, Soviet spies, and Bauhaus designers. The building’s Isobar Restaurant was designed by Marcel Breuer and F. R. S. Yorke (as an aside, Yorke also designed one of our favourite Modernist buildings ‘Torilla’ in 1935). What a time to be a part of Britain’s design scene!
The Isokon, designed by Wells Coates. Credit: Justin Cormack Wikimedia Commons
Going it Alone
Following two years with Wells Coates, Frank Guille, unsurprisingly for a man with his experience, set up his own design practice and attracted high end clients, including Heals. It was during this time that Kandya Ltd. approached him regarding the redesign of Jason, which marked the beginning of what would become a long standing relationship. Guille became a consultant then chief designer to Kandya in the early 1950s and would remain so until 1976. In addition to furniture design he was also a graphic designer and illustrator, overseeing and illustrating the layout of the Kandya catalogues in which his furniture appeared.
Notable designs from this period are the Trimma kitchen units, furniture he designed for Kandya and also his teak furniture designs for F. Austin (Leyton) Ltd. (Austinsuite).
A Trimma Kitchen Design
You could say that Frank Guille helped to establish the blueprint for our modern fitted kitchens. The average 1950’s terrace house had a walk in pantry, some still had a range on which to cook, the majority had freestanding cabinets and if you were lucky you might have hot running water. The streamlined fitted kitchens that generally come as standard today would have been a luxury to the majority in Fifties’ Britain. Guille created a style of kitchen furniture for Kandya that would be right at home in an Ikea or Habitat showroom.
A modular system that could be used in different layouts, the Trimma came with beech carcasses, Formica tops and short pull down or sliding doors in various colour schemes. Designed back in 1956, the original Trimma cabinets still retain an air of contemporary design and could be used singly or as a full range to suit any room.
Other designs of note from this era, which are similar in appearance to Trimma, include Kurt Thut’s sideboard for Teo-Jakob 1953 and Le Corbusier’s 1957 room divider, designed for the Cité Radieuse housing scheme.
An affordable starting point for anyone interested in collecting Guille’s work are his smaller kitchen furniture designs for Kandya. The C32 breakfast stool is still inexpensive and can be collected one piece at a time. With its tall frame on slender powder coated steel legs and lacquered beech curved back it is simple and elegant (a word we use a LOT for Guille’s pieces). Also created without the back rest, these make attractive and functional (as well as collectable) standalone items.
F. Austin (Leyton) Ltd. was a firm set up by four brothers (one of which, Herschal Austin, was Labour MP from 1945 to 1950) in London’s East End. Austinsuite was the trade name of the company, which produced mid priced furniture from the 1950s to 1970s, specialising in bedroom furniture. The business was wound up in 1986.
Frank Guille was commissioned to create a range of teak furniture designs during the 1960s, an era when teak wood was increasingly popular. The drawings produced for Austinsuite were representative of Guille’s skill for designing a substantial piece of functional furniture and making it look elegant. Again, his use of form and mechanical knowledge added a lightness to the materials he used.
Dressing table stool by Frank Guille for Austinsuite. Available from AndersBrowne
AndersBrowne archive: Frank Guille dressing table for Austinsuite
Frank Guille for Austinsuite drawers. Credit: threetwenty.vintage
Frank Guille drawers for Austinsuite. Credit: threetwenty.vintage
Frank Guille dressing table for Austinsuite. Credit: Idatreasurehunter
Height and Guille Designs
Alongside his many other projects during the 1970s, Guille collaborated with Frank Height on a series of designs. Height and Guille household objects are rare but you can still find them online. We particularly like the aluminium desk storage they created for the Henley on Thames based Artifact Designs Ltd., as featured in Design issue 269 May 1971.
They also designed the ‘Encore’ audio storage system for Artifact, consisting of a perspex modular system to house vinyl records, which was featured by The Design Council in 1973 (Design issue 305 May 1974, 'Five bays cost £8.91 and a set of castors £1.10. Enquiries to Artifact Designs Ltd, 72 Boxton Place, London NWI.').
Encore Record Storage System designed by Frank Height and Frank Guille for Artifact Designs, 1973. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Side Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.
In 1976 they were awarded a Design Council award for their ‘Clipstor’ adaptable storage system, featuring an aluminium rail with clip on Nylon and ABS plastic attachments, which they created for Black and Decker.
’Clipstor’ storage system by Height and Guille. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.
RCA Senior Fellow
Running parallel to his commercial work, between the years of 1960 to 1992, Guille worked his way up from lecturer to Head of Furniture Design at The Royal College of Art, London. He was made a Senior Fellow on Friday 19th July 1992 at the same ceremonial day that David Hockney received an honorary doctorate.
Frank Guille contributed his life to design and anyone keen to research his work will at some time bizarrely come across articles stating he died in 1997, which seems to have originated from a 20th furniture sale at Christies. How unsettling. Guille actually died not so very long ago on 13th July 2017 (source: Baseline Blog 31st July 2014 comments section). He lived in a Kent oast house, Ickham, and was married to Pamela Guille ARCA, artist and printmaker (1928 - February 2010).
Sadly, there is too little information about Frank Guille, and for that matter Pamela Guille, despite his designs being coveted by collectors and the contribution he made to design education – perhaps it’s time this was rectified? If you have any stories relating to him, we would love to hear them so please share them in the comments below.
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