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Sir Gordon Russell: A Move Towards the Machine

Sir Gordon Russell: A Move Towards the Machine

A Move Towards the Machine

“…mass production so spreads the cost that there is no reason why well designed things should not be available for everyone to buy. The idea that only wealthy people like well designed things is as false as that they are the only people to get pleasure from looking at flowers, listening to music, or reading Shaw. Equally false is the notion that because a thing is low in price it cannot be of good quality.” Sir Gordon Russell

Like many great designers and architects of the 20th Century, Sir Gordon Russell  believed design could be utilised in such a way as to have a positive impact on all sectors of society no matter your social standing. If done well, good design could mean the difference between people living five to a room in slum buildings and having access to modern social housing with communal green spaces, as championed by Le Corbusier. It could also mean the inclusion of good quality, well designed furniture that could be machine produced in quantity to furnish those homes.

Sir Gordon Russell CBE, MC, RDI, FSIA
(20 May 1892 – 7 October 1980)

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of Sydney Gordon Russell. Born towards the end of the Victorian era in 1892, Russell’s family (including brothers Dick and Don Russell) moved to the heart of the Cotswolds in 1904 after his father bought the Lygon Arms Inn in the village of Broadway. A grand Tudor coaching inn, the hotel is still open today and over the years has hosted the wealthy and famous, politicians, film stars and princes, from Charles I to Cromwell, Mary Pickford to Elizabeth Taylor.

Russell left his Chipping Campden grammar school at the age of 16 and began working for his father, restoring antique furniture used for the hotel. Some of his original pieces can still be seen at the hotel today. This period in time was to be a major influence on him in several ways.

The Arts & Crafts Movement

During the mid 1800s, the British Arts and Crafts movement sought to turn away from the dark factories, spawned by the Industrial Revolution, to create an ethical production model that would enable a more democratic and equal society. Think of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites whose romantic ideals embraced idyllic bygone times and natural themes. It was a call for a simpler age of handcrafted goods, that were functional yet beautiful, by champions of social reform who railed against shoddy machine made items made on production lines with low regard for the health and welfare of workers. There are so many parallels with our modern design and manufacturing industries and the challenges involved. 

Unfortunately, hand crafted furniture by Morris & Co wasn’t anywhere near attainable for the average worker in the Victorian age.

In 1902, one of the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Robert Ashbee - architect, designer and social reformer - had moved his Guild of Handicraft from East London to Chipping Camden. The Guild was a cooperative specialising in furniture, wood carving, metalwork, enamelling, printing and jewellery. Despite having folded in 1907, the Guild had helped Chipping Camden become the centre of the Cotswolds’ Arts and Craft movement and many of its craftspeople remained in the area. Ashbee regarded some of Morris’ ideals as being unrealistic, that it simply wasn’t viable for high quality handcrafted items, such as those by Morris & Co, to be produced in mass quantities and also be affordable to everyday people. Some form of mechanisation needed to be introduced. The Cotswolds had long been known for its handicrafts and furniture makers but this era, with its design and societal ideologies, had a profound effect on the young Gordon Russell.

The Great War of 1914 - 1918

During the War Russell volunteered alongside his brother Don for the Worcestershire Regiment and somehow managed to survive the horrors of Passedale, Ypres and the Somme before coming out the other side having served with distinction. The nature of what he had seen and engaged in only served to reinforce his determination that his work and life experience should be used as a force for good and the betterment of society.

World War I was a social leveller. In a society with an engrained class system, the War had brought together those from different countries, class, race and even gender norms had shifted. Its end saw a cynical society who had waved off smiling faces marching to war and witnessed those who had survived return, broken. For those who had the strength, there came a desire for a more compassionate and peaceful future.

More people were demanding social reform. The Representation of the People Act 1918, lowered some restrictions on voting rights, and the Housing Act of 1919 was a step towards affordable council housing. The women’s suffrage movement campaigned for equal rights, educational reformers made further gains with the Fisher Act of 1918, and working class welfare was on political agendas.

It would be a few years later, in 1922, that Gordon Russell founded Russell and Sons. A family affair, the Broadway based business would last for generations to come.

Cabinet in English walnut inlaid with ebony, boxwood and laburnum, designed by Gordon Russell and made by William Marks of Russell & Sons, 1924. Interior (not visible) veneered in Oysterwood. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Cabinet of English walnut inlaid with ebony, boxwood and laburnum. Designed by Gordon Russell and made by William Marks of Russell & Sons, 1924. Interior (not visible) veneered in Oysterwood. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

Chair with arms, in yew with laburnum bobbins. Designed by Gordon Russell in 1927 and made by Russell Workshops Ltd. (with turning by R. Pepper) in 1928. Credit Manchester Met Design Council Slide Collection

Chair with arms, in yew with laburnum bobbins. Designed by Gordon Russell in 1927 and made by Russell Workshops Ltd. (with turning by R. Pepper) in 1928. Credit: VADS and the Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

Russell & Sons Ltd.

Although his heart lay within the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement, Gordon Russell wanted to produce the same level of quality attained through handcrafted furniture and make it affordable for everyday folk. It was impossible to produce handmade pieces in the quantities he desired. The underlying ideology of Arts and Crafts was to move away from the machine, but Russell found himself instead racing towards it.

Chest of drawers in holly, designed by Gordon Russell made by Cecil Gough of Russell Workshops Ltd., 1928. Credit VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Chest of drawers in holly, designed by Gordon Russell made by Cecil Gough of Russell Workshops Ltd., 1928. Credit VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

Before the Roaring Twenties were ushered out, the Russell and Sons name had reached international markets, the firm had 100 workers and a shop in London’s Wigmore Street, which opened in 1929. During the 1920s, Gordon Russell designed in excess of 1000 products and was highly regarded for the fine craftsmanship of his furniture, glass and metal wares. He had achieved his ambition of blending hand with machine without the loss of quality. 

Walnut chair designed by W.H.Russell FSIAD in 1933. Upholstered in cotton by Edinburgh Weavers in 1935, designed by Ashley Havinden. Made for Gordon Russell Ltd and loaned by the Geffrye Museum, London. SIAD exhibition at the Design Council, Design Centre, London 1981. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Walnut chair designed by W.H. Russell FSIAD in 1933. Upholstered in cotton by Edinburgh Weavers in 1935, designed by Ashley Havinden. Made for Gordon Russell Ltd. and loaned by the Geffrye Museum, London. SIAD exhibition at the Design Council, Design Centre, London 1981. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections. 

Dining suite designed by R. D. Russell made for Gordon Russell Ltd. for G. Robert Cole of Southgate, London, c. 1936. Credit Vads and Design Council Collection at Manchester Met

Dining suite designed by R. D. Russell, made by Gordon Russell Ltd. for G. Robert Cole of Southgate, London, c. 1936. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

Browsing through Mary and Neville Ward’s book, Home in the Twenties and Thirties it’s fascinating to see so many Russell designs, including the timeless Coxwell bedroom suite exhibited at The Ideal Home Exhibition in 1929. 

The 1930s brought a change in fortunes and design direction. Following Black September in 1929, the world economy was in crisis and Britain suffered a great depression. The Russell and Sons’ shop in Mayfair closed. But, against the odds, by the end of the Thirties the firm would be employing 1000 workers and have a new shop on Wigmore Street. The larger premises would house a wider range, which included china, carpets and soft furnishings, many of which were designed by architect and textile designer Marian Pepler (married to Dick Russell).

 Lines (5757). Rug or carpet design, gouache on card by Marian Pepler. 1933. Shown by Gordon Russell Ltd, Living Room Exhibition, Barrow's Stores, Birmingham 1933. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

Lines (5757). Rug or carpet design, gouache on card by Marian Pepler. 1933. Shown by Gordon Russell Ltd, Living Room Exhibition, Barrow's Stores, Birmingham 1933. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

The first part of the 20th Century saw many technological advances but in the 1930s one of the most important pieces in the home was the wireless. It was the not so humble radio that helped change the fortunes of Russell and Sons. In 1930 an admirer of Russell’s work, Frank Murphy of the Murphy Radio Company, asked if he would be interested in a collaboration. Throughout the decade, Russell and Sons designed and manufactured cabinet housing for televisions, radios and gramophones in a Park Royal factory. 

Radio receiver by Murphy Radio Ltd. with cabinet designed by R. D. Russell for Gordon Russell Ltd. (1934 - 37). Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Radio receiver by Murphy Radio Ltd. with cabinet designed by R. D. Russell for Gordon Russell Ltd. (1934 - 37). Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

During this era, the BBC found it was issuing Radio Receiving Licences to millions of wireless owners, many of which had made their own crystal radios. Those who could afford them had Bakelite sets, another material which would make the market even more competitive. Despite this, the wooden cabinets created by Russell were a huge success. 

The World War II Years

As war broke out over Europe, the manufacture of furniture at Broadway altered to the production of prototype aircraft sections and Mosquito parts. Workshop employees also changed with many women stepping into the now vacant positions.

Gordon Russell had made way for Dick Russell as head designer but his influence and expertise during the war years, for which he would later receive a CBE, would have a lasting effect on British furniture design. In 1940 he was awarded the honour of Royal Designer for Industry. Established by the British Royal Society of Arts in 1936, the title is still awarded to designers who achieve design excellence, aesthetic value and significant benefit to society. Throughout his life, Russell would achieve awards and accolades both here and abroad for his designs and contribution to public service and British industry. His contribution to the war effort particularly stood out.

The Double Cheeses

During the war, materials were limited but needed more than ever as homes and all they contained were bombed, meaning those who survived needed to replace what they lost. Timber was scarce as much of it had been imported from overseas. In 1942, the Government led Utility Furniture Advisory Committee was established, from which emerged the Utility Furniture Scheme CC41. Vintage furniture and clothing fans will recognise the CC41 logo that began to appear on Utility wares, nicknamed the double cheeses, it actually stands for ‘Controlled Commodity’. Designated goods had to adhere to the austerity restrictions as per the British Board of Trade regulations.

CC41 logo by Reginald Shipp

Utility Furniture Scheme CC41 logo designed by Reginald Shipp

Gordon Russell was invited to join the committee, along with Herman Lebus, Edwin Clinch, John Gloag and social reformer the Reverend Charles Jenkinson. Their task was to make the most from the little materials they had. The furniture was quite basic, but Russell and his contemporaries endeavoured to ensure production was fast without forgoing quality.

CC41 mark on bookcase Wiki Commons image

Image of the CC41 mark on Utility furniture. Image: Wiki Commons

Regarded as aesthetically stark but essential none the less, the furniture had been designed by the expert hands of the country’s leading designers. As with many things it was rationed and only available to newlyweds and those whose possessions had been destroyed. The team initially developed the Cotswold and Chiltern ranges.

1942 exhibition of Utility furniture at the Building Centre in London.

Utility Furniture Exhibition at the Building Centre, London, 1942

1942 exhibition of Utility furniture at the Building Centre in London. Image: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer. 

In 1943, Russell was appointed Chairman of the Utility Furniture Design Panel and was instrumental in the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition, a showcase for industrial and product design. In 1947 he became Director of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID), Government funded to improve design in British industry. The council also published the monthly ‘Design’ magazine from 1949 to raise awareness of Britain’s design industry. Russell’s impact on the CoID and its strategies was long lasting and formed the basis for what became the Design Council (1972) that we know today.

During the 1930s and 1940s Russell was very much inspired by Modernism and Scandinavian design, working alongside other RDIs to collaborate and exchange knowledge with Swedish designers, this was to influence later designs under the Utility scheme. Unfortunately, much of the British buying public at that time preferred traditional, more decorative pieces. The scheme finally closed down, as did furniture rationing, in 1952.

New Directions

Gordon Russell continued as Chairman of Russell and Sons Ltd. but, as his role in public service had increased during the late 1930s, the role of designer had passed onto his architect brother Dick who headed up a team that included David Booth, Eden Minns and W. H.’Curly’ Russell who later took over Dick Russell’s position as Chief Designer.

Sideboard (model R407) designed by David Booth and made by Gordon Russell Ltd., 1950-56 (with modifications). Mahogany carcase veneered in sapele, and doors veneered in Bombay rosewood with white birch pattern. Shown displayed in the ’The Way We Live Now’ exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1981. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Sideboard (model R407) by David Booth for Gordon Russell Ltd., 1950-56 (with modifications). Mahogany carcase veneered in sapele, and doors veneered in Bombay rosewood with white birch pattern. Shown displayed in the The Way We Live Now exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1981. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

In the meantime, Gordon Russell became heavily involved in the 1951 Festival of Britain, and in 1952 the London Design Centre opened and he was appointed its director. Three years later, Russell received a Knighthood for his contribution to design and industry.

Dining room setting at the Design Centre, London, 1959, featuring furniture made by Gordon Russell Ltd. Credit VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Met Special Collections

Dining room setting at the Design Centre, London, 1959, featuring furniture made by Gordon Russell Ltd. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Russell became more involved in Russell and Sons Ltd. and set up his own consultancy, having withdrawn from his more prominent public roles in 1959. He also continued working with educators and contemporaries to champion quality in design. Following the 1947 publications, ‘The Things We See: Furniture’ and ‘The Things We See: Pottery and Glass’, both Penguin books, and the Puffin book for younger readers, ‘The Story of Furniture’ co-written with Jacques Groag, in 1968 ‘Designer’s Trade’ his personal autobiography was published.

1964 Gordon Russell sideboard credit statementfurniture

1964 sideboard by Gordon Russell credit statementfurniture

Images above: 1964 Gordon Russell sideboard. Credit: Statement Furniture

Russell and Sons was also making waves having been commissioned to design and produce 2000 congregation chairs for the Modernist Coventry Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence.

The Dick Russell designed chairs were very durable, each had an inbuilt shelf as part of the seat construction for hymn books, a curved upper back rest and curved seat. The chairs were created to either be locked with others to create a pew effect or could be used individually and were stackable in groups of six. The Cathedral is a legacy of British Mid Century designers and artists, including Graham Sutherland who designed its huge tapestry, the Baptiste stained glass window is by John Piper and there are works by others such as Geoffrey Clarke and John Bridgeman.

3 examples of oak stacking chair, with shelf for prayer book under seat. Designed by R.D. Russell for Coventry Cathedral and made by Gordon Russell Ltd., 1960. Credit- VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Oak stacking chair, with shelf for prayer book under seat. Designed by R.D. Russell for Coventry Cathedral, made by Gordon Russell Ltd., 1960. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

The Gordon Russell Design Museum has an interesting video (found here) about the Coventry Cathedral chair with comments from Trevor Chinn and apprentice Martin Blakeman.

In 1967 architect Ray Leigh became the Design Director. Following a major reshuffle, with various retirements and new appointments, Trevor Chinn became Chief In-house Designer working alongside Martin Hall. The fresh changes brought with them Gordon Russell Contracts, which produced domestic ranges and office furniture for commercial settings. The company also focused its attentions overseas and set up workshops in Japan.

AndersBrowne archive: Trevor Chinn teak coffee table

AndersBrowne archive: Trevor Chinn for Gordon Russell teak coffee table 

Recovered chairs originally designed by Trevor Chinn for Gordon Russell. Credit: Statement Furniture  

Recovered chairs originally designed by Trevor Chinn for Gordon Russell. Credit: Statement Furniture

Chest of drawers in solid yew, designed by R. D. Russell and made by Gordon Russell Ltd., 1973. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Chest of drawers in solid yew, designed by R. D. Russell and made by Gordon Russell Ltd., 1973. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Design Centre, London, 1970, featuring furniture by Gordon Russell Ltd. credit vads and The Design Council Slide Collection Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Design Centre, London, 1970, featuring furniture by Gordon Russell Ltd. Credit: VADS and The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

In 1980, at the age of 88, Sir Sydney Gordon Russell died at home in Kingcombe, the house he had continued to develop since moving there in 1925. His life’s work is evident in the furniture he designed, the many books he had published and the foundations he helped to lay for our design industry and Design Council. His contribution to the way we view, produce and utilise good design continues to inspire new designers to this day. The craftsmanship of design and manufacture of Gordon Russell furniture lives on and is testament to his theory that hand and machine could be successfully combined to produce affordable, well designed furniture that would remain timeless.


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