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Dining chair, model SF/SC

  • Object:

    Dining chair

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    1938 (designed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Summers, Gerald, born 1899 - died 1967 (designer)
    Makers of Simple Furniture (manufacturer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Moulded plywood (probably birch). Paintwork is not original.

  • Museum number:

    CIRC.533-1974

  • Gallery location:

    On display in Values of Design, Design Society, Shekou, China

The Makers of Simple Furniture was a short-lived company run by Summers during the 1930s producing innovative designs which exploited the strength of plywood. Comparable to Alvar Aalto's bent plywood chairs from the same decade, Summers' chair achieved an integration of design and manufacture similar to Aalto's designs. The production process required no heat or steam, but relied on the veneers being glued together and held in place in a mould for eight hours.

The SF/SC dining chair was designed and manufactured in 1938 and proved to be one of Summers' last designs to go into production. The outbreak of war in 1939 meant that supplies of plywood became scarce, and in July 1940 Makers of Simple Furniture went bankrupt. Summers went on to establish Gerald Summers Ltd, a distributor of ball-and roller-bearings which continues to operate to this day. Summers' wife later poignantly recalled that 'we had a family by this time and it was necessary to make a start in something we felt was useful to the war effort. He [Gerald] had regrets about this change - his great love was designing furniture that was simple and functional'.

Physical description

Although this chair appears to have been moulded as a single sheet of plywood, x-rays reveal that it was in fact built-up in sections before being moulded. The x-rays show much denser sections of wood running around the edges of the chair (as struts up the length of the back legs, up the edges of the chair back, up the edges of the front leg section and along the outer edges of the seat, and across the width of the back and of the front leg). Inside these framing sections the wood is much less dense, suggesting either that these parts of the chair are hollow (with only a front and back veneer) or that they are built-up with fewer, thicker veneers.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)

Date

1938 (designed)

Artist/maker

Summers, Gerald, born 1899 - died 1967 (designer)
Makers of Simple Furniture (manufacturer)

Materials and Techniques

Moulded plywood (probably birch). Paintwork is not original.

Dimensions

Height: 77 cm, Width: 55.3 cm, Depth: 58.2 cm

Object history note

This chair would originally have been finished using Gerald Summers' 'white polish', a type of French polish to which Summers added a whitening agent in the form of a powder. The polish was hand-applied and gave a very glossy, creamy-white finish, with the grain of the birch plywood still visible.

Historical context note

Gerald Summers’ interest in the use of plywood in furniture design began following his return to London following his service in the British Army in the First World War. Like many of his contemporaries, he was interested in improving conditions in crowded cities, material honesty and simplicity of design, and in the use of modern materials and techniques of production. Until this period plywood had been used mostly to make packing cases and the hidden structural parts of furniture. The interest of many designers in the potential applications of industry and modern materials in the improvement of peoples’ lives meant that mouldable plywood became increasingly prominent in furniture design.

Summers worked for Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, a progressive communications firm, from 1926-1933, where he met his future wife, Marjorie Butcher. His suggestion to her that he make simple plywood furniture of his own design for her new flat was the beginning of a fruitful partnership between the pair. In 1929 they began renting a basement flat on Fitzroy Street, near the British Museum, which they used as a home and workshop. Their first sales were to Mr. Rose of Rose and Blairman, a women’s clothing wholesaler, who had mistaken their workshop for a showroom after spotting their finished designs through the window.

The pair’s company, Makers of Simple Furniture, was founded in 1931/32. Their furniture was sold through major department stores, such as Heal’s and Harrods in the UK and James Pendleton in New York. They also supplied furnishings for Jack Pritchard’s Isokon Building, located at Lawn Road, Hampstead, which during the 1930s could boast Bauhaus instructors Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy as residents.

Following their initial successes, Makers of Simple Furniture moved to a new premises at nearby Charlotte Street, where their workshop employed a dozen craftsmen. Their designs were usually made to order, which Summers felt gave the firm greater flexibility in meeting individual clients’ requirements, but which also made their prices prohibitively expensive to most people. Hand-crafting their furniture, rather than industrial manufacture, was a legacy of Summers’ involvement in the Design and Industry Association, a group formed from the Arts and Crafts Movement, whose principles advocated the use of modern industry and technology in improving the design of household objects.

The legacy of Summers’ attempts to create single-piece furniture can be seen in 1960s plastic furniture design, such as Verner Panton’s stacking chair (museum no. CIRC.73-1969, CIRC.74-1969) or Vico Magistretti’s Selene chair (CIRC.280-1970).

The Makers of Simple Furniture closed in 1940 after the start of the Second World War meant that supplies of specialist aeroplane plywood became unavailable.

Descriptive line

Dining chair, designed by Gerald Summers, manufactured by Makers of Simple Furniture, moulded plywood, Britain, designed 1938, manufactured 1938-1940

Production Note

Attribution note: Batch produced in relatively small numbers
Reason For Production: Retail

Materials

Birch; Plywood

Techniques

Moulded

Categories

Furniture; Woodwork; Interiors; Household objects; Shekou; Values of Design; Design Society

Production Type

small batch

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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