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desk

  • Place of origin:

    Stevenage (manufactured)

  • Date:

    1947 (designed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Leonard, James (designer)
    Educational Supply Association (manufacturers)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Moulded plywood, solid plywood and cast aluminium, painted

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Chris and Lone McCourt

  • Museum number:

    B.141-2017

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Physical description

Child's desk, moulded and sheet plywood, supported by a cast aluminium frame, painted green-grey, with slightly splayed 'compass' legs. The frame consists of two cast aluminium sections - each forming one side of the desk's compartment, and a front and a back leg. The two halves are joined underneath the compartment by tubular aluminium bars. The base, front and back of the compartment are formed from a single sheet of moulded plywood, there is a circular hole inside for drainage. The contour of the compartment's base is followed by the frame, to which it connects with rivets and screws. The plywood top of the desk is made from 5-plys. It lifts up to reveal the compartent, and it is bound on its left and right sides by an aluminium frame, which is also the hinges. On the underside of the lid are two rubber bumpers, for soft closure. On top of the desk, behind the plywood top, is a shallow tray for stationery. Inset into this is a tapering inkwell, of black polystyrene, which is removeable. There are circular rubber feet on the base of the two back legs.

Place of Origin

Stevenage (manufactured)

Date

1947 (designed)

Artist/maker

Leonard, James (designer)
Educational Supply Association (manufacturers)

Materials and Techniques

Moulded plywood, solid plywood and cast aluminium, painted

Marks and inscriptions

ESAVIAN / ESA / MADE IN BRITAIN

Dimensions

Height: 63.5 cm, Width: 51 cm, Depth: 43 cm

Object history note

This object was purchased by the donor via eBay, for the use of his granddaughter. Aged 12, she recalled:

'The desk was very comfy and handy to stash things in. It was as if someone had put the extendible [sic] charm* on it, you could get so much stuff in.'

* This refers to a spell used in the Harry Potter franchise that could be used to expand the internal dimensions of an object, without affecting its external dimensions.

Historical context note

This desk and associated chair (see B.142-2017) were part of a group of school furniture designed by James Leonard in 1947/8 for the British company Educational Supply Association (ESA). Other designs in the group included a larger chair for older children (see W.12-2017) and a teacher’s armchair and desk. All of the designs combined a lightweight cast aluminium frame with moulded plywood or solid wood (in the case of the child’s desk) parts. The chairs and school desks are particularly distinctive for their use of a one-piece frame with splayed back leg. The form of this frame has strong resonances with the work of French designer Jean Prouvé – Prouvé had been experimenting with splayed legs in metal seat frames since the mid-1930s, although Leonard’s chair bears closest comparison to his ‘Compas’ tables and chairs, designed from 1950 onwards.

The chair is an early example of the use of moulded plywood in British post-war furniture, and must be seen in relation to the broader and very widespread adoption of plywood in 1940s and 1950s domestic design. Strongly influenced by the work of American designers Charles and Ray Eames, moulded plywood was adopted by furniture designers around the world as one of a raft of ‘new’ post-war materials – seen to have proved its worth during the war through its use in aeroplanes and boats, plywood was widely celebrated as one of the peacetime rewards for wartime technological advances.

Similarly, aluminium was strongly promoted in late 1940s Britain as a modern material for post-war design. This was helped by the fact that (unlike solid wood, which remained restricted until the end of the Utility scheme in 1951) there were no limits on its use: aluminium had been crucial to wartime aircraft manufacture and furniture designers were encouraged to adopt re-smelted aluminium after the war as a means of using up excess stocks. Leonard’s cast aluminium frame relates to other contemporary designs in the V&A’s collection, most significantly Ernest Race’s aluminium-framed BA-3 chair (W.3 and 4-2010). Race’s chair was shown at the V&A’s ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition (1946) – a clear indication of the resonances that aluminium had with modern design and post-war industrial recovery.

Leonard’s ESA furniture was produced in very large quantities into the late 1960s. Alongside its great success as mass-produced school furniture, it was also celebrated in the British press as an example of good industrial design (see, for example, Design [January 1949], p. 5). This combination of critically-acclaimed design with public life reflects a particular, mid-20th century vision of British modernity. Part of a broader aim to provide good design for the many, the furniture is deeply embedded in wider projects for a democratic post-war prosperity. As such, it should be seen alongside late 1940s schemes for New Towns, social housing, and the provision (under Clement Atlee’s Labour government) of universal free education and healthcare.

Descriptive line

Child's school desk, plywood and aluminium, designed by James Leonard for Educational Supply Association, manufactured in Stevenage, late-1940s

Materials

Plywood; Aluminium; Polystyrene; Rubber

Techniques

Compression moulding; Casting; Painting

Categories

Furniture; Education & Learning; Children & Childhood

Production Type

Mass produced

Collection

Museum of Childhood

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