The Breuer in Bristol Symposium at Arnolfini went very well indeed. Speakers included Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, design historians Alan Powers, Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, Oliver Kent, Programme Leader BA Applied Arts, Bristol School of Art, architect Max Gane, Phil O’Shaughnessy, Programme Leader, BA Interior Design and MA Design at the University of the West of England and Chris Yeo, curator of the Ken Stradling Collection. The combination enabled a full range of perspectives around the brief but significant period between 1935 and 1937 when Marcel Breuer was working with Bristol furniture manufacturer Crofton Gane.
Christopher Wilks detailed knowledge of the Bauhaus itself and Breuer’s roles within it provided an important background to his time in England. One of the first students at the Bauhaus, Breuer had progressed to employment and teaching there but by 1935 he had already left the school and had been working with manufacturers such as Thonet and the Swiss company Embru to put his designs into production. This ran contrary to Walter Gropius’s aim that designs by Bauhaus designers should be licensed for production by and for the Bauhaus itself to enable its continuation. In practice its closure put an end to such thoughts. Despite friction, Breuer continued to see Gropius as his mentor and as political pressures grew, when Gropius moved to London it was not long before Breuer followed.
Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund have been closely involved in the rescue and restoration of the Isokon Flats in Hampstead, designed in 1934 by architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard. Pritchard, as a key figure in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) was UK marketing manager for the Venesta plywood company and the enthusiasm of the Pritchards for progressive and modernist ideas was focussed not just on ideas about architecture, education and domestic design but also by an excitement with the potential of plywood as a material both within building design but also for the making of furniture. Together with Wells Coates, Pritchard founded the Isokon furniture company of which Walter Gropius was to become Controller of Design in 1935.
Oliver Kent and Max Gane were able to outline the detail of the relationship between Crofton Gane and Marcel Breuer. Crofton was a leading local member of the DIA and was well acquainted with Jack Pritchard, Wells Coates and the rest. His interest in modernist design was cemented when he visited the Exposition des Arts Decorative with the DIA in 1925, a key moment for Pritchard too. By 1930 he was able to explore his ideas more actively, taking full control of the P E Gane company in 1933. By 1935, when he met Breuer, probably in Hampstead, he had been developing the companies ranges for some time, both selling imported furniture by the likes of Alvar Aalto as well as hiring his own designer J P Hully who worked particularly on ranges of modular furniture. A Quaker, Crofton perhaps saw himself as part of a campaign of improvement of design and living standards. Other aspects of his life reflected this too, including providing medical services for his workers and supporting local adult education initiatives.
It is in this context that Gane saw the opportunity to take his commitment to modern design to another level by commissioning Breuer to remodel his home, to design a full range of furniture and to design a display pavilion for the Royal Agricultural Show in 1936. The pavilion displayed modern furniture retailed by P E Gane including work by Marcel Breuer, J P Hully, Serge Chermayeff and Alvar Aalto. Max Gane (Crofton’s great-grandson) presented a detailed look at these projects and their significance. He has the particular experience of growing up amongst the furniture Breuer had designed for Crofton’s home and even admitted to having carved his name into one of the single beds! It is a reminder that objects are not just to be cogitated on by historians and displayed in museums but are active and have histories of their own.
After Breuer left England for the United States, Crofton Gane continued to explore and worked with Wells Coates on interiors and modular furniture designs for P E Gane and for the Queens Court luxury flat development in Clifton. Further projects were undermined and finally brought to a stop by WWII and the destruction of Gane’s Bristol factories and showrooms.
Alan Powers drew attention to another Bristol member of the DIA, J E Barton, headmaster of Bristol Grammar School from 1917-1938 and an art and designer lecturer for the BBC. Barton’s influence was wide and his teaching at the school had a profound effect on some of his pupils amongst whom were Allen Lane of Penguin Books and Ken Stradling.
Chris Yeo was able to take the Bristol story up to the present and the Ken Stradling Collection itself. After military service, Ken looked for work in the design field and approached Crofton Gane who was by then running a small design shop at 87 Park St and a larger one in Newport, South Wales. Offered a job in Newport, Ken opted to look elsewhere and lit upon the Bristol Guild of Applied Arts on the other side of the road. From 1948 onwards he progressively developed the Guild as a centre for good design and sought to influence local and regional taste. This has a strong resonance with Crofton Gane’s sense of mission. Ken’s own collection and his intentions for it through the Ken Stradling Trust and its Gallery in Park Row have emerged from this and sit alongside the Gane Trust set up by Crofton to support young designers and continuing to be active today. Both have be instrumental in setting up this symposium and the associated exhibition of Breuer furniture at the Stradling Gallery.
At UWE, Phil O’Shaughnessy has been head of the Interior Design degree and is now leading the Design MA course. He is very interested in using Bauhaus educational concepts in the structure and teaching of design and has actively done so within his courses. The influence of Bauhaus theory cannot be overstated and the Foundation courses that most students take as a first year at art school are direct descendants of Johannes Itten’s Basic Course. The BA Interior Design makes specific use of the Bauhaus syllabus to underpin the course structure.
The short time that Marcel Breuer spent working with Crofton Gane was significant in his career primarily in terms of architecture and interiors. As Christopher Wilk notes the Pavilion was one of his earliest architectural commissions. Given a free reign by Gane he was able to allow himself to play and to explore new materials including sheet plywood, plate glass, corrugated asbestos and local stone. The use of local limestone laid in a traditional manner for the walls of the Pavilion gave it a very particular look and relationship with its location. The aesthetic of the Pavilion and this interest in softening and localising a modern building had a lasting impact on his domestic architecture subsequently. For Breuer, his time in Bristol was an important one to be celebrated.
The symposium was filmed and a collection of web resources will be available in the new year.
Some references and links:
Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, 2019. Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain. Daunt Books
Alan Powers, 2019. Bauhaus Goes West, Thames and Hudson
Christopher Wilk, 1981, Marcel Breuer Furniture and Interiors, MOMA
Gane Trust http://www.ganetrust.org.uk/
BA (Hons) Applied Arts, Bristol School of Art , (South Gloucestershire and Stroud College) https://www.sgscol.ac.uk/study/uni/ba-hons-applied-art
BA (Hons) Interior Design, UWE https://courses.uwe.ac.uk/2C3W/interior-design
MA Design, UWE https://courses.uwe.ac.uk/W2001/design