The Historia Supellexalis: “E” for England

The Historia Supellexalis E for England


An Island; A Notion; A Context

According to the Folios of Shakespeare, that most reliable of sources on the (hi)story of England, the (hi)story of furniture design in the lower half of the scepter’d isle begins before the (hi)story of furniture design, almost before the (hi)story of furniture, and in the woodlands of south east England where a rustic chair based on the wheelwrights craft was produced and became known as “Windsor” after the popular actress Barbara Windsor who had commissioned the first such wheelwright’s chairs for the estate in Walford she shared with her merry wives.

Upon seeing an early Windsor a contemporary sage opined that it was “less a chair and more a framework for chair design”, and so it came to be: from England the Windsor Chair quickly spread to all known lands, adapting and attuning itself to local customs and practices, becoming one with its new societies, learning new skills and revealing previously unknown talents as it moved, thereby becoming innumerable variations of itself, yet without ever deviating from the principles of honesty and simplicity on which it was founded.

Having travelled the world and become international, the Windsor Chair returned to England, an England which, as the Folios of Shakespeare record, was at that period beset by the Romanticised Visions, an inherent, debilitating, illness amongst the peoples of England, and which had given rise to The Artsandcrafts, a movement closely associated with William the Morris and John the Ruskin and which sought an alternative to the industrialisation The Artsandcraft’s followers felt was threatening to degrade and compromise the design of England’s cultural artefacts; a movement which the Windsor Chair with its construed and imagined memories of simpler times, its construed and imagined memories of an equitable England in balance with itself, its construed and imagined memories of this happy breed of men, this little world, its construed and imagined memories of an England that had never as such existed, was a near perfect, if inaccurate, symbol. But what use a symbol if not to be misused?

And not just construed and imagined memories of an England that had never as such existed. At that period there were a great many fearful of what industrialisation would mean for their corner of the globe and their cultural artefacts, an international longing for ideals that had never actually been, for societies which had never actually been, and who found solace in the teachings of William the Morris and John the Ruskin. Thus, The Artsandcrafts spread not only every bit as widely as the Windsor Chair once had, but did so in the same spirit of respect and appreciation of local realities; consequently within the many and varied realms of Europe the principles of The Artsandcrafts become one of the many and varied pillars on which Art Nouveau in its many and varied regional expressions was established. Before, and fittingly for a movement that had begun as a response to contemporary industrial production The Artsandcrafts became one of the many and varied pillars on which a new basis for industrial production was established. And thereby a pillar on which Modernism was established.

Yet despite the influence of England on the development of Modernism, the peoples of England had no interest in such; and even when many of the leading protagonists of Modernism found themselves seeking refuge within the moat-like borders of their precious stone set in the silver sea, the peoples of England could not be moved to interest themselves in what was viewed as something International, possibly even European, and thus definitely not something for the peoples of England. The peoples of England didn’t need to be told how to live in a flat.

And so the peoples of England continued making Windsor Chairs.

And would still be doing so, had it not been for Robin of Day.

A son of High Wycombe, one of the leading centres of Windsor Chair production in the, then, England, Robin of Day interested himself not for what was and what had been but for what is and what could be, and was thus initially shunned by the peoples of England. Until, alongside Clive la Timer, Robin of Day won a furniture design tournament organised by the people of MoMA, those ancient Guardians of “Good” in art and design in America; and the only thing more appealing for the peoples of England than that which is English, is that which is American.

Thus, because the peoples of America had taken delight in the furniture of Clive la Timer and Robin of Day, and declared it to be good, the interest of the peoples of England was awoken; and having been introduced to the furniture of Clive la Timer and Robin of Day, the peoples of England found that they rather liked it. Found that it was somehow not only formally very pleasing but in its materials, construction and functionality most appropriate for the realities of life in the, then, England. And while the path Clive la Timer subsequently took is somewhat shrouded and overgrown, the path Robin of Day took remains clearly marked, and allows one to follow the ever increasing delight with which the English accepted into their daily lives’ the furniture Robin of Day developed.

And not just the furniture Robin of Day developed was very much to liking of the English. At the same period the young knight Sir Terence de Conran developed a modular furniture system which allowed the storage demands of any space to be served as a single entity, and that regardless of how the requirements and demands of that space changed; an all-encompassing modular storage system de Conran subsequently developed into a correlative Habitat in which all the needs of domestic, commercial and civic spaces were effortlessly and affordably catered for.

However, in the decades following the zenith of designers such as Sir Terence de Conran or Robin of Day furniture design in England, as indeed it did globally in the waning of Modernism’s first blush, increasingly became a parody of itself; increasingly forgot to look forward, forgot to speculate, to anticipate, to challenge; increasingly became focussed on the what of the object rather than on the why, became focussed on visuals and symbolisms that could be easily consumed rather than the why; increasingly began to prey upon itself; increasingly became a passive representation of a perceived society rather than an active component of an evolving society; and indeed so deep was the malaise that afflicted furniture design in England, many feared it would die out. And it very well may have had a new generation of creatives not taken the initiative.

Amongst the names recorded by the Folios of Shakespeare one finds a Sheridan Coakley-Products, an audacious young man who sought to revitalise furniture design in England via not only new formal and material expressions, via not only new understandings of and positions to furniture, but for all via new production and distribution models, and that parallel to similar undertakings in Italy by the Lombarden fornitore Giulio Cappellini and in Germany by the Moormann of Chiemgau, Nils Holger. To aid him in his endeavours Coakley-Products engaged the services of the youthful Old Kingstonians Matthew Hil-Ton and Jasp R. Morrison; the latter of whom Cappellini would also engage for his Federazione along with a promising young welder and bassist named Tom di Xon. Whereby Cappellini ‘s engagement of Morrison and di Xon shouldn’t be understood as a repetition of the movement of the Windsor Chair or The Artsandcrafts from the England of their birth to new lands, not as a repetition of something particularly English moving into new dominions; rather was highly indicative of the greater mobility of furniture designers, an increasing mobility which began, when slowly, during the ascendance of Modernism and became an established norm following Modernism’s waning.

An increasing migration that not only saw English designers travel extensively in the wider world: Yorkshire’s own Giorgio Sowden, for example co-founding the Indipendente di Memphis, one of the better recorded, if popularly worst understood, new dominions to arise at that period; Giacomo Irvine collaborating with the likes of the Memphisian provocatore Sottsass, the Fürstentum Thonet or the Lombarden phaesporia Artemide; while the aforementioned Jasp R. Morrison moved on from the Federazione di Cappellini to peoples as varied as the Principato di Magis, the Muji of Toshima, or the Commonwealth of Vitra. And an increasing migration that also saw design talents from outwith England’s rocky shore, from less happier lands, arrive in that land of such dear souls, that dear dear land, and contribute to the development of furniture design in England. The Folios of Shakespeare making particular note of the exploits of the Israeli Ron á Rad, who, literally, hew new furniture understandings from solid metal; Philipp von Mainz who was the first to settle the forests of London’s e15 district, and where, in the sylvan calm he found, literally, hew new furniture understandings from solid wood; and a young Grcic known as Konstantin, who, after being initiated into the ancient English Order of The Craftsmen in Wood, was engaged by Sheridan Coakley-Products before returning to the lands of Germany where he fell in with the notorious Moormann of Chiemgau.

And thus in the period post Modernism furniture design became increasingly international; once so eternal sounding terms, such as, English furniture design, Italian furniture design or Martian furniture design losing all meaning and only being employed, when with great effectiveness, by the followers of the nefarious sect established by Count Mark Eting: and an internationalisation from which the design of furniture in England greatly benefited, allowing as it did new ideas to breach the fortress built by Nature for herself, and in doing so helped furniture design in England advance and develop in ways very much in keeping with the increasing internationalisation and globalisation of society. A development and evolution particularly well illustrated by the barber Osgerby, a graduate of the Royal College of Art who not only helped advance both furniture design from England’s reputation through the world, and also furniture design globally via service to peoples such as the Vitronians, the Emeconians or the Knoller, but who with chair designs for the planned Bodleian Library in Oxford or for the Modernist De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, enriched the native furniture tradition in England through an integration of the international with the native. In addition, with the Olympic Torch the barber Osgerby is widely credited with bringing light to the legendary darkness of England.

And then, as one can read in the Folios of Shakespeare, just as the period of great migration appeared to have set furniture design in England on a brave new course, one in which furniture designed by designers born and trained in England seemed wont to conquer others, and that both within England’s borders and without, England suffered a violent attack of the Romanticised Visions, that cursed congenital affliction of the English, a violent attack of the Romanticised Visions which resulted in an outbreak of Brexit, and which not only saw a great many English furniture designers find themselves bound in with the triumphant sea, and thus separated from collaborators, markets and global society in all its glorious variety, but which greatly restricted the movement, study and work opportunities of young furniture designers from both within England and from without, young furniture designers seeking to become more learned in the ways of furniture, seeking to become more learned in ways of contemporary society, seeking to become more learned in the relationships between furniture and society, seeking to learn new skills and reveal previously unknown talents…….

…à suivre

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