If you visit the London Design Museum’s new permanent collection exhibition “Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things” you will be treated to a most rare and wonderful piece of British modernist furniture, an object labelled simply: “Table for display of trousers”
Created in 1936 by the English architect Joseph Emberton for Simpsons of Piccadilly, it is not only an object as unique in form as in function, but an object which brought us very much to mind of a fantastic collection of long lost furniture design classics from the same year.
A collection for which the likes of Joseph Emberton could in all fairness be given co-author rights to.
In 1936 the British humorist and illustrator W. Heath Robinson and the author K. R. G. Browne published “How to live in Flat” – their satirical response to the changing domestic trends of the period, the arrival of European Modernism in the UK and, in effect, the development of a financially stable British middle class.
Readers of a riper vintage will no doubt know W. Heath Robinson as the inventor of a multitudinous collection of fantasy machines: indeed his name is a byword for contrived contraptions of every genre.
K. R. G. Browne is probably known only to fans of obscure 1930s British musical comedies. Assuming such persons can still be found.
Whereas any reference to “How to Live in a Flat” is generally a reference to W. Heath Robinson’s sketches and devices; in the book itself text and illustration are equal partners, and compliment one another perfectly.
The real joy of K. R. G. Browne’s text is how fresh it still reads. When you read a construction such as,
“Nothing in this imperfect world is perfect – except asparagus and a certain pre-War whisky, now almost unobtainable. Every rose has its thorn, every income its tax…”
“… the dwelling place of the future is the Flat – so called because it usually is, and to distinguish it from the maisonette, which isn’t.”
it’s hard to imagine that eight decades have passed since such crisp, unapologetic humour was penned.
And one can delve into “How to Live in Flat” at Will, or indeed Bob or Harald, and be guaranteed to discover such a gem.
Admittedly, if, like us, you are prone to reading the book in one sitting, the constant repetition of asides and snippets can become a touch repetitive and make the good Mr Browne appear like a pony who failed to learn a second trick.
And so read it slowly. Savour it. Chapter for chapter.
As we say, the text has held up spiffingly for these last 80 years; we don’t suspect it will suddenly age.
Just as relevant and likely to out-live all of us is W. Heath Robinson’s look at contemporary living and for all contemporary furniture, fixtures and fittings.
Looking at his sketches for devices such as a Chromium Shaving Chair, a Rabbitarium or his solutions for where to store the spare bed in the cramped confines of a flat, it’s impossible to tell if W. Heath Robinson really was negatively inclined towards the advancements of the day; or if he just had an enviable talent for identifying and exploiting the social comedy in the changes.
But then we don’t suppose it really matters.
For what he has left us is a collection of objects that are not only a delightful parody of his time; but a collection which through the utter impracticability and impossibility of the objects combined with their visual splendour is also a near perfect parody on our modern blog driven design world with its post-production money shots and fantasy concept pieces.
Its also a nice parody of Pop Art, Post-Modernism, YBA or most any architecture, design or art movement since the war. Or as the cartoon on page 1 so beautifully confirms, there is “Nothing new under the sun”
And beyond the design context, the sketches themselves are small artistic masterpieces with their fine mix of wry observation, social comment but for all social caricature – points are extended and twisted out of proportion and context to ingenious effect.
Yet despite the books universal, enduring and indeed endearing appeal, it is all but impossible to find.
Even though it was re-issued in 1976, these days aside from collectors items that cost about as much as the ubiquitous Mr Simpson was probably obliged to pay in annual rent for a flat in 1936, it is a work that is almost impossible to either purchase or borrow.
Because in it are contained more truths about design, architecture and their supporting industries than you are likely to read in any other text.
It is to be hoped that in the not to distant future some responsible publisher helps restore the work to its rightful place.
In a chromium bookcase. In a flat.