Books | On The Isokon

Lawn Road Flats, 1955
Courtesy University
of East Anglia,
Pritchard Papers

Isokon and the
Bauhaus in Britain

By Leyla Daybelge
& Magnus Englund
240 pp hardback,
over 160 illustrations.
Published by Batsford,
7 March 2019

Despite their sensitivity towards the plight of the three prominent Bauhäusler fugitives from Hitler’s Nazi regime – when they turned up on their doorstep, at their invitation – Jack and Molly Pritchard must have felt extremely fortunate.

Modernism – and socialism – had been already thriving in London’s Hampstead, when, in 1929, the Pritchards bought a large plot of land in the leafy, then very reasonably-priced suburb. Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson were living and working close by in the purpose-built Mall Studios and were friends with the aspiring young architect, Wells Coates. The Bauhaus building in Dessau had been completed in 1926 and in 1931, Jack and Coates went to visit it with Serge Chermayeff. Soon after, the Pritchards, commissioned Coates, whose concept for the project would be very much inspired by the co-operative philosophy of the Bauhaus community, to design Lawn Road Flats; an experimental social housing project for middle-class professionals that would be better-known later at the Isokon building. Construction finished just in time for former Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius’s arrival in 1934 when he and his wife immediately moved in.

Jack & Molly in 1928
Courtesy Pritchard
Family Archive

Launch of Lawn
Road Flats in 1934

Marcel Breuer, left,
and Ise and Walter
Gropius, celebrate
Lawn Road Flats’ first
birthday in 1935
Courtesy of University
of East Anglia,
Pritchard Papers

As the English Heritage plaque on the Isokon building unveiled last year reveals, London, as it turned out, having been only a staging post in their journey before each travelled on to the USA, Gropius lived there until 1936; Marcel Breuer, who arrived in 1935, left in 1937, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, enjoyed a brief stay in 1935. The length of the Bauhäuslers’ residence wasn’t important, however; their presence was enough to indicate their approval of the building, immediately giving it iconic status. It also served to establish Britain as an important centre for European modernism. Sadly, Jack Pritchard’s attempts to launch three more, similar schemes in Manchester, Birmingham and Windsor, for which Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry were to be the architects, failed. Meanwhile, both Gropius and Moholy-Nagy seriously considered setting up an English Bauhaus and, in 1935, Gropius applied for the role of Principal of the Royal College of Art but didn’t to get the appointment. Nevertheless, the models that had been established at Dessau were later widely adopted by British art schools. Breuer’s furniture design work and Moholy-Nagy’s projects – from graphic design to retail and film – with a range of prestigious UK clients, enriched the visual landscape and design vocabulary of 1930s Britain.

The Pritchards’
Penthouse flat,
photographed in
2016, furnished
with Isokon designs

Photo courtesy

Isokon Furniture
Company logo, left,
designed by László
Moholy-Nagy in 1936.
Aluminium Long
Chair, 1933, designed
by Marcel Breuer
for Swiss company
Embru; the direct
inspiration for the
plywood Isokon
Long Chair

Anyone who was lucky enough to be invited to dinner, or just for a drink, in the Isokon’s Breuer-designed Isobar during the mid-30s could easily have rubbed shoulders with the Bauhäuslers, with Hepworth, Moore, Nicholson or Naum Gabo, as well as with visitors from abroad such as Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Alvar Aalto. Berthold Lubetkin, Erno Goldfinger and Erich Mendelssohn hung out there, as did Nikolaus Pevsner and Agatha Christie. Later, after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, and the Anschluss in Austria, another former Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe and former Bauhaus master, Paul Klee, might also have been found at the Isobar, along with Piet Mondrian, who lived in Hampstead from 1938 to 1941. True to the area’s socialist associations, it was also estimated that a total of 32 people involved with Soviet espionage lived in the building, or around Lawn Road, during the 1930s and early 1940s.

In July 1955, when Jack and Molly Pritchard celebrated the Lawn Road Flats’ 21st birthday, their guests included designers Robin and Lucienne Day and architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Reyner Banham was there too, as well as retailer Anthony Heal. Wells Coates, who was now teaching at Harvard, travelled back to attend the event.

The building began its decline in the 1960s after the ageing Pritchards sold it. Until recently, Magnus Englund lived in what was their Isokon penthouse. Englund, one of the founders of the interior design company, Skandium, has championed the building’s revival. He and Leyla Daybelge, former Head of Press for Contemporary and Design at Sotheby’s, who currently writes for the Daily Telegraph, co-authored the forthcoming publication. Jam-packed with fascinating and often unexpected detail – the entire building was painted dark brown during the Blitz to prevent the Luftwaffe from using it as a navigation landmark – the book contains over 160 images encompassing the history of the building’s design as well as the sex, death and espionage that are all part of its dramatic story.

The book has a pale pink cover, which, because most people think that the building is brilliant white, may come as a surprise. In fact, Wells Coates original, 1934 paint specification was 1/8th pink and has been strictly adhered to in the renovation.

Batsford’s Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain features anecdotes by Zeev Aram, whose gallery is hosting an accompanying exhibition with the same title from 7 > 30 March.

All images courtesy Pavilion Books

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