Art fairs

Robin and Lucienne Day’s daughter steps in to protect the designers’ legacy

Paula Day speaks to The Art Newspaper about being shocked at the misue of her parents' name

“The vultures descended soon after my parents died,” Paula Day says. “I was shocked to discover their names were being used to sell products described as Robin or Lucienne Day designs by companies that had not set up any consultation or agreement either with my parents or with their estate. I hadn’t expected to take responsibility for their work but I just was not prepared to allow their names and works to be misused.”

This determination led to the launch in May of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, a charity in which the board of trustees is chaired by Paula. One of its first moves was to trademark her parents’ names. “Paula has really saved her parents’ designs from being misused,” says Lucy Ryder Richardson, a founding partner of Modern Shows, where dealers sell mid-century designs. “People often ask us for early Robin Day chairs, and Lucienne’s fabrics never fail to sell. But no one wants to risk buying a fake. Nor do they want to buy into a brand that has seemingly ‘sold out’.”

Post-war British design remains undervalued compared with that from Europe and the US. “In comparison with Jean Prouvé, Charles Eames and Alvar Aalto, Robin Day is very good value,” says Simon Alderson, the co-founder of Twentytwentyone, a London retailer. “I recently sold an early [Robin Day] Hillestak desk for £2,200 and a stick-back sofa for £3,200.”

Two Forum settees (1964) achieved more than double their high estimates (£8,750 and £7,500 respectively) when Christie’s auctioned pieces from the Days’ home in Chichester, Sussex, in 2013. A dressing table (1960) with Polypropylene chair (1963) sold for £2,875, surpassing its high estimate, while Lucienne’s Museum 3 silk mosaic (1991) fetched £1,250. A sale at Twentytwentyone in 2014 realised £1,400 for Lucienne’s Black Window silk mosaic, £900 for a unique Robin Day dining table and £400 for six Polypropylene chairs.

Both sales were started by Paula Day to help the foundation fund and realise its goals. Its key objectives are to promote knowledge of Britain’s design heritage, particularly the Days’ work, to encourage provision of public access to the Days’ design legacies, and to provide design students with specific opportunities.

Shared studio, separate careers

Robin (1915-2010) and Lucienne (1917-2010) Day played a key role in post-war British design. They met at a dance at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London, married in 1942 and pursued independent careers as furniture and textile designers for nearly seven decades. Working from a shared studio, they were committed to creating a fresh, modern style underpinned by a belief that affordable, sustainable and ethical design could improve everyone’s lives.

Robin’s career was launched when he won first prize (with Clive Latimer) for a versatile plywood storage system in the 1948 International Competition for the Design of Low-Cost Furniture, run by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His ingenious design led to a commission for seating at London’s Royal Festival Hall complex, unveiled at the Festival of Britain in 1951. It also ignited a prolific collaboration with the furniture manufacturer Hille, for whom he designed the revolutionary Polypropylene chair (1963). It was the first design to exploit injection-moulded thermoplastic, and tens of millions of the chairs were sold worldwide.  

The Festival of Britain also kick-started Lucienne’s career when Calyx, the first of more than 60 furnishing fabrics designed for the British retailer Heal’s, was launched to instant acclaim. Inspired by European abstract artists—notably Klee, Miró and Kandinsky—Lucienne reworked the English tradition of plant-form patterns to imply an optimistic post-war message of regrowth. Calyx won the American Institute of Decorators’ international design award in 1952, making Lucienne the first British recipient, and a Milan Triennale gold medal in 1954. Designs for wallpaper, carpets, dress fabrics, tea towels and china followed. A change of direction in the mid-1970s inspired Lucienne’s “silk mosaics”: one-off wall-hangings hand-stitched from tiny, colourful

silk squares.    

Democratic designs

The Days mainly worked separately, though the British department store John Lewis engaged them as joint design consultants, transforming every aspect of its house style between 1962 and 1987. “Historically, the Days’ great achievement was to deliver progressive new designs democratically,” says Simon Andrews, a 20th-century decorative art and design specialist at Christie’s. “Their appeal is known, recognised and lasting. Interest in their work has always been strong and prices are likely to remain solid because the designs are representative of, and articulate about, their particular moment in time.

“Collectors tend to favour the early- to mid-1950s designs because they represent a period of real creative flourishing. Original pieces from the 1950s and 1960s are surprisingly scarce even though these were serial productions of furniture and textiles. Provenance is incredibly important and so is condition.”

Supporting the next generation

The foundation also aims to support young designers and its first award schemes were announced in May. The Robin Day Furniture Design Award, in association with the Furniture Makers’ Company, is an initiative open to Design and Technology students in state secondary schools. And a final-year RCA design student whose work is judged to best embody the Days’ principles will receive The Robin and Lucienne Day Prize for Ethical and Sustainable Design.

Meanwhile, donations to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among other UK institutions, from the Days’ personal design archives will boost public appreciation of their work. So will a display of the contents of Robin Day’s last studio at the Design Museum, London, when it reopens in its new home in Kensington.

Equally important is the foundation’s work with companies committed to making authentic new licensed productions of the Days’ designs. These include Twentytwentyone’s new production of Robin Day’s 1952 Reclining Chair and British manufacturer Case’s latest production of his 675 chair from 1952. The former won Wallpaper magazine’s Design Award for Best Reissue and the latter received a Design Guild Mark from the Furniture Makers’ Company—proof positive that the designs remain relevant in today’s market. Yet Alderson points out: “As contemporary demand for licensed reproductions of the Days’ work increases, so the finite availability of original pieces will decrease.” Collectors should take note.