10 FEBRUARY 1961, Page 37


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By KENNETH J. ROBINSON This is a sublimely subliminal way of getting at our pay packets. I suppose if we don't all rush out to the local furniture emporium to celebrate every birth, death or marriage the trade will try more blatant ways of selling us products we don't really want. Certainly something must be done to maintain the present turnover of 'domes- tic furniture' (a curious description of some of the unbridled suites at Earls Court) if the country's 1,800 firms are not to suffer from a threatened slump. So be warned. Isn't if better to buy something now that you don't really want (i can recommend a shiny walnut cocktail cabinet with a decoratively built-in lemon squeezer) than to be bothered later by hoardings and commercials telling you that You're Never Alone With Mahogany or that People Love Chairs?

I don't want to suggest that the furniture in- dustry's desire for increased prosperity is selfish. This benevolent trade spent £50,000 in 1960 on finding, among other things, several ways of dodging the expensive import of raw materials. And although individual firms are not proving themselves philanthropic enough to heed the Government's well-meant offer of export or death (some say exports would involve them in doing entirely new designs as well as bearing heavy losses for up to three years), many of them have obviously given a lot of attention to bring- ing greater happiness to home-lovers on the home market. It is rather wonderful to know that technological research can bring us such joys as a transparent pouffe stuffed with artificial roses and supported on stumpy, ebonised brass-hoofed legs. And we must all feel grateful for the re- search that has given our newest bedroom furni- ture its 'tranquilliser springs,' its padded foam doors and drawers, its melamine laminates in American Mulberry or Muted Lilac and its `chip-proof legs' (just the thing, presumably, for the man who can't keep his sixpcnnyworth to himself).

These highlights of the exhibition are followed closely by an outbreak of 'period French handles' on formica-fronted sideboards, an alarming crop of cocktail cabinets (looking like large cigarette kiosks or small cinema organs) and the introduc- tiott of gilded leaves on contemporary magazine racks. Students of the subconscious, who will assume that all the Earls Court chatter about `continental styling' has something to do with Britain's trade being at Sixes and Sevens, may like to find out why so many of the more hideous pieces bear the trade name of 'Venice.' Better still, they might probe the mind of the manufacturer who has christened two adjacent kitchen units 'Washington' and 'Cuba'—the first carrying pictures of deer at play and the second a design composed of impaled hamburgers in hasty flight.

These last two delights arc displayed in the `trade only' section on the first floor (you can find it by following the blue surge or sellers and buyers)—a section where nearly every stand is worse than anything in the public section. I'm told this has something to do with the long- standing battle between manufacturers and re- tailers. For years the retailer tried to act as mediator (or interfering busybody) between makers and public; but the increase in the trade's national advertising has brought the better manu- facturers closer to the public—and that is why they are anxious to show their goods to window- shoppers as well as to retail buyers. Most of the trade section exhibitors are smaller and less pro- gressive, and are satisfied to have their junk seen only by the more conservative buyers from shops and stores. I don't mean by this that everything in the public section of the show is first-class. It is not, though the worst of it is camouflaged by the excellent overall display, designed by Misha Black and John Bruckland. The best is shown off very well by this setting, and the rest looks pleasant enough at a glance, simply because it is made up of passable imitations of the better products.

If the general standard of furniture at the ex- hibition seems to have been rising over the last year or two it is, I am sure, because of the design cribbing that is going on in the trade. Until this year most of the plagiarists were followers of Gomme, with their ebonised legs and brassy finishes. But now more people are copying the elegant tables, chairs and sideboards designed by Robert Heritage (on the recommendation of the Council of industrial Design) for Archie Shine Ltd. These copies are not, however, good enough to worry Mr. Shine, who knows that no one is likely to match the fine lines and propor- tions of his own furniture. Nor are they good enough to divert the eye from the few really original new designs (less than a score among 200 exhibitors), such as those for Hille, Conran, Stag (who have some comfortable upholstery on skid legs) and White and Newton. This lirm shares the same sort of success story as Stag and Archie Shine. All three are doing astonishingly good business with simple modern pieces, after having had years of success with reproduction stuff.

This is good news for the Council of Industrial Design (they have a neat kitchen exhibition at Earls Court), who must always be glad of evi- dence that their policy of coercion and propa- ganda can, in fact, lead not only to prettier shapes and better construction, but also to richer manu- facturers. Once the industry realises that its design-conscious members are making a lot of money we may see an improvement in the quality of exhibits at the annual show: not just tolerable copies of good designs sketched by sons of managing directors, but original pieces devised by professional designers. Only when the industry as a whole has realised the truth of what the ColD is trying to tell it—that good design leads to good business—can we hope to get good furniture at reasonable prices. Then we can stop the absurd pretence (witness the 'growing rooms' exhibit for the middle-income family at Earls Court) that good design is within everyone's reach.

In the meantime, let me pass on another mes- sage from Mr. Lakin. 'Make 1961,' he suggests, 'the year when you first furnished for your family.' They will all,' he adds, rubbing in the pathos, 'be grateful.' Unless, of course, they are happy with a cushion on the floor and the know- ledge that 1961 is the year—as some of the ex- hibitors tell us- -to `go Japanese.'