The Twentieth Century Society

Reviews: Books round-up March 2016

Catherine Croft

Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street Kathryn A Morrison (Historic England, 240pp, £50)

The author is upfront about the fact that ‘few of these buildings can be classed as great architecture’ – Woolworth’s, it seems, were just not very interested in investing in design (the embroidered and tasselled pelmets above the windows of most branches until after WWII rather backs this up). This is not a conventional architectural or company history but ‘the story of Woolworth’s seen through the prism of its stores’, and an appendix lists over 1,200 examples. It describes many of them in detail, with scores of inevitably similar façade photos. Morrison has not had access to company minutes or trawled local record offices so there may be more to discover, but they are disappointingly unexciting buildings. The book too is rather mundane; she quotes architect Albert Richardson cautioning the firm in 1956 against ‘ostentation and cheap vulgarity’ but I could have done with a bit of both here.

Regeneration! Conversations, Drawings, Archives and Photographs from Robin Hood Gardens Jessie Brennan (Silent Grid, 78pp, £14.99)

We hope to feature artist Jessie Brennan in a future issue of C20 Magazine, where we can illustrate her work properly. Meanwhile, this beautifully produced little book – with a rubbing of the wall of one of the Smithsons’ blocks on its cover and an enclosed sheet of her compelling crumpled building drawings – documents her work at RHG. It looks at not just the materiality of the blocks themselves, but also the residents’ views and their experiences of living there recently. There’s a thoughtful mix of interviews and opinions: Owen Hatherley despairingly concludes that RHG is ‘not a monument to the socialist dream, but to the fact that even the mildest form of social democracy is now considered utopian.’ If, as now seems likely, RHG is demolished despite all our efforts to save it, this is a worthy tribute.

Modernist Estates: The Buildings and the People who Live in Them Stefi Orazi (Frances Lincoln, 192pp, £25)

This book by a talented graphic designer is, not surprisingly, beautiful to handle and to look at. It grew out of her blog, modernistestates.com, the product of her own search to find an affordable, well-designed Modern home in London. All twenty-one entries are individual flats in the capital, most of them part of public housing estates. Orazi deliberately avoids political comment on the right-to-buy debate. This title, and Sarah Thompson’s Style Council (see our last issue) really show how accepted the idea of buying and living in ex-local authority homes now is. Orazi’s book has a less interiors-magazine feel, and residents get photographed in situ. It has a beguiling tone, right down to the errata slip: ‘How, you will ask, could someone (me) make such a stupid mistake [as to call the Architectural Association the Architecture Association]? I just don’t know.’

Robert Welch: Design – Craft and Industry Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Laurence King, 248pp, £30)

I remember going to see the Robert Welch studio in Chipping Campden on a Society trip to the Cotswolds, and have spent the last 20 years trying to decide if I wanted his cutlery or David Mellor’s. With a forward by his children (who now run the business), it is very much an authorised overview and a reinforcement of the design credentials of the brand. But it’s well illustrated with photos and drawings, and impressively comprehensive. It includes ceremonial and ecclesiastical commissions as well as his 1970s jewellery, for which I’m now scouring eBay. I was interested to learn that it was a cutlery deal with Pizza Express that provided the financial security to start manufacturing under the Robert Welch name, as late as 1999.

High Sunderland: the home and studio of Bernat Klein Michael Wolchover (Azimuth Print, 62pp, £10 (RIAS bookshop))

A neat, well-illustrated, booklet celebrating Peter Womersley’s 1958 house in Galashiels, Scotland for Klein, who died in 2014. High Sunderland’s crisp details, colour and stunning location are well shown in Wolchover’s photographs. Klein’s 1972 studio, nestling in a woodland landscape, with its large Womersley windows, is also recorded. There is an obituary of Klein, whose fashions, use of tweed, and textiles were glamorously influential, and his love of colour is clear in his thickly-applied, vibrant, oil paintings. The brochure was published to mark a Klein retrospective at the Dovecot Studios gallery in Edinburgh.
Aidan Turner-Bishop

Art Deco Traveller: a guide to Britain Genista Davidson (Art Deco Publisher, 260pp, £9.99)
www.artdeco-traveller.co.uk

This illustrated guidebook is a jolly, retro-inspired tour of Art Deco hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, theatres, cinemas, lidos and points of interest across Britain. Art Deco is widely interpreted to include genuine Deco buildings and interiors as well as moderne, modernist and (to coin a phrase) camp glam. Even so, it’s good fun and usefully well-researched. Why not dig out the red lipstick and co-respondent shoes, sling a leather suitcase or two in the Riley, and purr down to a small place in the country?
Aidan Turner-Bishop

Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues Osbert Lancaster (Pimpernel, 304pp, £40)

Worth noting that Lancaster’s much-loved Pillar to Post (1938) and Homes Sweet Homes (1939) – ‘unforgivably’ out of print, to quote Fiona MacCarthy in C20 issue 1/2014 – are no longer so, thanks to this slip-cased edition. Also included is the perhaps less familiar 1949 Drayneflete Revealed (a town with a passing resemblance to post-war Croydon). Time then to revisit the ‘Modernistic’ house, where ‘bronze nudes burst asunder… to reveal cigarette lighters; and nothing is as it seems’, or the ‘Twentieth-Century Functional’, whose architects ‘could never resist making a house fit for… sun-bathing, which the English climate… frequently rendered impossible of fulfilment.’