The Second World War raged from 1939 to1945. Throughout and even beyond these years Britain was immersed in wartime austerity. The urban landscape was scarred by bomb damage, rationing was still in force and design was very drab and basic. The philosophy of the war years was Â‘Make do and mendÂ’ and this ethos persisted well into the 1950s.
The Second World War raged from 1939 to1945. Throughout and even beyond these years Britain was immersed in wartime austerity. The urban landscape was scarred by bomb damage, rationing was still in force and design was very drab and basic. The philosophy of the war years was ‘Make do and mend’ and this ethos persisted well into the 1950s.
In 1942 the Government seized control of design and manufacturing. Materials like wood and metal were needed for military use, so there was a shortage of materials for domestic design. To solve this problem, the Government set up the Utility Scheme to produce cheap furniture. It was headed by the manufacturer Gordon Russell, who created 30 initial designs that were simple in form and easy to assemble. The scheme was supported by government subsidy.
In 1942 Hugh Dalton, the President of the Board of Trade, wrote to Gordon Russell asking him to sit on a Utility furniture committee. Dalton gave the committee a series of rules and regulations: Utility furniture must be soundly made of the best possible materials; it must be pleasant in design; and it must be produced extremely quickly. He left the committee a long list of materials it couldn’t have: virtually everything they needed, from plywood to steel, was unobtainable or extremely scarce.
This was an immense design challenge, but Russell saw it as an opportunity. He later wrote, 'I felt that to raise the whole standard of furniture for the mass of the people was not a bad war-job . . . Wartime conditions had given us a unique opportunity of making an advance.' Russell launched a programme of research into wartime furniture design. He recommended a panel of not more than six designers with a chairman. To his surprise, the President asked him to take on the Chairman's job. Jacques Groag, a Czech architect and former pupil of Adolf Loos, was an imaginative addition to the Panel. Ernest Clench and Herman Lebus also sat on the Committee.
Gordon Russell developed the new, frugal aesthetic of Utility furniture. There was not enough timber for bulbous legs and labour was too scarce to permit even the most rudimentary carving. The designs were in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement, and were severe in their simplicity and lack of ornamentation. This was contrary to the popular tastes of the pre-war period. Utility furniture was a modern version of Ernest Gimson’s style, uncompromisingly unadorned and solid.
The Committee produced a number of approved designs and these were published in the Utility Furniture Catalogue of 1943. The logo of Utility furniture was taken from that developed for the Utility clothing scheme: two capital C's and the figure 41, for ‘Civilian Clothing 1941’. The logo was nicknamed ‘The Cheeses.’ This is a Utility kitchen. It was based on simple wooden furniture that was practical and durable, and had a plain simple dignity. The ethos and the aesthetic grew out of the English Arts and Crafts tradition of the 19th century, but we can also see that it was influenced by European Modernism: everything is austere and functional. Modernism had always been controversial in Britain, but during the war the government recognised that austerity was a practical necessity. As Russell later wrote, 'the basic rightness of contemporary design won the day'.
From November 1942 the only furniture to be manufactured in Britain was Utility. Firms throughout the country were ordered to make a single range of furniture under the control of Russell’s committee. New furniture was rationed and was restricted to newly-weds and people who had been bombed out, under the ‘Domestic Furniture Order’ of 1942.
The Architectural Review attacked the style as retrograde, but the furniture trade condemned it as too advanced. As the name suggests, Utility furniture was rather drab and utilitarian, but Gordon Russell had substantial influence. He set the scene for design reform in post-war Britain with a view to 'solid, not spectacular, progress.'
After the war, the reconstituted Committee participated in the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition of 1946. It unveiled three new furniture ranges (Cotswold, Chiltern and Cockaigne), which intended to continue their design ethos into the postwar period. As soon as the war ended, however, the general public reacted against austerity and the mass market swung towards the colourful and extravagant designs associated with the Festival of Britain of 1951.
Dover, H. (1991) Home Front Furniture: British Utility Design, 1941-1951.
MacCarthy, F. (1972) A History of British Design, 1830-1970.
Mills, J. (2008) Utility Furniture - The 1943 Utility Furniture Catalogue with an explanation of Britain's Second World War Utility Furniture Scheme.
Sword, R. (1974) Utility furniture and fashion, 1941–1951.