The Isokon Furniture Company was founded in 1935 by Jack Pritchard a British entrepreneur and visionary. He believed modern architecture and design had the ability to to transform society for the better and admired the work of the Bauhaus school in Germany and architects such as Le Corbusier in France. Like many of his most creative contemporaries, Pritchard wanted to help promote a pan-European, indeed worldwide, type of modern design and was especially determined to persuade the conservative British consumer that modern was best.
It was Pritchard’s former experience in the plywood business and his role in building (with the architect Wells Coates) the first block of modern flats in Britain, Lawn Road Flats (also known as the Isokon Building) in Hampstead, that led him to start a furniture company. Isokon, a contraction of Isometric Unit Construction, was an appropriately forward-looking name for the new venture. It was the arrival in London of the former director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, in 1935 that made the plans concrete. Gropius, who became Isokon’s Controller of Design (a grand title for a tiny firm), suggested that Pritchard hire the former Master of the Carpentry Workshop at the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer (pictured below), as designer. Although Isokon produced furniture by several designers, it was Breuer’s designs that eventually gave the firm international fame.
Commercial success in Isokon’s first period was thwarted by Britain’s entry into World War II and then by the leanness of the post-War years. In 1963 Pritchard, always an optimist when it came to promoting design, restarted production of Breuer’s Long Chair and Nesting Tables on a very limited basis. He also commissioned Ernest Race to redesign the Penguin Donkey. It was not until 1982, however, that Jack Pritchard asked Chris McCourt to carry on the production and sale of Isokon pieces. Since then McCourt has reintroduced, for the first time since 1939, classics such as the Short Chair, Dining Table, and the original Penguin Donkey. With original pieces from the late 1930’s selling for many thousands of pounds, Isokon Plus continues to make available to a wider market nearly all of the original Isokon designs.
The founding traditions of Isokon continue today with the development and production of new products from contemporary designers. Barber Osgerby’s Loop Table, Loop Shelf and Flight Stool were the first of these followed shortly by Michael Sodeau’s Wing Range and Tomoko and Shin Azumi’s Donkey 3. Most recently, Barber Osgerby collaborated with Isokon Plus to create the winning entry in the Bodleian Libraries Chair Competition and this chair will soon be in production as the newest addition to the range. Isokon’s designs of the 1930’s have endured as among the most important and original of the 20th century and new Isokon Plus pieces are set to become the classics of the next century.