2015 marks the centenary year of the birth of Robin Day (25 May 1915 – 9 November 2010).
It’s extremely likely that even if you’ve never heard his name, you will have spent many of your formative school years swinging onto the two back legs of one of Day’s chairs. Day’s infamous polypropylene chairs can be found almost everywhere from behind your average school desk to the dug-out of a canoe in Botswana. Even the 1968 Olympic Stadium in Mexico was filled with over 35,000 of them! And it’s a design that hasn’t been bettered for its purpose of a cheap, functional product in over 50 years. Very fitting for a man who believed that “there should be better things” rather than simply new things.
It is true that the polypropylene chair is iconic and should be celebrated as such, however Day’s career is much more extensive than the polypropylene chair alone.
Born during the First World War in 1915 in the furniture-making town of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, Day showed early signs of being a talented drawer. When he was 16 he attended the High Wycombe School of Art and he then went on to secure a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1934. He graduated from RCA in 1938 and interestingly did not go on to create furniture straight away; instead he taught interior design for a few years, firstly at Beckenham School of Art and then moving on to Regent Street Polytechnic. The Second World War had scuppered his ambitions to become a furniture designer, however things began to change in 1948 when alongside Clive Latimer, they claimed First Prize in the Storage Section of the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Winning this prize gained Day recognition for his design talent, and paved the way for two big jobs in 1951, both of which helped to secure his reputation as a talented furniture designer. He was commissioned with designing the seating for the Royal Festival Hall – from the auditorium seating to the orchestra chairs to the restaurant furniture – and also with designing an installation for the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Royal Festival of Britain. It was here he established his no-fuss, clean, contemporary way of designing, and his work begun to be noticed.
And the rest, as they say, is history. From then on Day’s career went from strength-to-strength – designing furniture for S. Hille & Co throughout the 50s; creating the Gatwick chair for Gatwick airport (1958) using the innovative Pirelli rubber webbing; the infamous polypropylene chair in the 60s (which is still in production today!); working with leading architects to design the interiors of their buildings throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s; being a design consultant for John Lewis for over 4 decades; designing durable public seating for our beloved London Underground stations in the 90s; and having some of his most iconic work reissued by Habitat in the late 90s.
Image Source: Fast Co.Design
This is just a very short highlight list of Day’s accomplishments. He was appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (1959) and awarded an OBE (1983), but perhaps his greatest achievement of all was bringing some colour and life back into British life post-war – his designs came at a time when Britain desperately wanted to leave war-life behind and to learn to enjoy life again. He made good, robust design accessible to the masses, and whether he would accept the accolade or not can most definitely be remembered as a true British furniture design icon of the 20th century.
Day was married to Lucienne Day from 1942 until the end of his life, they had one daughter – Paula Day – who is a garden designer. Lucienne herself was a very talented and well-known textiler. Her work was equally as pioneering, and yet they hardly ever collaborated in their professional lives. A foundation has been set up in their names: The Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation.
Image Source: Josh Thomas Design House
Post by Lucy Victoria Jackson, our wonderful contributing writer. You can read more about her work here.
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