words Marcus Fairs
“Do you know about Mount Kenya? It’s 17,000ft plus, and the top quarter of a mile is vertical rock. I’m the oldest man to have climbed that. I climbed it at 76. It nearly bloody killed me of exhaustion.”
Robin Day gestures to a panoramic photograph of the Alps on the end wall of the garden shed that serves as his studio. “I’ve climbed most of these,” he says. On the adjacent wall is a map of Scandinavia: a dotted line drawn from top to bottom in thick pen traces a 2000-mile cross-country route that takes in the summits of the highest mountains in Norway, Finland and Sweden. Day completed this in just 12 weeks in 1976 travelling on cross-country skis, shooting wild animals for food and sleeping in snow-holes. “I’ve always walked and climbed; spent a lot of time in the arctic and places,” he says, his thin voice betraying his age. “I can’t climb very seriously now but I was a bit of a freak.”
Day, 90, is Britain’s most important living designer. Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1938, he did more than any other individual to introduce a new, modern sensibility in furniture and interior design to a then-nostalgic nation.
Day and his wife, textile designer Lucienne Day, caught the emerging spirit of the times; his work was frugal yet optimistic and contemporary; hers was striking and unsentimental. The couple rapidly became Britain’s most influential, most lauded and most glamorous designers, dominating the British design scene for almost half a century.
Earlier this autumn, we visited Day at the couple’s modest 16th-century terraced cottage (“It has a phony Georgian facade which I hate”) in the centre of Chichester on the south coast of England. We were surprised to find that his studio, set in a small cottage garden, contains more evidence of his wilderness adventures than the remarkable career that has spanned almost 70 years. The sparse timber hut contains a drawing board with a T-square resting on it and shelves lined with books and files, but the pictures are all of mountains.
The shed seems to afford Day a degree of the solitude he craves: when asked recently by World of Interiors magazine to name a place that had most influenced his life, he chose the simple wooden shelters he sometimes discovered, half-buried in the snow, on his Scandinavian odyssey: “You’d dig the door out [of the snow] and it was fantastic to sleep in a simple room with a cooking stove.”
A large print of the Matterhorn dominates one corner: he traces his route to the summit and points to the spot on the sheer north face where disaster struck a friend’s party. “The peg came out of his partner’s hammock. He fell: smashed to pieces,” says Day, recounting his mountain tales with a relish absent from his slightly weary answers to our questions about his design work – but then he’s had to endure those a hundred times before. “I’ve been on top of Mont Blanc in a blizzard,” he adds. “Nearly froze to death.”
Day’s career began at a time of war-enforced rationing and austerity, and there is a parallel between the hardships he willingly submits to on his expeditions and his design philosophy. “I’m very old fashioned; primitive if you like,” he says, leading us out into the modest garden where we sit at a table and chairs originally designed in 1951 for the terrace of the Royal Festival Hall, and which, despite their weathered patina, still look remarkably contemporary. “I think it’s really important to use your hands and get close to materials. To be up close to real things like rain and mud; to have contact with nature.”
He does not use a computer: “I wouldn’t know how to. I think there’s a tendency for modern man to become dominated by gadgets and machines, taking us further and further away from the things I’ve been talking about. I’ve seen in certain students’ work – people who’ve never drawn – a certain soullessness. Even supermarkets – things are wrapped in plastic. I’ve often killed and skinned and gutted animals, and cooked them. But everything is now so synthetic and remote.” (He later qualifies the statement about killing animals, concerned that it will present the wrong image. “I’m pretty much a vegetarian,” he says. “I shoot rabbits out of necessity in the garden.”
He has always worked alone, toiling 16-hour days to produce first sketches, then models and finally working drawings of his designs. “We used to work an inordinate amount,” he recalls. “I’ve never had staff. No one ever contributed anything to my designs.” He is still working, albeit not so intensively, in the same way. He shows us his recent design for the modular Sussex indoor/outdoor bench, for Italian manufacturer Magis (and which won Best Product at the 2004 100% Design Awards). The piece is manufactured using advanced “air-moulding” techniques but his working drawings are drawn by hand in pencil.
Yet the Spartan work ethic and the penchant for the ascetic outdoor life are at odds with the public persona of the photogenic Days, who were Britain’s first celebrity designers. The home-grown answer to Charles and Ray Eames, they appeared in endless magazine articles and even posed for a Smirnoff advert in the Fifties that painted them as debonair hosts to the jetset.
“We didn’t look for it,” Day says of the media attention. “It’s a question of the media wanting something. We used to get published a lot. And there was this vodka advertisement … it embarrassed me a lot afterwards. I said why the hell did we do this? Then I saw an advertisement for Rolex featuring Norman Foster, and I thought, well, perhaps it’s not so bad. Ha ha ha ha!”
He says life was not nearly as glamorous as the canny image-making suggests: “It was just bloody hard work.” Did he even drink Smirnoff? “Not especially. I’m not against vodka – they just asked us. They put out some story about us entertaining international celebrities with vodka, which of course wasn’t true.”
Day came from a poor, working-class family and says he was “hopeless” at school but discovered a gift for drawing that won him scholarships first to High Wycombe School of Art and then to the RCA.
He became a designer, he says, because “it was the only thing I could do. I was born in High Wycombe, which was a furniture place. And it just seemed inevitable.”
On graduating from the RCA, he eked out a living producing “signwriting for shops, murals for exhibitions, posters. I got work making models for architects. I designed book jackets and carpets. Anything.” Life was hard: after marrying fellow RCA graduate Lucienne, née Conradi, in 1942, he furnished their first flat with strikingly modern-looking pieces made from broomsticks, old doors and other recycled materials.
This utilitarian project was to have a profound influence on his later work but he was ahead of his time: “It was a great struggle; it was almost impossible to get anything accepted that I wanted to do. Nobody was in the least interested in my design ideas. Everything was reactionary, looking back, nostalgic.”
Day established himself as an exhibition designer working for corporations such as ICI but got a major break when, with co-designer Clive Latimer, he won first prize in the prestigious International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design, organised by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1948. His winning design, which beat opponents including Jørn Utzon and Marco Zanuso, featured modular storage units made of bent steel tubing and steam-bent plywood that adopted an industrial technique developed by James Henderson for the Scottish manufacturer Matthew Spears.
From then on his career blossomed and he went on to produce low-cost, mass-produced furniture that used materials frugally yet was designed to last. He worked extensively for staple British brands including the John Lewis Partnership, London Underground and aircraft manufacturer BOAC – often collaborating with his wife, who provided textiles and homeware. Their seminal work for the 1951 Festival of Britain in particular established them as de facto official designers to the nation.
In 1949 he began a long association with volume manufacturer Hille, producing over 150 designs for domestic, office and public furniture, including the moulded Polypropylene chair of 1963 – perhaps the best-selling chair of all time. Day was the first designer to fully exploit the potential of this relatively new manufacturing process, producing a chair that was cheap, light, attractive and virtually indestructible.
“I think the first things that are relevant are that things should work well; they should function,” says Day of his design philosophy. “That construction techniques, materials and economics are relevant. Along with that, hopefully, some poetry and pleasantness in terms of looks. But these practical things are essential. Without it, design is a waste
Day, however, found his public seating projects most rewarding. “Ha ha ha, journalists always ask what I’m most proud of,” he says with resignation. “Well the most successful of course was this Polypropylene chair. But I think I’m probably happiest about my work in the contract field: auditoriums of concert halls, stadiums, theatres, stations, airports. It’s not trendy or frivolous – it’s needed. They’re things that have sold very well and are often still in use 50 years on.” His furniture for the Royal Festival Hall, for example, was designed in 1951 but is still in place and is currently being refurbished.
Did he imagine his work would endure for so long? “One doesn’t think of that; one just does the best one can. But I think it’s important that things endure. There’s this very vulnerable planet of ours with finite resources. Architects and designers have, I think, a fair responsibility for conserving energy and materials, and making things durable. Magazines and advertising are flogging the idea that you have to keep changing things and get something new. I think that’s balls – evil. But obviously that’s your livelihood.”
Day is referring here to the infamous “boring” article icon published in September this year. Among other things, this questioned the validity of the concept of “sustainable” design, suggesting that designers’ efforts to conserve resources and reduce pollution are so minuscule in scale as to be almost pointless. Day was so incensed by this that he almost cancelled the interview.
Yet although it goes against everything he believes in, he concedes that it is more difficult for designers today to reconcile their morality with commercial reality.
“Oh yes, you’ve got something there,” he says, when I suggest it must have been easier for him to follow his conscience in an era of material hardship. “It’s a question that is not solvable really. Commerce is against morality. Morality is going to lose every time.”
Does he see the present era as an immoral time? “I think both things are happening in opposition. I think and hope there are far more people aware of the need to look after our future. At the same time, there is the greed and the eagerness to make money, and create new things for the hell of it.”
If Day was setting out on his career today, how would he handle this dilemma? “Well, I’d probably go for any work I could get. You’ve got to build a career and a practice. I would hopefully have a bit of a conscience about what I did but I would probably first look at the need to get work. I would think twice about designing stuff for which there was no need and which didn’t endure. But at 90 I can say that! I’ve had a good run.”