London's Isokon Building opens a gallery to tell its rich history as the home of modernist designers, writers and spies
'The biggest challenge was knowing which stories to tell,' says Magnus Englund, managing director of furniture store Skandium. He's referring to the new gallery which opens today in the Isokon Building - also known as the Lawn Road Flats - in Hampstead. Built in 1934, the daringly modern apartment block was the epicentre of North London's avant-garde circle during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Isokon Gallery, once the residents' garage, certainly has no shortage of material to exhibit. Walter Gropius, Paul Nash and Agatha Christie were among its famous residents, and its gatherings of leading architects, artists, writers and thinkers in the building's Isobar restaurant were legendary.
Englund lives in the penthouse, and has immaculately restored it to its original state. Honey-coloured curved plywood lines every wall (the building's founders Jack and Molly Pritchard were plywood specialists). 'The Pritchards were a remarkable couple, and plywood is the thread which runs through the story,' says Englund. On moving in, Englund discovered there had been a plan to open the gallery a decade before, and he contacted Avanti Architects, who had renovated the entire building in the early noughties, and embarked upon raising the funds for the gallery.
As well as providing a potted history of the building, its founders, its architect Wells Coates, and its famous residents, the gallery also features furniture, produced by Jack Pritchard under the Isokon furniture brand. Throughout the 1930s, he collaborated with many of the building's architect residents, among them Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Lazlo Moholy Nagy to create pieces for the flats. Originals such as the 'Penguin Donkey' bookstand by resident Egon Riss and Breuer's 'Long Chair' are on display alongside photos of the flats in various states of repair.
Isokon was billed as North London's only concrete home during the war, and housed spies and intelligence agents - as documented in a recent book by David Burke. It then slowly fell into disrepair and by the 1990s was virtually derelict before its renovation. With the new gallery, it is more complete than it has ever been.