Robin & Lucienne Day in conversation with
Simon Alderson & Helen O’Brien
Furniture designer Robin Day, 93 and his textile designer wife Lucienne, 91, are the grandmasters of modern British design. Robin’s low cost, mass-produced furniture, among which is the multi-million selling polypropylene chair, and Lucienne’s abstract, colourful prints led them to become key players in the 1951 Festival of Britain and beyond.
A talented, handsome pair, they met at a ‘hop’ at the Royal College of Art where they were both students in 1940, and together pioneered a new domestic aesthetic throughout the 50s and 60s. Their 56-year marriage has led to a creative synergy that still exists today, and in the 1990s, Robin produced new pieces for London design store Twentytwentyone, founded by Simon Alderson who he nominated as his protégé for this story.
Lucienne tracked down her former assistant Helen O’Brien, a garden designer based in Scotland and last month, Wallpaper caught up with the four of them for lunch at the Days home in Chichester, Sussex.
HO’B: Hello Lucienne! I last saw you 36 years ago. You hired me in 1971, when you were 57, the age I am now, which is a bit of a coincidence. You were living in Cheyne Walk at that time, with Mick and Bianca Jagger next door. You had the dogs Tigger and Dougal and drove a mustard coloured sports car.
LD: Yes I remember. So you are a garden designer, now? So is our daughter Paula. She has retrained and is on her third garden now.
HO’B: I answered an ad in magazine for the job and wore an orange dress which I had made myself to the interview. You complimented me on it.
You were designing for Heals and Rosenthal at that time, and I remember painting flowers on to china cups. Robin was creating catering equipment for Concorde and you both worked upstairs in studios opposite each other. You and Robin used get quite irritated by the noise next door, especially when they were rehearsing. Mick used to look after my bicycle for me, and Bianca would pose for photographers on the doorstep. It was all very glamorous and intimidating for a 19-year-old like me.
LD: Yes we were decorating the Raymond Loewy cups for Rosenthal, I believe. I worked for Heal’s for 21 years. I’ve always been self-employed, and I remember the hardest thing I ever had to do was for a weaver in Cumbria. He demanded a sketch a night from me for a month. So I did them and posted them off to him every evening, and when he had them all, he used them and didn’t credit me! I would bump into him at exhibitions and it was very awkward.
SA: There have been lots of people who have used both your designs illegally, haven’t there? You can’t really stop it unless you register as a trademark.
LD: I know, but I never got round to it. It still upsets me when I see my work being used like that or copied.
HO'B: Lucienne’s work has influenced so many people. I am always seeing cushions and cards with patterns very like hers. Some people are so blatant.
RD: There’s too much design around created without proper consideration - too few things that endure and are cherished.
LD: Who’s cherished?
SA: You are Lucienne.
RD: There are a few good designers around-Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton, Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby. I always wanted to make low cost, mass-produced furniture, and I remember I made the first Polypropylene chair in red.
SA: That chair has sold millions of copies worldwide. It’s ubiquitous the world over, isn’t it?
RD: Yes, and the strangest place I saw it was the Okavango Delta in Botswana. I went to South Africa to present a design prize, and as a thank you they took us to Okavango Delta, where we went down a river in dugout canoes that had my chairs screwed into them!
LD: Robin travelled a lot, and not just for work. He has always been an avid sportsman and mountain climber. He skied two and half thousand miles across Lapland and Norway before any Norwegian ever did it, and he climbed Mount Kenya when he was 76 – the oldest man to do so. He’s explored the Atlas Mountains, the Himalayas and many a Munroe in Scotland
RD: Oh yes, I have always loved the great outdoors. When I was at the Royal College I used to cycle in from my parents house in High Wycombe – about 30 miles away. I enjoyed extreme sports. I found I could totally switch off when I was doing them.
LD: I tried climbing a few times, but I found it rather dull, and then I had Paula, and Robin had a terrible climbing accident in which he nearly died. He suffered a head injury that put him in hospital for six months. It totally put me off climbing and I used to worry when he would go off on his adventures.
RD: Yes, my sporting achievements are not nearly as well documented as my designs. I would like people to know more about them.
SA: Do you have lots of photos and records of those adventures?
LD: Robin doesn’t have an archive. Once he took a load of drawings to our country cottage in Midhurst and burned them all!
HO’B: Oh no! Why?
RD: Well, I have always been looking forward instead of looking back.
LD: Yes, but as I said at the time, you shouldn’t have done that.
SA: What about your work Lucienne?
LD: I have an archive with the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester and when the V&A approached me about archiving my work, I thought it was a very sensible thing to do.
SA: There are lots of things in Midhurst, though, aren’t there? It’s a magical place.
RD: Yes, and Paula is sorting it out for us. She comes down from Yorkshire and is clearing things out, giving lots of it to charity and so on. We don’t go there often now as Lucienne finds it hard to get around as it’s all on different levels. Anyway, it’s nap time or drink time. Would anybody like a brandy?
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Emma O'Kelly is a contributing editor at Wallpaper*. She joined the magazine on issue 4 as news editor and since since then has worked in full and part time roles across many editorial departments. She is a freelance journalist based in London and works for a range of titles from Condé Nast Traveller to The Telegraph. She is currently working on a book about Scandinavian sauna culture and is renovating a mid century house in the Italian Lakes.
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