“If the 18th century had been content to imitate the 17th century, then the finest age of English cabinet making would never have been born. I had no qualifications beyond a burning belief that my own age might recover its self respect, a sound knowledge of old furniture and construction, and an interest in the possibility of the machine.” Gordon Russell
Gordon Russell grew up in the heart of London in Broadway, it was here he found himself in the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Movement influenced the style of Russell’s work, but it was his reaction to their ideology that was to shape his life and work. Although impressed by their commitment to the integrity of design, he found himself at odds with their philosophy that everything should be made by hand. He did not see why items that could easily be made by machine should be crafted solely by hand – thus resulting in prices that only the wealthy could afford. Increasingly he felt that through a blend of hand and machine he could produce and sell ‘decent, well designed furniture for ordinary people.’
Having been given the responsibility of the Lygon workshops after the First World War, Gordon Russell slowly began to introduce machines into the workshop. In the 1920s he established himself as a quality cabinetmaker and by 1924 the workshop had expanded to 30 employees, many who had trained at the renowned LCC Shoreditch Technical Institute. Despite the ever-present Arts and Crafts influence Russell’s design philosophy became increasingly modern.
By the mid 1920s a whole range of machinery was introduce to Broadway for batch production. This move, which treated the machines as ‘just a more complex tool’ made him increasingly frustrated with the anti-industrial philosophy of William Morris. But the atmosphere was still one of a workshops, not a factory, and run according to Russell’s belief that ‘the most urgent job of all was to teach the machine manners.’
This commitment to hand crafted skill and quality within mass production drove Gordon Russell throughout his career. It defined his enterprise, Gordon Russell Limited, which was soon recognized as being at the forefront of European design. At the same time it informed his role as a champion of British design, through his establishment and direction of the Council of industrial Design (now the Design Council) in the 1950s and 60s.
‘The Arts and Crafts Movement scored the machine. The Modern Movement which followed it imagined the machine would solve all our problems…Don’t forget that hand and machine are complementary - an improvement in one leads in time to improvement in the other and, as William Morris noted nearly a hundred years ago, any improvement in the work men do leads rapidly and inevitably to an improvement in the men who do it.’
Examples of our Gordon Russell furniture