Bauhaus in BristolExhibiting at the Ken Stradling Collection
The clean lines, floor-to-ceiling glazing, and flowing interior spaces must have taken on an otherworldly appearance on the parkland of Ashton Court.
Marcel Breuer, the Modernist architect and designer responsible for one of the most iconic designs of the mid-century – the tubular steel Wassily Chair – spoke of what he considered to be the two most important buildings of his career. One was the monumental UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, a vast, three-pointed star of glass and concrete crescents, raised by 72 stout pilotis, which he designed in collaboration with Bernard Zehrfuss and Pier Luigi Nervi, completing in 1958. The plans for the building were ratified by an international committee of some of the most prominent architects of the day: Lucio Costa, Le Corbusier, Sven Markelius, Ernesto Nathan Rogers, and his former Bauhaus colleague, Walter Gropius. The second of his most-prized buildings, however, was a temporary structure; a low-lying, four-room pavilion constructed for an Agricultural Show in the rural outskirts of Bristol, United Kingdom, in 1936.
How the unlikely connection between the Bauhaus émigré and the city of Bristol came about is being explored by a small gallery and design collection in Bristol, as part of the worldwide celebration of the Bauhaus’s centenary. The Ken Stradling Collection – a registered charitable trust which comprises over 1500 objects of furniture, ceramics, art and industrial design – has been amassed since 1948 by Ken Stradling, a design enthusiast who spent much of his working life as Managing Director of the Bristol Guild of Applied Arts on nearby Park Street.
The exhibition’s story begins with Crofton Gane, an early exponent of Modernism in Bristol, who became chairman of his family furniture-making business, P.E. Gane, in 1933. At this time, he was deeply involved in the Design and Industries Association, a forward-thinking group of UK designers and architects who helped Walter Gropius escape Germany for London in 1934. A year later, Breuer arrived in the country, and soon met Gane, who commissioned him to work on their first project together: the redesigning of Gane’s home, a 1920s detached property in Downs Park West, Bristol. The lounge, dining room, and bedrooms were all gutted and refabricated; Britain’s first cantilevered metal, open-tread interior staircase was installed, and new furniture was designed by Breuer and produced by P.E. Gane craftsmen. Four of these pieces of furniture are now on display at the Ken Stradling Collection’s gallery.
Writing about the project in Design For Today in November 1935 – a copy of which is on display from the Bristol Archives – Marcel Breuer expresses his fondness for the “silver gleam” of the matt-finished aluminium chairs in the dining room, which “gives a new and pleasant effect in conjunction with the wood and coloured textiles – a note in the music of the new architecture.” He reworked a previous design of his, the WB-31 chair, upholstering the plywood seat and back in dark fabric. A version of the original aluminium and plywood design, made for the Swiss manufacturer Embru-Werke, is featured in the exhibition; its dynamic, curving form is placed near the window, beside a large print of Breuer and Gane together in 1958, at a reception in London before Breuer’s talk on his UNESCO Building to the Architectural Association.
The white sycamore-veneered writing desk and lime-finished armchair in twill upholstery, originally designed for Gane’s sitting room, appear along one wall of the gallery. The light-toned woods were carefully selected to match the sitting room’s fully-panelled plywood veneer walls. Both were prototypes intended for wider production, but proved too progressive for 1930s Bristol to become commercial successes. The armchair would have been steam bent during manufacture, but lacking the necessary equipment, this prototypical example was formed of four hand-carved sections of solid wood, pegged together to resemble bent plywood.
The black desk was Gane’s personal worktop created for his office, and was acquired by Ken Stradling from Gane’s family in the 1970s. It confounded him for years – it was missing a piece, and was unclear how it should be assembled, or whether it was intended as a floating desk. The Collection’s curator, Chris Yeo, discovered a drawing of the desk by Breuer in the V&A archives that specified a small bookcase that would have acted as the missing support. In 2011, Stradling discovered the very bookcase at auction in Nottingham; he made a successful bid for it, and restored the desk to its entirety.
After the home was complete, Gane commissioned Breuer to design a pavilion to showcase P.E. Gane & Co furniture at the Royal Agricultural Show in Ashton Court. Appearing alongside structures in a melange of styles, including Tudor-styled buildings, it also showcased Modernism as a movement. The clean lines, floor-to-ceiling glazing, and flowing interior spaces must have taken on an otherworldly appearance on the parkland of Ashton Court, among the prize cattle and power farming appliances of the show. The interior was arranged as a sitting room, study, and two bedrooms, where P.E. Gane furniture appeared alongside designs by Alvar Aalto. The building stood for the duration of the five-day event, during which not a single item was sold, and was demolished soon after.
The following year, Breuer emigrated to the USA, where he pursued a prolific career as an architect, culminating in some of the most striking Brutalist buildings in the US: the soaring concrete of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, or the angular, inverted ziggurat of the former Whitney Museum in Manhattan – now known as the Met Breuer – among others. He stayed in close correspondence with Crofton Gane for the rest of Gane’s lifetime, though they would never work together again. In 1940, Gane’s retail space in College Green, along with his factories in Kingswood, was destroyed in the Blitz. A photograph of the bombed shop is displayed in the Bauhaus in Bristol exhibition, the sign ‘furniture and decoration’ just discernible along the skeletal, twisted remnants. After the war, Gane’s operations shrunk to a smaller retail space on Park Street, where in due course, he came across Stradling and the Bristol Guild on the same street. Although short-lived, Breuer and Gane’s collaboration in Bristol was a bright glimmer that pre-empted the UK’s wider acceptance of Modernism in the post-war period. Their friendship endured, as did Breuer’s fond, proud memories of the Gane Pavilion.
The Bauhaus in Bristol show ran from October 2019 until January 2020.