Design: Wedded to their vision

Forget Charles and Ray Eames, Britain has its own artistic double act, Robin and Lucienne Day.
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The Independent Culture
Ever since the demise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, we British have had a tendency to underplay our achievements in design. The authorised history of 20th-century design suggests that our creative life stopped after William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and ever since then the torch has been in the hands of foreign powers. At the Design Museum in London all eyes are currently on the American designers Charles and Ray Eames, with all the razzmatazz that an imported blockbuster entails.

In the midst of all the attention on the Eameses, it is easy to forget that, during the early postwar period, we had our own celebrity design duo in the form of Robin and Lucienne Day. In real terms they had a much greater impact on our lives: Lucienne through her inspired "Contemporary" furnishing fabrics and wallpapers, which brought abstract pattern design to the masses; and Robin through his functional everyday furniture and appliances, which infiltrated homes, schools and offices throughout the country.

Although, unlike the Eameses, the Days have never designed anything together, from 1962 to 1987 they acted as consultants to the John Lewis Partnership, which wanted a husband-and-wife team to advise on the design of its stores. For 25 years Robin designed interiors and shop fittings for JLP, including the creation of a house style for Waitrose, which perhaps explains why we all feel so comfortable in these shops.

The Days were almost exact contemporaries of the Eameses, but whereas Charles died in 1978 and Ray in 1988, the Days are still going strong. In fact Lucienne has only now, at the age of 81 (Robin is 83), decided to "retire" so that she can devote herself to gardening.

Both the Days and the Eameses shared the view that all areas of design were linked. Apart from this there are many parallels between the careers of the two couples, and it is fascinating to speculate on how the unique chemistry of their relationships has influenced the creative process. In the case of the Days their great strength as a couple has been their ability to be honest with each other, offering support and constructive criticism, and valuing each other's opinion.

Like the Eameses, who met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940 where Charles was a tutor and Ray a student in the weaving department, the Days met in 1940 at the Royal College of Art, where Robin was a recent graduate in three-dimensional design, and Lucienne was in her third year studying printed textiles.

They immediately hit it off, and for three years they saw each other every day, revelling in what Robin describes as a real romance. That romance, based on a deep mutual respect and shared tastes - not just in art and design, but also for walking and the great outdoors - continues to this day.

Kindred spirits, in the early days they would spend hours passionately discussing modern design, and poring over the latest journals in the RIBA library. Inspired by modern art and architecture and imbued with the democratic spirit of their age, they were both determined to design for production. Being a duo added to the strength of their commitment.

Married in 1942, a year after the Eameses, they have spent their entire careers living and working alongside each other. Touchingly, their drawing- boards are still aligned back to back in the ground floor studio of their Chelsea office home.

During the war Charles Eames applied his talents to the development of moulded plywood splints and stretchers for wounded soldiers, while Robin Day designed posters for the Ministry of Information. Day's work in this field neatly complements the graphics of Ray Eames for the covers of the progressive West Coast Arts and Architecture magazine during the Forties. Day received a tremendous boost in 1948 when he and Clive Latimer won first prize in the storage section of the prestigious International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It was here that he first met Charles Eames, who had won second prize in the seating section. After the awards, Day visited the recently completed Eames Case Study House in LA, a light-weight steel-framed structure built entirely from off-the-peg industrial components. They met several times over the years, and always got on well. Eames was kind and friendly, but also witty and highly articulate.

Day admired his work for its integrity, because it grew from an analysis of function and construction. He also appreciated the Eameses' eye for incidentals, so apparent in the finer details of their house, their furniture and their films.

Charles and Robin also shared a commitment to modern materials, starting with bent plywood and progressing to various forms of plastics and cast metal. It was Eames who designed the first plastic shell chair in 1950, made of resin-impregnated fibreglass. This was followed in 1963 by Day's Polyprop chair, made of softer, more flexible polypropylene, which was better suited to mass production.

One of the most practical and commercially successful seating designs ever created, the Polyprop was openly admired by Eames, and is still in production today.

After the war Lucienne was able to begin designing textiles for production, an area in which Ray also dabbled for a time. The latter's bold and intuitive sense of colour was to have a lasting impact on her husband's work. Edinburgh Weavers was one of Lucienne's earliest clients, on the back of which she soon received commissions for furnishing fabrics for Heal's. Meanwhile Robin had embarked upon what was to become a long and fruitful relationship with the furniture company Hille (Britain's answer to Herman Miller), and he was also in demand as an exhibition designer.

The Festival of Britain proved a turning-point for them both, as it was Robin's Homes and Gardens pavilion that prompted the creation of Lucienne's legendary Calyx pattern, designed to complement his bent plywood and tubular steel chairs. Calyx, with its abstracted spindly plant forms and revolutionary lime, vermilion and olive colourway, caused a sensation and won the American Institute of Decorators' International Design Award in 1952 . Throughout the Fifties the Days were the most talked-about designers in Britain.

Their views were eagerly sought on radio and television; their house was featured in House and Garden and various other magazines; they were even invited to appear in an advert for Smirnoff vodka. When the Days and the Eameses started out, good-quality modern design was rare. Each couple pioneered the development of an authentic modern style in their respective countries. The Days expected this trend to continue, but by the late Sixties design was fragmenting and during the Seventies the modern style was dissipated by the fashion for historical revivalism.

It was at this stage that Lucienne abandoned industrial design in favour of her one-off silk mosaics, geometric hangings in rich colours, examples of which can be seen in her current show at the Fine Art Society. The Days may not have succeeded in changing the world as lastingly as they had originally hoped.

Nevertheless, throughout the Fifties and Sixties they exerted a tremendous impact and there is still a huge amount that they - and we - should be proud of. While you're paying homage to the work of Charles and Ray, don't forget the English Eameses.

`Lucienne Day' is on show until 8 October at The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-629 5116)