OBITUARY : Serge Chermayeff

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The Independent Online
Serge Chermayeff was an architect, designer and thinker, one of the last surviving creators of 1930s Modernism in England. During that period he acted with energy and enterprise to demonstrate the invigorating possibilities of synthesising art and science. As a teacher in America in the second half of his life, he affirmed his delight in the world of pure ideas, often putting them to use as offensive weapons.

Chermayeff's route to archi-tecture was unconventional. He was born Sergius Ivanovich Issakovitch at Grozny, in what is now Chechnya. His Jewish ancestors, according to family legend, had migrated from Spain to introduce new breeding stock into the cattle herds of Prince Kropotkin, soon after the Napoleonic wars. Instead of returning they were given land in the south and bred horses until the oil beneath the land earned them a sudden fortune. They were a close-knit and cultivated family and they chose to educate Serge in England, at a preparatory school from the age of 10 and afterwards at Harrow. He first learnt drawing in England under the liberal aegis of the Royal Drawing Society.

The Russian Revolution removed the family fortune although his parents managed to escape to Berlin after the First World War. Serge had a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, but after a brief spell as an interpreter to the British forces in Murmansk he began a career as a journalist covering new dance crazes, in which he participated and won several international competitions. He was tall and physically impressive, with a large head and hands. He spent a year in Argentina, where he was a partner in a dance hall in Buenos Aires and earned his passage back escorting the horse of an Harrovian friend. In 1924, after his father's death, he assumed the name of Chermayeff and began work with an interior design firm specialising in period interiors, designing stage sets in his spare time.

The emergence of the Modernist Chermayeff took place in the middle years of the 1920s with periods of study and travel abroad. In 1928 he married Barbara Maitland May, whom he had met at a tennis party in Sussex, and became a British citizen. Her energy matched his and they remained an inseparable team. He joined Waring and Gillow to develop the Modern Design Studio, a personal scheme of Lord Waring in which the Parisian designer Paul Follot was also involved. The bare simplicity of continental modern rooms was still unpalatable to English taste, as was the flashier side of Art Deco, but Chermayeff tackled the problem of a Modernism for England and produced rooms which were harmonious and quietly comfortable with veneered furniture, abstract rugs and careful layout. His own house interiors at 52 Abbey Road of 1930 were at the leading edge of English design, and in the same year his interiors for the Cambridge Theatre, with golden arches concealing the auditorium lightings, went beyond Art Deco towards a systematic analysis of the audience's psychological needs.

The onset of the Depression broke Lord Waring, and Chermayeff launched his own practice as an "interior architect". He set up Plan Ltd to market modern furniture and other equipment, striving for Bauhaus values of anonymity combined with comfort. His steel-framed chairs had sprung seats and wooden arm-rests. With Wells Coates and Raymond McGrath, both unconventional figures on the design scene, he designed interiors for Broadcasting House, opened in 1932. At the same time he schemed for the new world of design, founding the 20th Century Group and joining Theodore Wijdeveid, Eric Gill, Paul Hindemith and Amedee Ozenfant in launching the abortive Academie Europeenne Medit-erranee. Chermayeff's awareness of art, science and politics grew with his friendship with Gill, J.D. Bernal, Julian Huxley and John Piper, whose abstracts of the 1930s influenced his own considerable work as a painter in later years. He appeared on radio and later on early television. Paul Nash wrote in 1932 that Chermayeff ". . . has probably done more to bring about a change of taste than any designer in England today."

In 1933 Chermayeff displayed a Weekend House at the Dorland Hall, a prototype for a low-rise system complete with Plan furniture, transferring and enlarging the display over the following winter at Whiteleys. He completed his first building, a small flat-roofed house in Rugby, and became a Fellow of the RIBA. This was just in time for Chermayeff to offer a partnership to Erich Mendelsohn, one of the distinguished emigres from Nazi Germany and a friend of several years' standing. They installed their office on the top floor of the Pantheon, Oxford Street. Their combined talents won the competition for the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill in 1934, and when opened a year later it was the first major modern public building in Britain, technically innovative with its welded steel frame and finely finished interiors, expressive of seaside democracy. Chermayeff commissioned a mural from Edward Wadsworth to improve the spatial quality of the restaurant.

Mendelsohn and Chermayeff built houses at Chalfont St Giles and Old Church Street, Chelsea which are subtle and mature in their genre. Their office operated as two separate teams, and Chermayeff's contribution may have been undervalued, particularly since Mendelsohn spent long periods working in Palestine. They devised grand schemes for housing and hotels which remained unbuilt but introduced Chermayeff to a larger scale of thinking. After the dissolution of the partnership in 1936 Chermayeff completed three major buildings, the Gilbey Offices in Camden Town, an urbane corner block with special sound-proofing measures, the ICI Laboratories at Blackley, Manchester and his own house at Bentley Wood, Halland, East Sussex. The latter was a timber-frame structure in Jarrah wood with cedar cladding, poised in the landscape on a brick plinth. It was treated as a research laboratory for domestic design and servicing but never ceased to be a work of art which, with Henry Moore's fine Recumbent Figure (now in the Tate) on its pedestal at the end of the terrace, summarised ten years of searching for an English Modernism in architecture.

The Chermayeffs, now with two sons, had little time to enjoy Bentley Wood. They moved in at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 and soon after the outbreak of war they sold up and left unwillingly for the United States since Serge could find no work of national importance despite his efforts fo enlist. Their belongings were auctioned to friends or put in store, later to suffer bomb damage. Serge and Barbara set off for the west coast in a Ford convertible to seek their fortune. Conditions for practice were not easy, and although Chermayeff built two interesting small houses in the Bay Area of San Francisco he turned to lecturing and in 1942 was appointed chairman of the Department of Art at Brooklyn College, where he remodelled the programme to make it responsive to social needs in design. Chermayeff's advocacy for Britain's war effort and the radicalism of his teaching were frowned on in high places and put him at a disadvantage, but he succeeded Lazlo Moholy-Nagy as president of the Chicago Institute of Design in 1946, where he again transformed the course, introducing architecture in the context of "Environmental Design" which he saw as the total scope of architecture, design and planning. In the same year he became an American citizen.

Chermayeff became a Professor at Harvard under J.L. Sert in 1952 and ran a small practice in Cambridge mostly designing holiday houses, never without an eye to their potential as prototypes. His interest turned to the courtyard house as a solution to the problem of suburban sprawl and the inadequacies of the typical American tract house. The research was published in Community and Privacy (1963), written with his graduate student Christopher Alexander. Chermayeff's own house at New Haven, built in 1963 on taking up a post at Yale, is a demonstration of the book's idea which can be traced far back into his early career as a designer. A further book, The Shape of Community (with Alexander Tzonis) was published in 1971, two years after Chermayeff's retirement as Professor Emeritus. Briefly among the Yale students were Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster.

During the 1970s Chermayeff became depressed by the condition of the world. He withdrew increasingly from public life, and on his final visit to London in 1980 told the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers: "Man faces the options of survival or catastrophe. Time is running out." Having earned a reputation for a ferocious temper, Chermayeff endured old age, deafness and Post-modernism with stoicism and a liberal flow of dry Martinis at his summer cottage at Wellfleet, Cape Cod which became his main residence after 1972, producing sheaves of abstract drawings in felt pen. His principal archive of papers was deposited at the Avery Library, Columbia University and forms the basis for the book Design and the Public Good, published in 1982. His drawings, of which unhappily few pre-war examples survive, were divided between Columbia and the RIBA Drawings Collection in London. He was proud of the achievements of his sons, Peter as an architect and Ivan as a graphic designer, but did not actively cultivate his own reputation which remains to be fully assessed.

Alan Powers

Sergius Ivanovitch Issakovitch (Serge Chermayeff), architect: born Grozny 8 October 1900; married 1928 Barbara Maitland May (two sons); died Wellfleet, Massachusetts 8 May 1996.