The sinuous lines of a fiery tango dancer

Serge Chermayeff 1900-1996 | Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
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Serge Chermayeff

Serge Ivan Chermayeff – the name sounds just right for a pioneering 20th-century architect. The story tells itself – important early buildings in central Europe, the flight from Nazism to England, then recognition in North America and a series of plum academic posts. In fact, Chermayeff was quite a bit younger than figures like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe whose careers did follow this kind of trajectory. His life was different – odder, more of an invention conjured out of thin air.

Chermayeff's origins are exotic. His grandparents were horse-breeders who discovered oil on their land in the Caucasus. His parents sent him to Harrow, but an English public school education was cut short by the Russian Revolution. From 1917 Chermayeff had to shift for himself, becoming a Nabokovian figure, a man of unexpected and incongruous talents. In the 1920s he became a professional tango dancer: as a mark of respect bands would stop playing when he entered a ballroom.

By the mid-1920s he had recast himself with mysterious ease as a highly successful art deco interior designer and by 1930, even more remarkably, he transformed himself into a seriously committed member of Britain's tiny Modern Movement, working on the interiors of Broadcasting House, setting up PLAN Ltd to market modern furniture and designing radio sets for Ekco.

Alan Powers's boldly designed exhibition and accompanying book reveal a figure who never trained formally as an architect, but who had the ability to assimilate influences swiftly and creatively, most crucially during his brief partnership in the mid-1930s with the refugee German architect Erich Mendelsohn. Chermayeff acted as a kind of front man for this undoubted genius but he made a serious contribution to their joint work. The exquisite detailing inside the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, now mostly lost, was his responsibility.

Architecture exhibitions are notoriously hard to stage. But at Kettle's Yard we see Chermayeff's early carpets and furniture, while his interiors and building work are dramatised by photographs presented as wall-sized light boxes. A generous amount of space is given to Bentley Wood, the Sussex house Chermayeff built for his family in 1938 and his acknowledged masterpiece. It was clearly inspired by Mendelsohn, particularly its two floors of fenestrated, interconnected south-facing rooms.

Bentley Wood was remarkable on its own terms and now looks more 1960s than 1930s in its use of timber both as structure and cladding. It still appears designed for pleasure, partly because of its superbly landscaped site facing the South Downs. It also served as a showcase for Chermayeff's fine collection of paintings and the handsomely placed Henry Moore Recumbent Figure, now in the Tate, floating at the end of a narrow screened terrace. Made ordinary by subsequent crude alterations Bentley Wood is being restored by a new owner.

Chermayeff was bankrupted by Bentley Wood, and in 1940 he emigrated to the lush pastures of American academe – Chicago, MIT, Harvard, and Yale. To his students he was an urbane, awe-inspiring figure with a fiery temper and a devastating way with criticism. Tis domestic architecture recast the idea of home, proposing lyrical private spaces softened by sensitivity to the regional vernacular.

By the 1960s Chermayeff became keenly interdisciplinary, immersing himself in ecology, cybernetics and systems for generating low-rise housing. These concerns are brought to life in the exhibition by a computer programme which enables us visitors to play with Chermayeff's favoured problem-solving diagram, a figure of eight. He became something of a guru, courted at his sequestered house on Cape Cod, surrounded by books, paintings and folk art. Harrow, the editorship of Dancing World and the art deco sideboards designed for Waring and Gillow formed an unlikely apprenticeship.

Cheramyeff became indistinguishable from rather more eminent European emigrés. Alan Powers convincingly demonstrates that he had something gentler and possibly better – an architectural sensibility rooted in humanism and feeling.

Until 6 May; 01223 352124

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