Obituary: John Prizeman

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The Independent Online
John Brewster Prizeman, architect and designer, born Little Bookham Surrey 15 November 1930, married 1958 Willow Bentley (one son, two daughters), died Brighton 11 July 1992.

JOHN PRIZEMAN was, despite his successful career, the most modest of men, no doubt through the influence of his Quaker schooling. This had an impact which was to remain to the end of his days.

He studied architecture at the Architectural Association, followed by a year's work experience with Felix Samuely and Partners, helped and encouraged by Frank Newby, with whom he shared a flat at Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, north London. He then set up his own practice, remaining throughout his life, as a one-man operation, but collaborating with other professionals on the larger commissions.

Despite his early training at a time when tradition in design was unpopular, and the logical use of the new materials and avoidance of the old was the order of the day, he never fell into this one-way trap, and his earliest work, whether in house design or the kitchens for which he was to become famous, combined the warmth of traditional materials, such as timber finished naturally, with the host of man-made materials then becoming available. Only in his later work did true 'high tech' appear as, for example, in his Cooking Post, a revolutionary concept in kitchens, designed in 1972 for the London Electricity Board.

Prizeman was never content to accept the new adhesives, wood finishes, man-made boards and laminates without carrying out his own thorough research, often coming up with impossible combinations which, because of his capacity for lateral thinking bordering on genius, were of course not impossible. The 'Prisink', - designed for Adamsez and based on a 4in tile module, with its unglazed top epoxied to a plastics laminate or timber - was a typical result.

Although essentially a thinking man, Prizeman had a rare appreciation of the craftsman's work in every field, helped no doubt by being taught woodwork in his younger days by his father, but he was never hidebound in the practical sense as he was always able to design beyond the bounds of normally acceptable material limits.

Whilst he was the author of only four books, his other literary output was substantial, contributing to all the leading newspapers and magazines, and assisting other writers with their work. He had already designed many kitchens for clients before he wrote his first book, Kitchens (1966), for the Design Centre, embodying all the best principles of practical design that other publications had missed. This was followed by European Interiors (1970) and Living Rooms (1970) which helped to restore the balance, as he was never fond of being viewed only as a kitchen man.

His last book, Your House (1975), was written for the building materials company Blue Circle. It was an attempt to guide an unaware public away from the excesses of inappropriate external treatment. It is as valid and sought-after today as it was nearly 20 years ago.

Although this book dealt only with 'the outside view', Prizeman had an unabated enthusiasm for all aspects of old buildings, taking particular care to ensure original detailing was copied accurately when carrying out conversions and additions. The new front for Bertram Rota's bookshop in Long Acre, Covent Garden, in London, designed to blend in a traditional setting, typifies this care.

In his earlier days Prizeman taught at several schools of architecture, and later broadcast on both radio and television. He was an adviser for the Design Centre Index and, among other posts, and the editorship of a series of design books for the publishers Macdonald, he was president of the Architectural Association in 1982-83.

Prizeman's early architectural work included new private houses, using the best of traditional and modern materials designed to be an integral part of the settings. In the mid-Sixties he led a team to design a new town in Trinidad to provide much-needed low-cost housing and industrial buildings, which, owing to political changes, never grew beyond the first few houses.

Other architectural projects abroad included hotel villages, prefabricated houses, housing developments and conversions. In England he carried out many private conversions, designed a plastics factory, several restaurants, including Langan's Brasserie, in London, also art galleries for Kasmin, Eskenazi and Richard Green.

His versatility encompassed exhibition and product design. His individual gas-rings with their controls above the worktop, out of reach of children, were an outstanding example.

His little sketches in the corners of his scale drawings were a godsend to clients (and contractors) who were not always well versed in understanding plans and elevations. This gift of simple line drawing, from a man who treated his work seriously but with a great sense of humour, was exemplified by cartoons he did for the Observer.

More recent work included a restaurant in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, and the columned open market behind the church.

John Prizeman was fortunate in marrying his wife Willow Bentley, who, having herself done a design course, was able to understand his work and was an enthusiastic and practical support to him. His son qualified as an architect and both his daughters are studying architecture, surely proof of his persuasive powers.

His last work, this spring past, was a kitchen and bathroom, in her private house, for the chef Beth Coventry. In both of these commissions, although he was very unwell, he proved that none of the Prizeman sparkle had been lost. She, like so many of his other contacts, was not only a client, but a friend.

A sketch by Prizeman (omitted) for his Monoplane Chair, which he described as being 'Designed about 12.30pm on the 2nd June 1982 on the way to lunch with Zeev Aram (of Aram Designs, London) at the Savoy. Because: 1) Zeev does not like his guests to be late and when my tube train stopped for 10 minutes between Baker Street and Great Portland Street stations, I thought of designing a chair for a distraction. 2) Of memories of Edwardian Chinoiserie long chairs that obey no published ergonomic rules yet are extremely comfortable (try those in the entrance to Peter Langan's second restaurant). 3) Of memories of trying to put glasses down on coffee tables too far from my chair, or putting a drink on the floor beside the chair and then tripping over it, and all those little tables I walk into.'

(Photograph omitted)

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