Obituary: Sadie Martin
Tuesday 27 October 1992
SADIE SPEIGHT (Lady Martin) contributed to architecture and design all her life.
In a foreword to the catalogue of the RIBA exhibition 'British Women in Architecture 1671- 1951' (1951), Lynne Walker describes the work of women in architecture during and after the war period. 'Among the women who designed for the applied arts,' she writes, 'none was more versatile and energetic than Sadie Speight, whose work included product, textile, interior design as well as shop-window displays.' Since this period her energies were notably injected into the outstanding career of her husband Sir Leslie Martin, the architect of the Festival Hall and, from 1956 to 1972, Professor of Architecture at Cambridge. They formed a partnership second to none.
Sadie Speight was born in Lancashire in 1906, where her father was a doctor. She and her equally bright sister Kathleen were educated at St Mary's and St Anne's, Abbots Bromley, and Manchester University. In the School of Architecture, she graduated in 1929 with first class honours. A Prix de Rome finalist, she also won the Zimmern Travelling Fellowship which gave her further study abroad. In 1930 she was awarded the RIBA's silver medal and elected an associate. In 1932 she held the Faulkner Fellowship and the year following gained her Masters degree.
Seven years previously, in 1927, her fellow student Leslie Martin purchased an engagement ring. They were married in 1935. During this period strong friendships were forged with a group of artists and sculptors, Herbert Read's 'a gentle nest of Artists'. Work had begun on Circle, a manifesto of Constructivist art, with Leslie Martin as joint editor with Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson. It was published in 1937.
Most of the contents of the Martins' home dated from this period, from the early Thirties, with chairs by Serge Chermayeff and Marcel Breuer, tables by Alvar Aalto, lights by Jorn Utzon and even a coffee service by Ben Nicholson, and together they put together an extremely interesting collection of contemporary paintings, by, among others, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Henry Moore and Piet Mondrian. In 1938 Herbert Read commissioned Sadie and Leslie Martin as joint authors of The Flat Book, a reference book on contemporary furniture, fabrics and household products.
In post-war Britain the emphasis was on design for everyday mass-produced products. The Council of Industrial Design was set up to promote well-designed goods and the Design Research Unit, which included Sadie Speight as a founder member, was formed to make designer skills available to industry. Sadie Speight's enthusiasm produced designs for products such as kettles, electric irons and textiles that were way ahead of their time.
From the Fifties onwards as well as undertaking a number of interesting interior-design commissions she continued to give enthusiastic support to her husband. When Sir Leslie Martin received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1973 the citation read: 'A truly outstanding contribution to architecture and planning, both through his private and public practice, and most notably as a leading figure in architectural teaching and research.' As Martin said in his Building and Ideas (1983), 'Sadie Speight has made her own very special contribution to my work throughout the whole of my professional career'.
In her eighties her flair continued with colourful conversions of an apple store and stables as beautiful and secluded retreats for her husband and herself in Norfolk. She had a son and daughter who both trained as architects, and six grandchildren.
She was full of energy and would bound up three steps at a time: it was doubly sad that in her last months she should suffer from the physically debilitating motor- neurone disease.
Sadie Martin loved all things visual and made a contribution in her own right and with her husband to the very best in design
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