2019 is the centenary of the founding of Bauhaus in Weimar and there are lots of exhibitions and events worldwide. At the restored second Bauhaus in Dessau you can stay in the student accommodation and wonder who occupied the room before you. Of the many exhibitions, the Stradling Collection’s exhibition Bauhaus in Bristol focuses on an important but less well-known aspect of the story.
Bristol’s part in the story hinges on the relationship between designer Marcel Breuer and forward-looking Bristol furniture manufacturer Crofton Gane. The Breuer in Bristol Symposium at Arnolfini in November 2019 formed a part of the associated events alongside The Bauhaus in Bristol. Speakers included Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A; design historians Alan Powers, Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund; Oliver Kent, Programme Leader BA Applied Arts, Bristol School of Art; Max Gane, architect and great-grandson of Crofton; Phil O’Shaughnessy, Programme Leader, MA Design at the University of the West of England and Chris Yeo, curator of the Ken Stradling Collection. The combination enabled a full range of perspectives on the short but significant period between 1935 and 1937 when Breuer was in Bristol and designed and built the Gane Pavilion, a building that influenced his domestic architecture from then on.
Marcel Breuer was one of the first students at the Bauhaus where he developed an interest in timber and making, He progressed to employment and teaching there but by 1935 he had left the school and had begun working with manufacturers such as Thonet and the Swiss company Embru to put his designs into production. This ran contrary to Walter Gropius’s aim for designs by Bauhaus designers to license their work for production by and for the Bauhaus itself to enable its continuation. In practice its closure put an end to such thoughts. Despite friction, Breuer continued to see Gropius as his mentor and as political pressures in Europe grew, when Gropius moved to London it was not long before Breuer followed. Christopher Wilk emphasised that although he had worked on a small number of architectural projects, (including the Harmischmaler House in Wiesbaden in 1932, his first realised project) he was at this time primarily a furniture designer.
Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund have just published their new book Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain. The Isokon Flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead were designed in 1934 by architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard. Jack Pritchard was a key figure in the Design and Industries Association, a prominent group of designers, architects and manufacturers in Britain who lobbied for contemporary approaches to design. He was UK marketing manager for the Estonian Venesta plywood company and the enthusiasm of the Pritchards for progressive and modernist ideas was focussed not just on architecture, domestic design and education but also by an excitement with the potential of plywood as a material both within building design and for the making of furniture. Together with Wells Coates, Pritchard founded the Isokon furniture company of which in 1935 Walter Gropius was to become Controller of Design. Coates’ interest in modular systems both in building and interior design was reflected in the interiors of the flats.
When Walter Gropius and the other refugee designers came to London in the mid-1930s they were made welcome by members of the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and a number of them took up residence in the Isokon Flats. Jack Pritchard and his friends sought to find employment and projects for their guests. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer found partnerships with architects and this lead to a small number of architectural projects and collaborations. Breuer’s interest in furniture design and new materials brought him into contact with various DIA members and one in particular was quick to offer him work. Crofton Gane had recently become Managing Director of Bristol furniture manufacturer and retailer P E Gane Ltd and had been an active member of the DIA for some years. He had visited the Exposition des Arts Decoratif in Paris in 1925 with a DIA group that included Jack Pritchard and had worried his father P E Gane with his enthusiasm for plywood and for Modernist thinking.
In Bristol Crofton Gane was a leading local member of the DIA and was well acquainted with Jack Pritchard, Wells Coates and the rest. His interest in modernist design had like Pritchard’s been cemented by the visit to the Exposition des Arts Decorative. By 1930 he was able to explore his ideas more actively, taking full control of the P E Gane company in 1933. By 1935 when he met Breuer, probably in Hampstead, he had been developing the company’s ranges for some time, both selling imported furniture by the likes of Alvar Aalto as well as hiring his own designer J P Hully who worked particularly on ranges of modular furniture – perhaps influenced by Wells Coates. Hully had been a leading member of the design team at Bath Cabinetmakers who designed and made contemporary furniture primarily for large contract projects and who had shown at the Paris exhibition. A Quaker, Crofton perhaps saw himself as part of a campaign of improvement of design and living standards for which the principles of modernism seemed particularly appropriate. Other aspects of his life reflected this too, including providing medical services for his workers and supporting local adult education initiatives.
It is in this context that Gane saw the opportunity to take his commitment to modern design to another level by commissioning Breuer to remodel his home (to include a full range of furniture) and to design a display pavilion for the Royal Agricultural Show held at Ashton Court near Bristol in 1936. The pavilion displayed modern furniture retailed by P E Gane including work by Marcel Breuer, J P Hully, Serge Chermayeff and Alvar Aalto.
Max Gane (Crofton’s great-grandson) presented a detailed look at these projects and their significance. He has the particular experience of growing up amongst the furniture Breuer had designed for Crofton’s home and even admitted to having carved his name into one of the single beds! It is a reminder that objects are not just to be cogitated on by historians and displayed in museums but are active and have histories of their own.
After Breuer left England for the United States, Crofton Gane continued to explore and worked with Wells Coates on interiors and modular furniture designs for P E Gane and for the Queens Court luxury flat development in Clifton. Further projects were undermined and finally brought to a stop by WWII and the destruction of Gane’s Bristol factories and showrooms.
The short time that Marcel Breuer spent working with Crofton Gane was significant in his career primarily in terms of architecture and interiors. As Christopher Wilk notes the Pavilion was one of his earliest architectural commissions. Given a free reign by Gane he was able to play and to explore new materials including sheet plywood, plate glass, corrugated asbestos and local stone. The use of local limestone laid in a traditional manner for the walls of the Pavilion gave it a very particular look and relationship with its location. The aesthetic of the Pavilion and this interest in softening and localising a modern building had a lasting impact on his subsequent domestic architecture. For Breuer, his time in Bristol was an important one to be celebrated.
There are those who feel that such is the significance of the Gane Pavilion that efforts should be made to reconstruct it – there is even a suggestion that rubble in the park is it! Max Gane expressed the view that in practice the Pavilion was always intended to be temporary and should remain so. Its function removed and its structural shortcomings (lack of weatherproofing, gutters or drains for instance) making it impossible to rebuild without changing it, is it not better to leave it as it is, an important moment in Marcel Breuer’s architectural development and a marker for a point at which Bauhaus design moved on.
An interesting response to the loss of the building is a digital one. Several reconstructions of the Pavilion now exist in cyberspace including one by architecture student xmiseryxwizardx and an animated one by Clifton Downs on YouTube who represents a group interested in physical reconstruction.
For more on the Bauhaus in Bristol and the relationship between Marcel Breuer and Bristol furniture manufacturer Crofton Gane go to the Stradling Collection’s Bauhaus in Bristol Resource pages. These include a selection of downloadable documents including the 1936 P E Gane catalogue and a short film made at the symposium.
The Ken Stradling Collection, 48 Park Row, Bristol, BS1 5LH, UK
Clifton Downs, 2015. Gane Pavilion, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpfD4x-VXBs&feature=share
Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, 2019. Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain. Daunt Books
Oliver Kent, 2019. ‘Crofton Gane and Marcel Breuer. Modernism and the Bauhaus in Bristol in the 1930s’. in Kent, O., Yeo, C. and Witt, C., 2019. The Bauhaus in Bristol, Stephen Morris.
Raymond Plummer, 1985. Nothing Need be Ugly. The first 70 years of the Design & Industries Association. DIA.
Alan Powers, 2019. Bauhaus Goes West, Thames and Hudson
Jack Pritchard, 1984. View from a Long Chair. The Memoirs of Jack Pritchard. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Christopher Wilk, 1981. Marcel Breuer Furniture and Interiors, MOMA
xmiseryxwizardx, 2019. [Practice] Study of the Gane Pavilion by Marcel Breuer, built in 1936. https://www.reddit.com/r/architecture/comments/czt3vp/practice_study_of_the_gane_pavilion_by_marcel