The All Electric House – Stoke Bishop, Bristol.
I have been writing an essay about Marcel Breuer and his involvement with Bristol furniture manufacturers P E Gane Ltd in the 1935-6. Breuer was one of a group of designers and architects from the Bauhaus who came to London as refugees in the mid-30s. They became part of a network of contemporary artists, designers and architects in Britain often active in the Design and Industries Association which sought to modernise British design and public taste. Amongst this group was P E Gane’s new director Crofton Gane who was closely involved in the DIA and an ardent Modernist. He saw himself as an evangelist for contemporary design in the West of England and South Wales, balancing that against the practical demands of running a successful furniture manufacturing and retail business. Gane saw an opportunity, and commissioned Breuer to design furniture pro types for him, completely remodelling and furnishing the interior of his Bristol house and designing and building a ground breaking show pavilion for the 1936 Royal Agricultural Show in Ashton Court.
Researching P E Gane Ltd has drawn attention to the range of less well-known projects and ideas that the company was involved in between the First World War and the destruction of the business in the Blitz in 1940. Gane’s held regular exhibitions of new design in their College Green showrooms and designed a number of show house interiors for property developments. Amongst these is the All Electric House for which P E Gane Ltd designed the interiors.
People in Bristol are aware of classic Modernist houses like the Concrete House in Westbury-on-Trym (Connell, Ward and Lucas, 1934-5) but there are less well known treasures lurking in the suburbs. The All Electric House was commissioned by the Bristol Branch of the Electrical Association for Women and built in 1935. A local architect Adrian Powell was chosen for the task and worked to a detailed client brief.
The EAW aimed to demonstrate the potential of new electrical technology to make the lives of women less onerous. If you compare this small 4-bedroom house with the Concrete House or the Gane House, it differs in assuming that the domestic tasks are likely to be largely undertaken by the householder rather than maids and cooks. Gane had Breuer revamp the whole house in theory but in practice the kitchen and service areas were left untouched. The middle classes after the First World War were far less able to rely on service than the earlier generation.
The house featured all kinds of electrical appliances and gadgets from an electric cooker, refrigerator and fires in every room to drying cupboards, electric clocks and food warmers. The reviewer in Design for Today, commented that design issues ‘were not subordinated to the propaganda interests of one industry.’ (Design for Today, Jan, 1936, p.7) P E Gane Ltd provided all the furnishings for the show house and Crofton was keen to show the latest stuff.
The house featured a single long reception room divided into a living/soft-furnished area at the front and a more enclosed dining area with a serving hatch from the kitchen and a side view onto a sun-terrace. Gane set the dining area out with a neat fitted cupboard and tubular furniture by British manufacturer PEL (albeit copies of continental designs). Note the light fittings and the elegant plain rug. He is pragmatic and the other half of the room has a more decorative theme with a dramatic moon-shaped suite.
Apparently the house sold within the week of opening and was a critical success. In recent years it has been lovingly restored, even to the point of the front-graden planting. Lovely to see.
It seems to be less well known that the EAW were brave enough to commission two All Electric Houses. The second one was about a mile away in Sneyd Park and was identical although not kitted out as a show house by Gane’s. Sadly it has suffered very badly over the years – I can’t bring myself to post a photo.
There is more information on the Electrical Association for Women and the house on the Institute for Engineering and Technology website and also the University of Westminster’s page ‘Electricity for Women – The EAW in the inter-war years.’. Thanks to Chris Yeo, Curator at the Ken Stradling Collection, Bristol for the black and white images.