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VM Inspiration: Isokon and the Lawn Road flats

One sunny day soon rush to see the National Trust’s exhibition of the Isokon building, otherwise known as the Lawn Road flats, and enjoy a touch of visual merchandising inspiration and retro glamour.

The Isokon Gallery, housed in the former car park of the block (a short walk from Belsize Park tube station), showcases a lovely display of Isokon brand furniture, much of it still in production. Also shown are salvaged parts of the original Lawn Road apartments, and documention of their rather infamous past.

Isokon is a conflation of Isometric Unit Construction, with a nod to the admired notions of Constructivism. The business was founded in 1929. 

The 1934-built Grade 1 listed apartments were intended as a model for future city houses and flats. Resembling a cruise ship (the perfect city of the future in contemporaneous modernist architect Le Corbusier’s eyes), Isokon was aninspiration for furniture designer Jack Pritchard (1899 – 1992), who lived with his bacteriologist wife, Molly, on the top floor. Unusually, the Hampstead apartment block, was a radical experiment in social living as well as in housing.

The front door of the top floor apartment provides a taster, covered in a glorious, shiny, copper laminate. It is also the kind of surface that works perfectly as a backdrop in visual merchandising: eye-catchingly bright, but neutral enough to place almost any merchandise in front of it. Tom Dixon is following in celebrated footsteps by using the decorative qualities of copper.

Containing 22 apartments, four double flats, three studio flats, and a large garage the development was intended for maximum utility and comfort. The apartments each had a small kitchenette - it was intended that residents would eat communally in a ground floor dining room. This never really worked and by 1937, when the Isobar was added beside the garage, the 50 residents had become members of the ‘Half Hundred Club,’ for which they paid a monthly subscription.

We might consider the apartment kitchenettes to be rather minimal, but their fitted nature set them well above most small houses of the period. The lined-up saucepans look fantastic.

The Isokon business, which it must be said was never profitable, was helped along by academic and ‘starchitect’ Marcel Breuer (1902 – 1981), who designed the bentwood tables and chairs including the Long chair, above, for Isokon. Specializing in bentwood furniture made in Eastern Europe, the business ran until 1939 when political events stopped supply. It was revived in 1963 with revised elements designed by Ernest Race (1913 - 1964) and remains available (see link below).

Aside from the Long chair (retailed by Skandium today), the other iconic item the company produced was the Penguin donkey, designed by Egon Reiss in 1939. Occasionally seen as part of modernist VM window displays, this piece of occasional furniture went through several tweaks to the design but retains its 1930s glamour.

Residents of the building famously included: Walter Gropius, who became Controller of Design for Isokon, living in the apartments for three years before he left for the USA; Bauhaus tutor and designer and painter Mohogy-Nagy; author Agatha Christie, who lived here for some years; and Donald Deutsch, who recruited Cambridge spies including Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and Anthony Blunt.

In 1972 the building was sold to the local council. It declined considerably and became derelict. It was refurbished by Avanti Architects in 2003, granted Grade 1 listed status, and is now occupied by key workers. Apartments are occasionally for sale.

The exterior is rendered and painted a delicate, pale shrimp pink. To today’s cynical eyes it might look rather like the inter-war brick council blocks that litter London, but remember: it was the first. It is hugely interesting to see that today London’s interwar council blocks are being renovated. Indeed, one visible from the DLR near Shadwell/Limehouse, has recently been rendered… and painted a delicate shrimp pink.

Forget the current passion for Scandi looks that we see in interior-themed VM windows, and enjoy British modernism: Hampstead had it first.

Open Sat and Sun 11- 4pm, until October.