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598 for 1958

By Jason Richards 

Not the latest promotion for a new bingo hall but the number of miles I drove in one day to collect an iconic piece of mid-century furniture by the legendary post-war designer Robin Day.

This was not your average day trip to Bournemouth, a stroll along the sea front, afternoon tea in a quaint café followed by an evening in the bustling seaside town. Instead it involved a 12-hour round trip fuelled by my passion for vintage furniture with just 45 minutes spent in Bournemouth loading the sofa bed into my S-MAX as the winter sun faded and the clear blue sky paled into darkness. 

My passion for mid-century furniture began many years ago, although it is only in the last few years that I have been able to collect a number of items designed by the furniture designer Robin Day. 

Robin Day (1915–2010) and his textile designer wife Lucienne (1917–2010) transformed British design after World War II by pioneering a new modern idiom. He experimented with new materials in inexpensive furniture for manufacturers like Hille and she revitalised textile design with vibrant patterns for Heals. 

Like many architects and designers during the optimistic post-war period, the Days believed in the transformative power of modern design to make the world a better place. They rose to prominence during the 1951 Festival of Britain, which provided an ideal showcase for their talents. Lucienne’s arresting abstract-patterned textiles and wallpapers were displayed alongside Robin’s steel and plywood furniture in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. Robin also designed the furniture for the Royal Festival Hall. 

Significantly, the Days were already in their mid-thirties by the time of the Festival, having trained at the Royal College of Art in London before World War II. This explains the strength and maturity of their early post-war designs as they had been honing their ideas throughout the previous decade. It also explains their astonishing productivity throughout the 1950s. The Festival of Britain, the Days realised, was an opportunity not to be missed. 

Robin’s success brought him to the attention of a British manufacturer, Hille, which had specialised in period furniture, but was eager to modernise. Seizing this opportunity, he designed a series of simple, functional chairs, tables, desks and storage units that harnessed the latest wood and metal-working techniques. Many of his designs were low-cost, such as the beech-framed 1950 Hillestak chair with its moulded plywood seat. Whereas pre-war furniture was solid and ponderous, Day’s designs were pared down and seemed to float above the ground, as with his 1952 Reclining chair. “What one needs in today’s small rooms is to see over and under one’s furniture,” he told a journalist in 1955. 

Robin’s inventive response to technology reflected the positive, forward-looking mood of the early post-war era. His sparing use of materials and economical approach to construction, using the minimum number of components, as in the 1953 Q Stak chair, stemmed from the enforced austerity of the war years, when materials and labour were in short supply. These habits became deeply ingrained in his design psyche. From the outset Robin Day was a deeply moral and highly principled designer, who was not interested in making a design statement, but in solving practical problems in the most rigorous, efficient and cost-effective way. “A good design must fulfil its purpose well, be soundly constructed, and should express in its design this purpose and construction,” he stated in 1962. 

It was during his time designing for Hille that Robin designed the award-winning sofa bed. It was produced in two versions, a single which was designed in 1958, and a double where the back folded down and the base slid out to make a large double bed which followed a couple of years later. 

It was one of these sofa beds that I had driven the length of the country to collect. 

As always, the spacious S-MAX swallowed up the vintage load and I set off on the return leg with the winter’s light slowly fading. The 299 miles home soon sped by as the S-MAX sat at 70 mph on cruise control and I travelled home in comfort. 

Exactly 12 hours after I left my house in Harrogate I arrived back home, complete with the latest addition to my Robin Day collection. 

All I needed now was to attach a set of racing wheels to the sofa bed and I would be able to race in comfort, rather than in the usual cramped confines of my racing wheelchair. Perhaps I will just reserve the pleasure of the sofa bed for after training with a cup of coffee and fond memories of my intrepid journey.

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