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From Gatwick to Glasgow and back to Glory

By Jason Richards

It’s funny how vintage furniture transcends not only the decades but also the country.

The Gatwick chair was designed in 1958 by the legendary post-war designer Robin Day. The architects of Gatwick Airport, Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, commissioned Robin to design a range of furniture for the new luxurious concourse and lounges and the chairs were so successful that they later went into production.

Robin Day (1915–2010) transformed British design after World War II by pioneering a new modern approach. He experimented with new materials in inexpensive furniture for manufacturers like Hille.

Like many architects and designers during the optimistic post-war period, Robin Day believed in the transformative power of modern design to make the world a better place. He rose to prominence during the 1951 Festival of Britain, which provided an ideal showcase for his talents. Robin’s steel and plywood furniture was displayed in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. He also designed the furniture for the Royal Festival Hall.

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.

It was in 1958 that Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall were drawn to the prestigious talents of Robin. 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, stemmed from the enforced austerity of the war years, when materials and labour were in short supply. This ethos runs through the Gatwick chair and bench. A square, stainless steel frame with a subtle brushed finish supports two leather cushions via a system of webbing. The simple yet classic lines provided a minimal yet comfortable solution for the waiting areas around Gatwick Airport.

In 1970 some areas of the airport were in need of refurbishment and it was during one of these periods that a young architect, who worked for Frederick Gibberd, spotted four of the iconic Gatwick chairs in a skip. His keen eye knew their heritage and he was able to rescue them. The chairs remained in the office of his architectural practice until his son finally inherited them. When he took them under his wing they were worn and tatty and in need of some tender love and care. As an artist his son was able to appreciate the style and functionality of these chairs. However, when he recently moved to Glasgow he was unable to retain the chairs within the family and decided to sell them.

This is, of course, where I came in. So on a wet day in January I set out from Harrogate to make the 408-mile round trip to Glasgow to pick up the chairs and to restore them to their former glory.

In 2012 I took a 598-mile road trip to collect a Robin Day sofa bed and spent just 45 minutes in Bournemouth. However, my time in Glasgow was limited to just 20 minutes as the chairs were loaded into the S-MAX in the rain.

As I closed the door the car was soon filled with the smell of old, worn leather. An aroma that gave me a warm, comforting feeling. As always, the spacious S-MAX swallowed up the miles on the return leg as it sat at 70 mph on cruise control and I travelled home with a large grin on my face and a boot full of delightful vintage chairs.

All I need now is to source the right leather to bring these glorious chairs back to life to take pride of place in the new entrance reception I am designing for my house. I may not be waiting for any planes as I sit there but the chairs’ journey from Gatwick to Glasgow and back to Glory will make a great talking point for any visitors as they arrive and breeze through. As long as they don’t leave their baggage unattended all will be well.

Please note that the original photograph of the Gatwick chairs in the airport comes courtesy of the RIBA Library Photographs Collection.