Thursday, 5 April 2012

Murphy's Radio

       Many will know the colour and style of Cheryl Cole's hair, few will know who Cheryl Cole is and everybody knows who Simon Cowell is. Few will know that in 1934 Gordon Russell made Murphy radios and few will know who Gordon Russell was.
       It was on BBC 4's Today programme that I woke up today to the words  'Gordon Russell was one of the greatest designers of the Twentieth Century'. Not only one of the greatest designers, I have chosen to refer to Sir Gordon Russell as 'The Father of 20th Century British Furniture Design' in my film documentary 'Furniture today 3' (available at 
       Gordon Russell was a hugely important figure having been involved with The Festival of Britain, The Design Council and Utility Furniture. It is perhaps Utility Furniture that strikes the main chord with me; functional simple furniture designs born out of necessity when there were material shortages during the Second World War and made in modest workshops around the country. A lesson indeed for furniture students to toughen up and design to a disciplined brief but above all making furniture accessible. 
      Gordon Russell although inspired by the Arts & Crafts and in particular the understated forms of Ernest Gimson, differed with that movement in his total acceptance of the machine embracing it with hand skill. Such snobbery or indeed ignorance still exists today not least in the minds of a small section of the public who expect a crafted object to be totally made by hand.  Even in the sweat shops of India and China the machine is fast replacing handskill. Curiously, William Morris a pioneer of the English Arts & Crafts movement cried 'Let us be masters of machines not their slaves', but his work was predominantly taken up by the Bloomsbury Set and still assumes a whiff of exclusivity today.
     The BBC Radio Four design competition for amateurs to design a radio sounds a great inititiative. Let's hope some innovative wooden radios will persuade the judges. For many years I have listened to a Roberts radio in my workshop, a plywood chassis housed in solid Teak. Today Roberts Radio fill the shelves of Currys stores shining in their glossy plastic. Arguably modern technology transcends the superiority of wood as a sound baffle although I still have some massive "Class A" KEF speakers I built in 1970 using chipboard.
    One of the features of Gordon Russell Utility furniture was the use of thin plywood for door panels. Plywood for much of my furniture making career was looked down upon. A local furniture shop declined my plywood rocking chairs saying 'the public don't like plywood'. Russell, of course, was building airplanes for the War Effort and plywood was clearly a superior material then. 
       Unlike Murphy's Law, Murphy radios seldom went wrong!

A Murphy radio built at the Gordon Russell factory in Broadway in1934
Veneered plywood would have been used in the construction.