Gordon Russell’s life and work
“He was probably the first designer who was involved in a total lifestyle…he was interested in the product but he was also interested in the life that surrounded it. He was interested in the garden, he was interested in the food, in hotel keeping…in the whole. Very much the same sort of thing that I’m involved in. He was much more than just a designer and maker.” Sir Terence Conran
The Great Broadway Adventure
The Russell Family in Broadway 1904
The Gordon Russell story began in 1904 when he was 12 and his father bought the Lygon Arms in Broadway and set about turning the inn into one of the most renowned country house hotels in England. The antiquity and architecture of the Lygon Arms fired the young Gordon’s vivid imagination and interest in design. At the same time he was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which had taken root in the area.
Gordon left school at 15 to work in the family business and he was put in charge of the repair workshops that serviced the hotel. His close observation of designer-makers at work gave him an understanding of the importance of knowing how an object is made in order to produce precisely drawn designs.
In 1914 Gordon signed up and served during the war, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He returned to Broadway and pursed his interest in furniture design with renewed energy. Gordon began to create well-designed affordable furniture with the skilled use of both hand and machine. Gradually he emerged as one of the first modern designers of the twentieth century, with his early designs influenced by the Arts and Crafts style.
In 1921 Gordon married Toni Denning. Three years later he bought a plot of land near Broadway and built a fine Arts and Crafts house, Kingcombe, where he moved in with his family with four children. The house and gardens became Gordon Russell’s utopia. It was an all consuming passion and building work never relented.
In the 1920s Gordon began to exhibit his own designs, first at Cheltenham Arts and Crafts Show, then at the Victoria and Albert Museum, finally at the Paris Exhibition, where in 1925 he won a gold medal for a cabinet made in the Arts and Crafts style of Ernest Gimson. Gordon Russell’s name began to acquire the status of a quality cabinetmaker. At this time a whole range of machinery was introduce to the Broadway workshops for batch production, but the atmosphere remained one of a workshop not a factory.
By the end of the 1920s Gordon Russell made decided to stop designing furniture and focus on managing the growing Broadway operation. He recognized that there was a move towards Modernism and if the Company was to meet this challenge it would require a radical approach to design. He persuaded his younger brother, Dick, who had studied architecture, to take over the design duties. Dick’s talent blossomed and he became an important figure in 20th Century British design.
Over the next decade the company took a quantum leap forward from its early Arts and Crafts roots and was recognized as being at the forefront of European Design. During this time Gordon Russell was approached by the Murphy Radio Company to design radio cabinets for its growing business. This led to a remarkable series of designs and at the height of mass production in London, 800 people were employed in making thousands of cabinets, which are now recognized as design ‘icons’.
Sir Gordon Russell at Kingcombe, his home in Chipping Camden ‘with some of the things I like’
The Second World War saw the Broadway workshops ceasing to manufacture furniture and turning towards wartime production for the air force. In 1942 Gordon was invited to join the Utility Furniture Advisory Committee and in 1947 was appointed CBE, the year he joined the Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council), eventually becoming its Director. In 1955 he was knighted for his services to Design and British industry.
Towards the end of his life Gordon Russell’s attention turned back to Kingcombe, which became the centre of a creative renaissance for him and for the first time since the 1930s he returned to designing furniture for the house.
In 1980 Gordon Russell died leaving a lasting legacy that has shaped Britain’s vibrant design industry.