SIR GORDON RUSSELL
Gordon Russell was influential in virtually every aspect of British design in the 20th century.
He spearheaded the government’s wartime utility furniture scheme, influenced the Festival of Britain, and shaped the Design Council into an institution which has been copied all over the world.
Gordon Russell Ltd., the company that he founded at Broadway in Worcestershire, was in the forefront of the small and select group of British companies that sought high standards on mass-produced goods.
The radio and television cabinets made for Murphy Radio under his direction and designed by his brother Dick, have become classics of modern design.
Born at Cricklewood in1892, Gordon Russell spent his early years at Repton, moving at Broadway when his parents bought the Lygon Arms Hotel in 1904.
He continued his education at the Grammar School at Chipping Campden. Shortly afterwards he was put in charge of a workshop where three or four men repaired old furniture, much of it for the Lygon Arms.
At the outbreak of the first World War Russell joined the territorial battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment.
He became an officer in 1917, and in 1918 was awarded the Military Cross for organising a counter-attack.
After demobilisation Gordon and his brother Don returned home to the Cotswolds where they joined their parents in the business changing the name from SB Russell to Russell & Sons.
Gordon Russell began by putting the family antiques business on its feet, but soon turned his attention to designing new furniture, beginning with a marriage bed to celebrate his marriage to his assistant, Toni Denning in 1921.
He went on to produce other designs, all of which were individual pieces as opposed to matching suites of furniture, and held the first exhibition of these new pieces in the Cheltenham Art Gallery in 1922.
The following year he decided to expand the business and invested in a larger workshop with modern machinery.
Russell believed that by creating high quality mass-produced furniture he could resolve the conflict between hand craftsmanship and machine manufacture which had dominated modern design, and he explained his philosophy in a pamphlet entitled “Honesty & the crafts” in order to appeal to the new generation of furniture buyers.
In 1929 Gordon Russell Ltd. was founded, but within weeks the Wall Street Crash had virtually destroyed the firm’s considerable American market.
The English market for expensive furniture at their new London showrooms was also seriously affected, but the design and manufacture of the Murphy radio cabinets helped to fill the gaps as well as giving Gordon Russell some invaluable experience of the commercial world.
During the next decade his design management put Gordon Russell Ltd in the forefront of the small and select group of British companies that sought high standards on mass-produced goods.
In 1940, Gordon Russell resigned as managing director of the company, and was elected Royal Designer for Industry.
There followed a long period of public service, which included a stint as chair of the panel designing “Utility Furniture” (1943-59), and director of the Council of Industrial Design (1947-59).
In recognition of his services, Gordon Russell was knighted in 1955, and was awarded the Gold Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1962.
His health deteriorated in 1978 when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and he died two years later at the family home in Kingcombe.