Aalto vs. Breuer


15 August 2019

On 8 November 1933, the upmarket London department store Fortnum & Mason opened Wood Only, an exhibition of Alvar Aalto’s furniture organised by journalist Philip Morton Shand and Architectural Review magazine. It was a landmark event, which first showcased to British consumers and designers the aesthetic potential of plywood, a material previously dismissed for its cheapness. The following year, Shand and his fellow architectural writer Geoffrey Boumphrey founded Finmar, a company with exclusive rights to import Aalto’s furniture into Britain.

That same year, 1934, Shand was instrumental in helping the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius flee Nazi Germany and set up home in London, in the newly opened Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead. This, Britain’s first modernist apartment building, was designed by Canadian architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard, a young couple who had drawn up the brief for a community of small “Minimal flats” aimed at young, middle-class professionals. The initial residents were drawn from the Pritchards’ social circle of artists, writers, scientists and academics. Within months, Gropius was joined by two other Bauhäuslers fleeing Nazi persecution: László Moholy-Nagy, who had run the school’s influential preliminary course, and Marcel Breuer, who had been master of the furniture workshop.

Jack Pritchard was employed by the Estonian- British plywood company Venesta (a portmanteau of “veneer Estonia”) to seek out and develop new markets for its products. In August 1935, he and Shand travelled to Finland where they met the latter’s new business partner, Aalto. Aalto showed them around the Korhonen furniture factory in Turku and his Paimio Sanatorium, where they saw his pioneering plywood furniture designs in their intended context. The experience made a great impression on Pritchard and within two months of his return to London, he launched the Isokon Furniture Company to make and sell plywood furniture. Pritchard had researched Finmar’s turnover, which was then running at just over £350 per week, and estimated that with his own experience and by working with progressive furniture stores across the country he should be able to double that within three years. Pritchard calculated that he needed £3,000 to set up the business, £1,000 of which he put up himself. He pitched to Graham Reid, director of Venesta, to fund the rest, claiming it would create a new market for Venesta’s plywood and that they could learn much from the “mistakes” of others, including Finmar. Although Reid eventually declined, the letter provides insight into the competitive edge Pritchard felt Isokon would have: “Here furniture made entirely of plywood has been designed and made in Finland. A good deal of this furniture is questionable as to comfort, but we can profit from their experience. We should begin aiming for the ‘better class market’. Finmar did very well in starting at Fortnum & Mason’s [sic] with an exhibition and a great deal of palaver. During this time the product would be sold at a relatively high price and as the demand and production increased the price could be progressively lowered. This was the plan followed when the Chrysler firm was introduced to the snob market, after which it was readily lapped up in the cheaper markets when the price was reduced. The Finmar experience is worth recording here.”

Pritchard had visited the Dessau Bauhaus in March 1931 and had been deeply impressed by the art-school buildings. He appointed Walter Gropius as the Isokon Furniture Company’s controller of design, Moholy- Nagy as its graphics designer, and, in January 1936, Marcel Breuer as chief designer. He was well aware of the prestige these three giants of the modern movement would bestow on his fledgling operation. Breuer’s first project for Pritchard was a new version of the aluminium reclining chair he had designed for Embru in Zurich, but this time executed in plywood. On 9 June 1936, Pritchard filed UK patent 812856 for the Isokon Long Chair (BC1) and for a shorter version, known as BC2. The chair’s seat was formed from a single sheet of bent birch plywood, attached to four sinuous supports. The elements of the chair were stabilised by a crosspiece beneath the seat, which completed the frame. Breuer outlined his construction method thus: “Instead of building up a structure which is complete in itself, so far as the load carrying members are concerned[,] and then applying a seat to it, I now use the frame members which only become a complete structure when parts of them are spanned by the seat.”

Breuer refined the Long Chair’s design over the next few months and production began in 1937. The seats were produced and bent at the A.M. Luther factory in Tallinn, the mother company of Venesta and the European leader in bending plywood at the time, while the frames were made in London by carpenters Mansell & Pfeifer, in a workshop set up next to the Lawn Road Flats. The final version was offered in natural birch, walnut or zebrano with a full-length cushion.

On 3 April 1937, Pritchard received a letter from Andrews & Byrne, patent agents for Aalto, that read: “A leaflet describing your Long Chair has been sent to us by Finmar Ltd., and it looks very much from the illustration as if this may be made in accordance with Mr Aalto’s patent No. 431563. From the illustration it is, of course, not possible for us to say whether any of the resident parts are constructed of bent layers glued together and arranged so that their curvature is increased by loading, but the U-shaped members forming the front and back supports (especially the former) look very much as if they are.”

Such accusations of plagiarism were embarrassing for Pritchard. Shand was a good friend and his wife Sibyl was now managing the Lawn Road Flats. Moholy-Nagy was close to Alvar and Aino Aalto and, after visiting them in Finland in 1930, had named his daughter Hattula after a Finnish village. Marcel Breuer angrily denied any similarity between the two designs. “I do not see any reason for stopping the manufacture of my design,” he retorted. Breuer had experienced a long-running copyright battle in Germany with Mart Stam and Anton Lorenz over a tubular steel cantilevered chair and did not want to engage in a similar conflict again. Jack Pritchard contacted his solicitors Gill, Jennings & Every-Clayton: “We want to keep on friendly terms with the Finmar people. And if they have any leg to stand on at all – even though it might be a very slender one – we might consider taking a licence, for a nominal fee of £1 a year.”

His solicitors responded: “Finmar haven’t a leg to stand on[...] and Byrne who is a highly ingenious and rather eccentric Irishman, must know it. His letter is really brilliant[...] The point briefly is that the whole of the Aalto patent is restricted to furniture made by first bending individual plies or sheets and then gluing them together. Plywood bent after being made is not within the patent.”

Pritchard also sought advice from Henry Rutherford, his boss at Venesta, who suggested he search through old Thonet patents for early bentwood furniture. He needed to find evidence of the prior publication or use in Britain of a piece of furniture constructed in such a way that when a load is applied to it, the curvature of the springy parts of the member is increased, thus predating and invalidating Aalto’s patent.

Over the next few months, Pritchard painstakingly checked through patents and scoured old publications. At last he found what he was searching for in the August 1933 edition of Shand’s Architects’ Journal. It was an image of Alvar Aalto’s Armchair 42, or Small Paimio, designed for the Paimio Sanitorium. The seat and back were created from one piece of form-pressed plywood. The patent had been filed on 8 November 1933, the same day that the exhibition at Fortnum & Mason opened but three months after the chair had appeared in the UK press.

Pritchard’s lawyer informed him: “I have seen Byrne and left the Architects’ Journal with him. He had not seen this before, and was, I think[,] a little shaken[...] and Mr Byrne agreed in present mood of the courts it would be extremely difficult for him to succeed.”

On 23 June 1937 an agreement was drafted by lawyers on both sides, stating that Isokon should: “take a licence and should mark their chairs with Aalto’s patent number and that they should tell competitors[,] or customers if necessary, that they are working under Aalto’s patent and generally give the appearance of thinking Aalto’s patent good. Further the licence should specify that each party should keep off the designs of the other whether those designs are registered or not.” The one point on which agreement could not be reached was whether any payment should be made. Isokon stated it was “willing to pay a truly nominal sum, of say £1 a year”. But the agreement was never signed. Instead, the Isokon Furniture Company and Aalto’s newly formed furniture firm Artek simply agreed to “keep off the designs of the other”. At the end of 1937, Breuer left Britain to follow Gropius to the US and Harvard, where he would go on to focus more on architecture than industrial design.

The initial acrimony of the legal actions between Aalto and Pritchard seems short-lived. In December 1939, after the Soviet Union invaded Finland, Pritchard wrote to Aalto expressing his horror, telling him: “If you get out and wish to come to live in this country, you will get the best welcome that we can give you.” The following year, Molly Pritchard, who had escaped the Blitz and moved in with Walter and Ise Gropius in Lincoln, Massachusetts, lunched with Aalto and wrote to her husband that Aalto was most charming and could perhaps teach them more about the plywood- furniture business. Pritchard had his final encounter with Aalto at the H55 exhibition in Helsingborg, Sweden in 1955. By 1975, a year before Aalto died, Pritchard wrote to his own solicitors to ask if the agreement with Aalto was ever signed: he simply could not remember.