Report

The Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation launches

London

8 May 2015

Wednesday night saw the launch of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation at London’s Royal College of Art, as well as an associated series of design education prizes.

The Foundation is a design education charity founded in honour of, and named for, two of the most significant 20th-century British designers. Robin and Lucienne Day are seminal figures in post-war design. Although married, the pair worked separately, and achieved distinction in different fields. Nonetheless, their work was united by a common belief in the modernist project and an optimism about mass-produced design’s capacity to improve lives.

Robin (1915–2010) was a prolific furniture designer, whose groundbreaking 1963 Polypropylene chair for Hille became the best-selling chair ever made. Lucienne (1917-2010), a textile designer, created vibrant, nature-inflected textiles for Heals (1951's famous Calyx chief amongst them) that resonated with post-war optimism and successfully blended modern art aesthetics with accessible commercial products.

The foundation, which aims to safeguard the Days’ legacies as well as encouraging designers throughout their educations, has been founded by the Days’ only daughter, Paula Day. “They died in 2010 and soon after the vultures descended to scavenge their designs and even their names,” said Paula at the launch of the foundation. “It was a shocking awakening.”

The main announcement of the evening was a raft of design education prizes. The Robin Day Furniture Design Award 2015, will send 100 state schools copies of Lesley Jackson’s book Modern British Furniture to award to their best GCSE design and technology student; while the The Royal College of Art Robin & Lucienne Day prize for ethical and sustainable design will be given out annually within the university, both Robin and Lucienne’s alma mater, to the student whose work best embodies the Days’ ethos for sustainable design.

The awards are a poignant endorsement of the benefits of design education, particularly in light of today's reelection of the Conservative party in the UK General Election. The Conservative government has previously put forward proposals to remove design and other creative subjects from the compulsory school curriculum after age 14, as well as being forced to admit that its draft design and technology syllabus for secondary schools was “dumbed down”.

“[My parents’] own careers had been advanced hugely by winning scholarships and prizes and we should remember this,” said Paula, who showed a copy of Drawing, Design and Craft Work, a book that Robin Day was awarded in 1929 by Wycombe Technical Institute (where he was a student) for proficiency in art. “Who knows what difference this made,” said Paula. “Perhaps it encouraged him to believe that if he worked hard he could make something of his talent. We’re starting where my father started: an eager and talented boy who won prizes at his technical college.”

The wider foundation, Paula, argued would be run according to tenets by which her parents worked, namely independence and equality. “We are the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation,” she said. “Given the pressures on women, especially when my mother was young, it’s quite extraordinary that she never let her design career be subsumed into her husband’s…The foundation values and upholds both legacies equally.”

It is a position that stands in contrast to reception of the legacy of Charles and Ray Eames, American contemporaries to whom the Days were often compared. In the popular narratives surrounding the Eames, Ray's contribution to their design work has often been overshadowed by that of her husband. It is only in recent years that this imbalance has begun to be addressed in design criticism and history.

The foundation has already donated the Days’ design archives to the V&A; the contents of Robin’s last studio to London’s Design Museum; and digitised 13,000 of Robin’s design photographs taken from the 1940s through to the end of his life. “It’s a fabulous historical resource,” said Paula.

Both foundation members and outside speakers argued for the continued relevance of the Days’ work to contemporary design at the announcement on Wednesday. “This couple were modern to the core,” said the Royal College of Art’s Professor Jeremy Myerson, one of the event's speakers. "In the expression and execution of their work they were totally committed to finding new ways to do and make things… they were absolute in their beliefs throughout their lives; modern design and its positive impact was their way.”

Paula was also quick to point to her parents’ ongoing legacy and particularly that of her father’s Polypropylene chair, which remains in production. “Sometimes people say, what’s so special about your father’s chair, every hall in the country is full of cheap, plastic chairs,” she said. “I could say, 'Yes, but his was the first.' Robin Day and Hilley invented the idea of using polypropylene to make injection-moulded chair shells. Or I could say that his was the best-selling one, as it’s probably the best-selling chair of all time. But what I actually say is that it’s easy: 'My father’s chair is the beautiful one.'"