Born in Cricklewood on 20th May 1892 Sydney Gordon Russell was nine years old when his family moved to Repton and then, in 1904, to the Cotswold village of Broadway, Worcestershire where his father turned the Lygon Arms into a country house hotel. His attendance at Chipping Campden school meant that Russell saw the vernacular traditions of local craftsmanship and it also brought him into direct contact with Ernest Gimson and the Guild of Handicraft.
Russell, who described himself as a ‘Designer of Furniture’, served in France during the First World War and was awarded the Military Cross. This experience of mass destruction focused his ambitions on creating a post-war aesthetic and he viewed modern design as a necessary act of reparation.
On his return, the joiners who worked under Russell at his father’s repair shop for the Lygon, showed Russell the intricacies of furniture making. Russell first exhibited his work, in 1922, at the Cheltenham exhibition of Cotswolds arts and crafts. Two years later his furniture was included in the Palace of the Arts at the Empire Exhibition, Wembley, and in 1925 he won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition for his walnut inlaid cabinet and stand, which can now be seen in the Gordon Russell Design Museum in Broadway. An exhibitor at the 1935 British Art in Industry exhibition, organized by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the Royal Academy (RA), Russell served on the Advisory Committee for Furniture.
During the Second World War Russell turned his factory over to the manufacture of ammunition boxes, high precision aircraft models and parts for the wings of RAF Mosquito planes. Appointed Chairman of the Utility Furniture Design Panel in 1943 Russell took the opportunity to introduce simple, rational design to a wider public. When the Museum of Modern Art of New York organized an international competition for low cost furniture in 1948 they appointed Russell as one of the judges.
Russell became a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1940 and was appointed the Master of the Faculty in 1947. He was one of the first Fellows of the Society of Industrial Artists (1943) and as one of the original members of the Council of Industrial Design (COID), and Director from 1947, Russell took a leading role in the organization of the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition. His company, Gordon Russell Ltd, showed a number of designs and in 1948 Russell was able to demonstrate how various firms, by collaborating with the Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), set about designing industrial products in the Design at Work exhibition organized by the Faculty and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). The accompanying booklet included a piece by Russell on ‘Good Design and Better Living’. Russell wrote a joint letter, with the RSA Chairman of Council, to The Times supporting the call for a Festival of Britain in 1951. He believed it provided an opportunity for the words ‘Made in Britain’ to be ‘established as synonymous with quality in its fullest sense, and so open the gateway to a new and better era of prosperity’. As well as being involved in the arrangements for the Festival itself, Russell provided the chairs and tables for the reception area of the Royal Pavilion and contributed to the review, Design in the Festival.
Russell took an active interest in the work of the RDIs and the RSA. He chaired a number of talks including one by Mrs Darcy Braddell in 1942 on ‘Common Sense in Furniture Design’, as part of the RSA’s series on ‘The Post War Home: its Interior and Equipment’. In the discussion Russell spoke about Swedish attitudes to furniture design. Six years later he joined several other RDIs on a visit to Sweden. In his report published in the RSA Journal, Russell said that not only had they seen many examples of Swedish design, their visit had given him the opportunity, as Master, to present Edward Hald with his RDI diploma. Having seen examples of the work of Elias Svedberg, in the National Historical Museum and the Nordiska Museum, Russell was delighted to welcome the designer when he came to the RSA in 1949 to talk about ‘Museum Display’. Russell encouraged the RSA to hold a meeting in the same year on the question, ‘Is Pride in Workmanship Declining?’. He was invited, with RDIs James Gardner and Ashley Havinden, by Deutscher Werkbund to attend the Darmstadter Gesprach in 1952 and in 1961 he attended the dinner given by the Faculty for Walter Gropius HonRDI.
The RSA awarded Russell their silver medal for his 1949 talk on ‘The Industrial Designer’s Responsibility’ in which he said ‘nothing is more important today than that a common language of design should grow’. He took part in the RSA discussion evening on ‘The Future of Shop Design and Window Display'. Two years later he gave a talk on ‘The Designer’s Status in Industry’ and in 1960 he spoke about ‘Modern Trends in Industrial Design’. Two years before his death he spoke at RSA on how he had spent his life trying to demonstrate that hand and machine could be used successfully together for mass produced goods, while still retaining the quality of the design. He called his talk ‘Skill’ as it was a word, he said, ‘which conveys something to ordinary people in a way which Design does not’. He wrote obituaries for several RDIs for the RSA Journal: A.B. Read, James Hogan, Percy Delf Smith, Harold Stabler and Walter Dorwin Teague. He sat on the RSA’s committee for a planned exhibition of European Medals 1930-1955, took an active interest in the work of the RSA’s Industrial Design Bursaries competition and opened the 1964 exhibition of prize-winning work.
Awarded a CBE in 1947 and Knighted in 1955 Russell was awarded a second Royal Warrant by Queen Elizabeth II in 1961. On a visit to the Parsons School of Design in New York in 1956 Russell was presented with their Medal for Distinguished Service and in 1962 he was the recipient of the RSA’s most prestigious award, the Albert Medal, ‘for services to industrial design’.
Appointed a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1959 and Master of the Art Workers Guild in 1962 Russell served on many committees and panels to raise the profile of design education and design quality. Russell published Looking at Furniture in 1964 and his autobiography, Designer’s Trade in 1968. John Gloag, in an obituary for the RSA Journal, described Russell as ‘pre-eminently a man of the twentieth century’. He added that Russell had ‘restored to contemporary life an appreciation…of the colour, figuring and innate decorative quality of wood’.
A number of commemorative events were held in 1981 to record the extent of his influence on craftsmanship and design, from an appreciation on the BBC TV programme ‘Pebble Mill’ to an evening ‘In Commemoration of Sir Gordon Russell’ at the RSA, organized by the Faculty of RDIs, Gordon Russell Ltd and the Design Council. Professor Goodden RDI said that Russell ‘cared for the quality of life. Quality in design and manufacture were an aspect of life which came within his compass and to which he gave hand, head and heart with telling effect’. An exhibition, on Russell’s life and work, covered practically all of the ground floor of the Design Centre in Haymarket (another of Russell’s legacies).
The story of his life and work, and his continuing influence on design can be seen In the Gordon Russell Design Museum opened in 2008 in Broadway, Worcestershire.
Helen R. Auty, Sir Gordon Russell CBE MC RDI (1892-1980) (London: William Shipley Group, 2012)
Jeremy Myerson, Gordon Russell: Designer of Furniture (London: Design Council, 1992)
Ken & Kate Baynes, Gordon Russell (London" Design Council, 1981)
Gordon Russell, Designer's Trade (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968)
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Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-R-69-1