We have all been reading up on our Ernest Race history following Ocee International’s acquisition of Race Furniture.
Ernest Race was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1913 and after graduating in interior design from London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, he joined the lighting firm Troughton & Young as a draughtsman. After visiting a weaving village in India in 1937, he returned to London and opened a shop to sell textiles and carpets, of his own design, in Knightsbridge.
During the war Race was a fireman in London. Post-war he answered an advertisement by engineer, J.W. Noel Jordan who wanted a collaborator to design utilitarian, mass-produced furniture. After the war materials were scarce and the Government ‘Utility Scheme’ of 1942 rationed wood, and stated that any available timber was to be used for the reconstruction of houses.
In 1945-46 Jordan and Race had to find a method of producing affordable furnishings from the materials that were not restricted.
At the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 1946, exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’, Jordan and Race unveiled a collection of cast-aluminium furniture, included dining, lounge and case furniture, from re-cast aluminium that had been used for wartime aircraft and armament manufacture.
The manufacturing process was revolutionary and used metals and improvised or salvaged materials. For ease of assembly and shipping, the BA3 dining chairs were assembled from a basic selection of five interchangeable components produced from sand-cast and hand-polished aluminium. By 1947 die-cast aluminium was manufactured by a technique previously used for making incendiary bomb casings.
Race developed an ingenious system for the production of table tops using Holoplast, a panelling of laminated plastic with a scratch-resistant, polished mahogany finish. A thin ribbon of aluminium was heat-shrunk around the edge to conceal the honeycomb edge of the table surface. The tapering legs and light appearance contrasted with the heavier pre-war tables and was seen to precipitate the move towards the 1950s Contemporary look.
The metal furniture and Holoplast tables were enthusiastically received. Early orders included 1500 chairs and tables for troop-ships that were bringing home demobilised servicemen.
Both the commercial and private sector embraced the products with Race’s own London showroom stylishly decorated with plain white walls and coconut matting to emphasise the elegance of his furniture. The BA3 chair was awarded the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale in 1953.
It was at the 1951 the Festival of Britain that Race’s Springbok, stacking steel-rod framed chair with elastic cords for the seat, and the Antelope chair and bench became known to a much wider audience. The simple moulded plywood seat was painted in the Festival colours of yellow, blue, red or grey.
The Antelope chair became a leading example of post-war chair design. On the Design Council entry, it describes the chair as, “The chair expresses a whimsical and almost frivolous optimism rare in other international designs from the early 1950s. Whilst the ball feet suggest the molecular and atomic imagery characteristic of the period, the outline of the frame appears almost as if a Saul Steinberg cartoon, a fluid freehand movement of continuous line. The vertical slats to the back recall the Windsor side chairs, a folk form popular in both America and Britain from the Eighteenth century onwards.”
In 1953 the Kangaroo rocking chair, was designed for the roof terrace of the London offices of Time Life. At this time Race also designed a deck chair for the P& O Orient line. Designed to withstand salt water on the decks, the Neptune required only two component moulds, secured by resilient webbing straps, permitting the structure to fold. The ingenious design of the Neptune had produced a chair that was extremely simple and cost-effective to mass-produce.
Race did not train as a furniture designer but became highly influential at a time when many of his contemporaries were looking to post-war America for inspiration. He took a problem-solving approach to the resource difficulties of the day to create truly ingenious new manufacturing processes and innovative contemporary furniture, which is still made by Race Furniture today.