Mid Century London: The Isokon Building

Talking exclusively about mid century furniture can get a little dry.

We probably shouldn’t admit that but, well, we just did.

So, to make things on our site more interesting, we thought we’d take a closer look at the city in which we live.

Over the coming weeks and months, we aim to look at some of the best mid century London landmarks.

We have very few plans to comment on the architecture. 

Instead, we're going to look at the history of a number of structures so you can view the furniture we sell in context.

Without further ado, let's kick off with one of our very favourite mid century modern London designs: the Isokon Building.

Isokon London

Name: The Isokon Building (formerly Lawn Road Flats)
Location: Hampstead, North London
Architect: Wells Coates for Isokon
Date Finished: 1934

This building doesn’t just look amazing—it also has an amazing history.

Now, before we begin and before anyone gets upset, we are aware that this building doesn’t strictly fall within the mid century period as we have defined it (1940-1970).

The Isokon was actually finished in 1934.

However, it’s the fact that this now Grade I listed building was so ahead of its time that we include it here.

For starters, this was the first block to be made almost entirely of reinforced concrete. 

This was revolutionary stuff at the time.

The second and perhaps most important thing to note, is that the building was designed to promote a new kind of urban living for modern professionals with no time for housekeeping.

This, to us at least, is super interesting.  

Isokon kitchen and bathroom

A Machine for Living

This design was heavily influenced by pioneering architect Le Corbusier’s principal that buildings should be a “machine for living”.  

The idea was to get the most out of every inch and to strip the living spaces of anything that could be deemed superfluous.

That in itself probably doesn’t mean a great deal but when you learn that the original apartments didn’t have a full kitchen you start to see a different picture.

Individual kitchens were overlooked in favour of an entire floor that was devoted to a communal kitchen complete with dumb waiters that serviced the flats.

You could even have meals cooked for you and delivered.

Le Courbusier's ideal also manifested itself in the shape of built-in storage and furniture designed specifically for the space.

This furniture was included with every flat purchased or rented but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

There were also shoe shining, bed making and window cleaning services available. 

These were also included in the price.

The combination of all these elements creates a striking image of how the creators envisioned modern living and it’s a good insight into what Wells Coates and his erstwhile associate and collaborator Jack Pritchard were trying to achieve.

(The two had a huge fall out upon completion of the building).

Isokon mix detail

The Isobar

The kitchen was later converted into a restaurant/ bar and this is where the story gets really interesting.

This bar became the number one hangout for the intelligentsia of the time.

And it is perhaps for this reason that the building can list Agatha Christie (author), Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus) and Marcel Breuer (legendary mid century furniture designer) among its residents.

And it is here that you start to see that the structure known as the Lawn Road Flats was much more than just a striking building.

It was a hotbed of creativity, ideas and exchange.

Isokon Gallery

Sadly, the building fell into disuse and disrepair towards the end of the 20th century but it has since been painstakingly brought back to all its splendour.

As a result, there is very little chance of you walking past it without realising it is there, even if it is tucked away on a quiet Hampstead street.

It really is majestic.

You can do more than just stare at the outside as well.

A museum and gallery commemorating the building’s illustrious past was created in the disused garages soon after the restoration was completed.

And inside that you can see many original artefacts and get a real feel for how the lodgings of those oh-so famous tenants might have looked.

Isokon furniture by Marcel Breuer

Isokon Furniture

In and amongst those artefacts is the very same plywood furniture that was sold with, and designed specifically for, the flats.

(The original advertising slogan for the properties was actually: “All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture”.)

And this is where this building and its history start to become relevant for a London mid century furniture store like us. 

You see, furniture and the Isokon name are actually inextricably linked.

Pritchard, director of the Isokon firm (formerly Wells Coates and Partners) that designed the building, also went on to establish the Isokon Furniture Company.

This company worked almost exclusively with plywood and it created all the original furniture for the flats.

Perhaps the company’s most famous design came in 1936 when resident Marcel Breuer created the Isokon Long Chair (pictured).

Had it not been for WWII and a shortage of plywood it may have been one of many game-changing shapes.

Pritchard was able to resurrect the company in 1963 and soon after it released another iconic design, the Penguin Donkey magazine rack (pictured), to relative commercial success.

This was due in part to the backing of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books (hence the name of the design) and resident of the building. 

How about that for a nice, little name-drop at the end?

In Conclusion

It is the optimism, and the thinking, behind the original concepts for this building that we find so interesting. 

We also see strong correlations between this approach and our favourite mid century furniture designs. 

Add to that the Isokon Furniture link and you get a structure that is very relevant to a group of people like us.   

If you’re in the area, and are in any way interested in any of this, you should head over and have a look at this lesser-known London landmark. 

It’s also linked to a local heritage trail that connects it with other important mid century London sites.

We’ll be discussing them in the not too distant future so do keep coming back. 

And remember, if all this talk of the time has given you an inkling, head to our mid century furniture range and see if you can’t find the original piece that helps you introduce a bit of this kind of history into your own interior theme.

How to get there: the Isokon building is just a short and pleasant walk from Belsize Park tube. The Gospel Oak and Hampstead Overground stations are also nearby.

The Isokon Gallery is open every Saturday and Sunday from March through October (times may vary from year to year so please check the Isokon Gallery site for more.)

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