In celebration of the release of Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain by Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, now available in our Chelsea and Marylebone stores, The Conran Shop is delving into the influence of the Bauhaus in Britain.
As part of a series of articles about the Bauhaus’ influence in Britain, we visited the Grade I-listed Isokon building and took a tour of the on-site gallery and penthouse. Here’s what we learned.
Nestled among the leafy townhouses of Hampstead, North London, and around the corner from Belsize Park tube station and the Havistock Hill air raid shelter, you’ll find one of the UK’s rare monuments to the Modernist movement. Often likened to a stranded cruise liner, thanks to its size and interiors, the Lawn Road Flats, known as the Isokon Building since 1974, was formally opened in 1934 and has housed some of the 20th century’s brightest and best.
Originally built to house young professionals with a penchant for communal ideals, some of its famous inhabitants include Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, other Bauhaus alumni Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy, crime novelist Agatha Christie and a ring of communist spies linked to the Cambridge Five.
Jack & Molly Pritchard, we approve.
The design power couple behind this ambitious project were characters in their own right. A bacteriologist and psychiatrist, Molly Pritchard was director of the Isokon company (formerly known as Wells Coates & Partners) alongside Frederick Graham-Maw and Robert S. Spicer from 1929. Jack Pritchard, her plywood-obsessed husband, joined a little later to manage the firm’s PR before becoming a director as well.
Together, their vision was to create a cutting-edge building for modern Londoners that would help promote their forward-thinking approach to life.
A Bauhaus-inspired build.
Designed by the Canadian architect Wells Coates, a close friend of Molly Pritchard, the Isokon building’s design drew inspiration from the Bauhaus. Visiting state-of-the-art housing estates in Germany, Coates was largely inspired by the Bauhaus-designed Törten Estate and the Laubenganghäuser building in Dessau.
Built in less than a year, the innovative Isokon building is Britain’s first reinforced concrete domestic building and incorporated contemporary elements such as cantilevered walkways and integrated escape stairwells. Particularly striking is the building’s modernist white finish which, upon further inspection, is actually a carefully blended ‘rose petal pink’ hue.
An experiment in minimalist urban living, the building was designed around young professionals. Each 17ft by 15ft flat housed a built-in kitchenette and bathroom, dressing-room, studio bedroom and was serviced via a dumbwaiter from a service kitchen on the ground floor, which later became the Isobar.
Life at the Isokon was…modern.
Designed by Bauhaus legend Marcel Breuer, the Isobar quickly became a bustling hub for the local Hampstead intelligentsia and residents of the Isokon building. Adding to the Isokon’s glamourous air and essential in cultivating a liberal, intellectual environment, the Isobar soon obtained cult status and was frequented by the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and artist Ben Nicholson.
Chefed by Philip Harben, one for the UK’s first celebrity chefs, the Isobar served the highest possible standard of exotic international cuisines such as Spaghetti Bolognese, fondue and kebabs. It was the only restaurant in wartime London to serve bananas and cream and was also home to the infamous Half Hundred Club.
With membership limited to 25 people and each one allowed to invite a guest, the exclusive Half Hundred Club counted Julian Huxley, Walter Gropius, Ernst Freud, Francis Meynell and Philip Harben among its members. Hosting ten supper clubs per year, each evening was planned and hosted by a different member. The club had a strict set of rules applied to all members and guests including impoliteness fees, rejection of ‘unsociable characteristics which may impede conversation’ and diners were strictly served ‘without distinction of sex or other favouritism’.
The Isokon ideas live on.
Today, over 80 years since the Isokon building was first opened, the spirit of the architectural triumph and its inhabitants lives on through Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund’s newly-released book, Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain.
A triumphant celebration of European design, the book, explores the story of the Isokon building from its origins as an experiment in urban living to its role in the present day. Exploring the legacy of the building’s Bauhaus residents on Britain, the book also details how the Isokon became a creative hub for international artists, writers and thinkers.
A permanent exhibition at the on-site Isokon Gallery also tells the story of the building in incredible detail, going into detail about its network of spies, famous inhabitants, Isobar culture and structural design. Proudly showcasing original furniture crafted by the Isokon Furniture Company, the gallery ensures the rich history of the Isokon building lives on.