PWB: I’m a big fan of John & Sylvia Reid’s work for Forrest Modern, Rotaflex and Stag Furniture, and have been loosely trying to research it all via period magazines / online, with a view to compiling some kind of article or website (…6 years later!) but there isn’t a lot of info out there! – Regarding your time with the Reids – 1956-57 seems to have been a productive time for them and I’d be really grateful for any memories you could share.
JJ: Happy to tell you what I can remember of John and Sylvia, but remember I’m an architect so was not directly involved in the product design work (apart from designing an exhibition stand for Rotaflex at Earls Court or somewhere like that, probably Ideal Home exhibition unless there was some specialised lighting show. I must have worked for the Reids from June/July 1956 to September 1957, so it’s likely to have been towards the end of that period). I did my year’s “practical training” with them after 5 years study at the Northern Poly. On completing the year I passed my professional practice exam and national service caught up with me, and I saw no more of the Reids.
PWB: I’m really interested that although they trained as architects, J&S designed furniture + lamps / products as well.
Was the bulk of the work in the office architecture based? Or was it very ‘mixed’ most of the time? (Were they involved in graphics / textiles / ceramics etc as well?)
JJ: There was a mixture of architecture, product design – for Forrest, Rotaflex, Stag – and exhibition design. They did some work for British Rail, don’t remember what it was about but recollect going down with JR to Battersea Power Station and examining some carriages on the sidings there – I think it was for an exhibition not re-design of carriages.
The big exhibition I worked on was the Jamestown 350th anniversary of the landing of the first British settlers there. The commission was from the British government (possibly via the British Council) for what I guess was a recreation of what it was like in the Britain the settlers left behind. It was a substantial show, my contribution being to design a Shakespearian type theatre where costumed figures could stand fronting recorded speech. The work was allocated to me as my college measured drawing had been a Tudor house so I had all the details to hand!
PWB: I’d love to know more about the kind of architecture they were doing at that time. Can you remember particular projects that were going on?
I’ve found references to Wiegerinck House, Oulton Broad (1954) and possibly something at Hemel Hempstead, Herts?
JJ: I knew about the house on the Broads, just being finished when I joined them I think. It was a small modern, flat roofed house, lots of glazing and I believe innovatory (for then) underfloor heating. I think it was illustrated in the AJ? I know it had a centrally placed open fire which was contained by a circular hanging chain-mail “curtain”. I seem to remember problems with this fire, probably caused by the chimney having inadequate height and hence draught. I also worked on a small shop front in N. London – Just a big plate glass window and a solid panel with the door in it. They were straight-down-the-line modernists at that time, apart from the Champion pub.
While they were away from the office for several months working in Jamestown I had to respond to any architectural enquiries, one of which was from Alan Simpson of ‘Galton and Simpson‘, who at that time were the top comedy writers on radio and TV (they wrote for Tony Hancock and later scripted Steptoe and Son). Simpson had found a wooded plot somewhere in Surrey and wanted the Reids to design a house for him, but needed advice immediately whether the plot was feasible to build on. He took me there in a snazzy sports car – it was a fabulous site on top of a hill but quite remote – all I could think of was likely problems with the services! Whether it was my advice or not nothing ever materialised.
Remember our only means of communication with the Reids was post or (very rarely) phone, and they were incredibly busy getting the Jamestown show completed on time, and didn’t encourage us getting in contact.
PWB: You mentioned The Champion pub, but at this point it’s proving hard to find much more info. (Was The Champion a young architect’s ‘hang out’? Who else would go there?)
JJ: The Champion pub (corner of Wells St. and Eastcastle St. London W1) was attacked in the architectural magazines for using Victorian design features internally. It had a large external sign using a bold traditional serif lettering with double shadow effect. They were attacked for looking back in time to get a pub character rather than the brave new modernism. (Although the Architectural Press had created a private bar in the basement of their offices in Queen Anne’s gate which used the same design motifs!) I used to go to the pub with friends because I was interested in the design but it was not an architects hang-out as far as I know. I think it was completed before I joined the office.
PWB: A local architect that my parents know (Fred Hobart, b.1929) told me that John was two years above him at Regent Street Polytechnic of Architecture. Do you know if Sylvia was there as well? (did J&S meet there perhaps?) Fred said their tutors were Peter Moro and Robin Day, and that J&S worked under Moro at the LCC afterwards (I think their college dates were c.1946-48) With this in mind do you know if J&S worked on the Festival of Britain / Royal Festival Hall?
JJ: I don’t know anything about their training, but what you suggest (re. the Festival hall) sounds credible.
PWB: I think Sylvia worked with Robin Day as his assistant after college (and there is a lamp (c.1951/2) for Thorn that is jointly credited to John Reid and Robin Day) Do you remember them ever talking about Robin Day? (it feels possible that he might have been an influence on them to go into furniture / product design alongside architecture?)
JJ: Re their involvement in design though trained as architects – remember this was a time when that was commonplace – people like Arne Jacobsen for instance did housing, offices, cutlery, chairs, lighting etc. I don’t remember them talking about Robin Day but we may well have discussed his work as a prominent designer of the time.
PWB: Did they have an office in London at the time you were there?
JJ: Their house and office combined was in Southwood Rd. just off Archway Rd. in Highgate. I worked there with the industrial designer guy (JJ note: Denis Toomey – he was a great guy at all the practical engineering stuff necessary to communicate with the manufacturing firms, and I learned a lot from him) and a secretary in a room heated by a neat cylindrical anthracite stove. (- Called a ‘Pither’ – still manufactured, but must burn Antracite which may now be unobtainable or very expensive. Pure stainless steel cylinder about 500mm high – very architectural!) There was also a black-box record player which we played when the Reid’s were away – lots of Bach. They brought back LPs from USA, my intro to Elvis!
They drove a Ford Consul Mk.2 family saloon – if you are in to such things – a basic family saloon at the time, not the usual architect’s car. This may be an indication that they had a populist element in their taste.
One or two random thoughts. I learnt a lot during my year with them – I suppose you tend to feel that during one’s first experience of working for real, but I think the variety of work, and their design standards were good for me after a pretty mundane experience at the Northern Poly. We did used to joke in the office about their restricted colour schemes – black, white or polished brass. I still have the remnants of some Forrest fittings I think, but all the many Rotaflex shades we had have disintegrated long ago – do you know you can mend them with Acetone (nail polish remover) – it dissolves the plastic. The owner/entrepreneur (maybe also inventor) of Rotaflex was a Mr. Stern, a small middle-European exile (I guess from his accent), very dynamic guy.
Another anecdote. Whilst I was in their office my wife and I frequented a cafe at the foot of St. Martins Lane called the “Soup Kitchen”. This was one of Terence Conran’s very first business ventures, combining food with his early furniture – spindly metal stools and chairs. JR dismissed Conran as just producing backyard furniture! – If only he had known :)