Robin Day was without doubt one of the most influential British furniture designers of the 20th century. He will of course be best remembered for his polypropylene moulded stacking chairs which have sold around 50 million units since the launch of the Poly side chair in 1963 but Robin’s achievements and his influence on postwar modernism go much further than that.
Robin Day was born on the 25th May 1915 in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, a town renowned for its furniture manufacturing. Recognising his drawing skills, his parents enrolled him as a junior day student at High Wycombe Technical Institute and later won a scholarship to High Wycombe School of Art. It was during this period that he was summoned to the home of Lucian Ercolani, founder of the furniture maker Ercol, who offered Day a job with the promise of £1,000 a year. Although tempted, Day had other ideas, and won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London.
The RCA did not meet Day’s expectations as he found the courses of the 1930’s to be "all painting and sculpture" rather than three-dimensional design. Whilst at the College at an RCA dance in 1940 that he met a fellow student, Lucienne Conradi. This was the beginning of a lifelong partnership and 2 years later they married and it was, for its time, a very modern marriage. Both the Days rose to the very top of their professions, Robin in furniture and Lucienne in textile design and although they did not normally work together in a formal sense, they shaped each others work by suggestion and discussion working on back to back drawing boards in their Cheyne Walk Chelsea studio which they shared for nearly 50 years.
On graduating from the RCA in 1938 there were no obvious openings in the furniture industry, so initially Day made models for architects. The outbreak of the war did not improve his prospects. Ruled out from active service by asthma, he taught at Beckenham School of Art, where he devised an innovative course in three-dimensional design. It was there he met a fellow teacher, Clive Latimer, who went on to share Day's first great success as a designer when, in 1948, the pair won the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Winning the MOMA prize was a breakthrough for Robin, and a stimulus to British designers in the bleak years of post-second world war austerity. It also resulted in Day being invited to design furniture for Hille who at the time specialised in the manufacture of high quality reproduction furniture.
With Day’s guidance working with Ray Hille, her daughter Rosamind and son-in-law Leslie Julius the company underwent a complete transformation and began to produce ranges of modern furniture. The 1950’s saw ranges featuring moulded plywood, then moving on to polypropylene in the 1960’s. In 1951 Day was commissioned to design the seating for the Royal Festival Hall which further enhanced his standing.
As well as designing many furniture ranges Day was also responsible for the artwork, brochures, showroom design, exhibitions as well as the Hille logo. His influence on everyday living widened further with television and radio designs for British electronics company Pye as well as aircraft interiors for BOAC and carpet designs for Woodward Grosvenor.
Robin and Lucienne Day became Britain’s most celebrated design couple with this recognition being helped by the fact that they brought a much-needed dose of glamour to postwar Britain. Together they featured in countless magazine spreads and, in 1954, as a debonair couple in a Smirnoff vodka advertising campaign, surrounded by their furniture and textile designs. They also played a key role with high street retailer John Lewis behind the scenes for 25 years between 1962 and 1987, overseeing the introduction of a comprehensive new house style.
Day also designed the interiors of several Waitrose supermarkets and John Lewis department stores, notably Milton Keynes in 1979. Day continued to design furniture for Hille for many years to come with the Toro and Woodro beam seats around 1990 which set the standards for public area seating and the RD wooden chair in 2008 as well as being an important source of inspiration knowledge.
Sadly Robin Day died aged 95 at home on November 9 2010. Lucienne died 11 months earlier on January 30 2010 aged 93, their daughter survives them.