Furniture for the Concrete Age

By Steve Dunn

Though Summers was not an architect like many who left their mark on furniture design history, he was nonetheless an architect of a highly reformist epoch. For him Modernism meant revolutionising his own field of endeavour to meet the prevailing Modernist ethos and social imperative for a new way of living. Summers fervently believed in the moral necessity to make new, ‘classless’ affordable furniture. He used plywood as a democratic material of true modernity, with vastly unexploited potential, and with his pragmatic, yet highly inventive approach, he was able to exploit this simple material to create furniture that would be functional, space-saving and affordable, yet, in form entirely radical and representative of a new enlightened age.

Unlike many furniture makers who produced pieces on a vast scale, Summers output was commission based, which resulted in many one-off or short run pieces—Aalto easily produced more in one year than Makers of Simple Furniture did in their entire existence. Summers’ innovative work with moulds in the early 30s predated the experiments undertaken by Charles and Ray Eames a decade later. His methods of bending laminated plywood were more advanced than Aalto’s — even with the mighty Korhonen factory behind him —and even Breuer’s precocious design talents were challenged by the countless structural issues he encountered as he translated much of his tubular steel work to plywood.

Marcel Breuer, Long chaise, birch plywood, c. 1935

The effervescent blaze of innovative work from Summers and Makers of Simple Furniture lasted barely 9 years, as war decimated London. Summers all but gave up furniture making in the post-war years—eager to support his young family he opened a ball-bearing factory. What did survive after the carpet bombing years of the Blitz, and a post modern world that rebelled against years of enforced austerity, are extraordinarily progressive, avant-garde designs that equal any of those from the Bauhaus, De Stijl and the Russian Constructivists.

Summers’ Bent Ply Armchair or BPAC from 1933 has long been recognised as a milestone of design, but this Cut Ply Chair or CPC of 1934/5 is in many ways equally original. The revolutionary appearance of this chair is an intricate play of organic forms: both the sides and elegant tapering spine are economically created from one ply piece. Only three small cross braces support its thin seat. The liberated openness and lightness of the structure creates a spatial indeterminateness and demonstrates Summers consummate understanding of structural stress-bearing forces. The form of this chair, interceded by 30 years similar explorations by Joe Colombo and Arne Jacobsen and is the only known surviving example of this extraordinary chair.

Gerald Summers 1899–1967

Gerald Summers was among the pioneering designers working in plywood, a material Summers transformed through novel means of construction. Summers’ earliest formal training came in college, where he took courses in carpentry. After college, he worked at the engineering firm of Ruston, Proctor, and Co., where Summers learned the importance of pragmatism in designed objects. During World War I, Summers was drafted into the army; it was in the trenches that he first began dreaming of innovative designs made of wood. After the war ended, Summers and his wife, Marjorie, founded the aptly-named firm Makers of Simple Furniture.

Summers was among the first British designers to experiment with plywood as the primary material for his furniture forms. Like the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto working at the same time, Summers used plywood to create organic forms; however, he invented an entirely new means of production that didn’t require heat or steam. Instead Summers’ designs were glued carefully together and left in a mold to harden, the technique allowing Summers to create seamless furniture without the use of external fastenings disrupting the flow of the form.

Makers of Simple Furniture grew larger, and by 1935 Summers added bookcases, case furniture, and several innovative chairs to his œuvre. With the start of World War II and the rationing of plywood, Summers was forced to close up his shop leaving behind a legacy of innovation and original technology, as well as groundbreaking furniture designs.