A New Form for the
Domestic Interiors of London

by James Zemaitis

In 1999, The Design Museum’s Modern Britain 1929 – 1939 exhibition set out to define the “peculiarly British” response to the Modern Movement between the Wars. While the new architecture and design of the era was heavily influenced by European emigres, including Breuer, Gropius and Mendelsohn, there were also significant contributions made by British designers and entrepreneurs. The seminal furniture designs of the 1930s were spearheaded by two Englishmen, Gerald Summers and Jack Pritchard. As discussed at length in Modern Britain, the history of Pritchard’s firm Isokon was intertwined with Summers’ firm Makers of Simple Furniture and the importing of Alvar Aalto’s designs by Finmar, because these three lines of furniture shared a common natural resource of Baltic and Finnish timber cut into plywood, and the resulting products were exhibited and retailed together in London’s leading department stores.

The tea cart, or tea trolley, was a distinctly modern form designed to accommodate a new lifestyle and to assist, or even replace, the role of the butler.

Old decorating habits take a long time to fade away, and the vast majority of furniture sold in London during this era continued to be traditional Georgian and Victorian style. But Britain’s titled classes were undergoing a massive transformation, forced to sell their ancestral estates because of global economic depression and the devastation caused by the First World War to the population of domestic staffs. The architecture of London was shaped by the development of apartment blocks for all classes, and the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse and Anthony Powell are filled with scenes set in London flats where the thrill-seeking scions of the aristocracy mingle with socialists, painters and jazz musicians, and the cocktails are served by a single butler.

Tea Trolley designed by Gerald Summers in the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

A distinctly modern furniture form appeared in London, designed to accommodate the new lifestyle. Referred to in various period catalogs as “tea trolley,” “bar cart” and “dinner wagon,” these lightweight plywood designs on wheels could assist—or even replace—the butler’s role in serving beverages and hors d’oeuvres to Bertie Wooster and his friends. The first documented example of this new form was designed in 1935 by Gerald Summers for his own company, Makers of Simple Furniture.  An example of this model is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and it is utterly austere in its design, which is not atypical for Summers.

The present lot was included in the landmark exhibition, Bent Wood and Metal Furniture 1850-1946 organized by the American Federation of the Arts and curated by Derek Ostergard.

When it comes to the present cart’s design, Derek Ostergard writes that “with a simple sheet of plywood bent into a dynamic S-shaped configuration, Summers partially disguised that form by incorporating three parallel boards into the cart to serve as shelves.” An opened-up, sculptural evolution of the design was produced by Makers of Simple Furniture in 1938, known as the Z side table. However, when the present cart was included in Ostergard’s landmark exhibition, Bent Wood and Metal Furniture 1850-1946 (organized in 1987 by the American Federation of the Arts and exhibited at nine American institutions), it was not known that it was in fact Summers’ only documented contribution to Isokon, the furniture company organized and co-founded by Jack Pritchard.  In recent years, a color slide of the model has been found in Pritchard’s papers at the University of East Anglia, and documentation also exists in the corporate archives of Isokon Plus, who reissued the model in an edition of three in 2003.

The present tea cart does not appear in any period Isokon brochure or catalogue, and in 1939 the firm introduced a series of playful designs by Egon Riss, including the Penguin Donkey bookshelf for Penguin paperbacks, another new form for the apartment lifestyle. The exact history of Isokon’s distribution to each London retail outlet has never been fully documented. But in the 1938 catalogue Dining Room and Living Room Furniture: Heal & Son Ltd., London, the venerated department store known for sprinkling in a little Breuer and Isokon amongst its vast inventory of traditional English brown furniture, illustrated a birch plywood dinner wagon which seems to be a simplified version of the present work by Summers. An example of this model was recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Tea Trolley by Heal & Sons from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photograph by Adam Reich. Courtesy of Friedman Benda, New York.

The present Gerald Summers tea cart for Isokon is the only period example of the model whose whereabouts is presently known. It has remained with the same owners for more than thirty years, after being acquired from Barry Friedman in the early 1980s. It is the most sophisticated example of a new domestic form which had only been in existence for a few years when it was designed, and which would disappear, along with the rest of the European bent plywood tradition, with the advent of the Second World War.

The author is indebted to the knowledge of Simon Andrews and Lenora Petrou, with whom he has discussed this piece in prior conversations. 

...he [Summers] 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.

Steve Dunn

Gerald Summers

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.