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ISOKON

Updated: May 10

Imagine a private dining club designed by one of the hottest architects, with food provided by a celebrity chef, where creative types from architects to film makers mingle with the leading scientists of the era. Then imagine this same club crawling with spies. No this isn’t the plot of an Agatha Christie mystery- although she was a member. The Isobar was the private restaurant for the residents of the Lawn Road Flats, designed by Canadian architect Wells Coates around 1933 with restaurant interiors by Marcel Breuer.


photo by Chris Baker, from "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

I first learned about Isokon while visiting the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts and was fascinated to hear about this British company that was a haven for so many Bauhaus refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Then I read Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund’s book

"Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain” and learned that not only did Isokon produce furniture, but the company developed an apartment building known as the Lawn Road Flats, (which I will refer to as the Isokon building for ease). This exclusive dining club, the Isobar, was located in the Isokon building, mostly open to residents and friends. Below is a brief history of the building, based on the book Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain, by Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund.



Jack Pritchard is considered the founder of the Isokon company but the Isokon apartments were the product of collaboration between Jack Pritchard, his wife Molly, and Canadian modernist architect Wells Coates. Jack and Molly met at Cambridge where, by all accounts they were instantly smitten with one another. Although very different in temperament, Jack was a classic extrovert and Molly much more of an introvert; they shared similar interests in design, science and especially socialism. Jack Pritchard eventually began working in the design industry representing Venesta, a British importer of plywood, while Molly was a practicing psychiatrist.

PLYWOOD AND POLYAMORY

Photograph from the Pritchard Family Archives as seen in "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

Their left- wing politics influenced every aspect of their lives, from their social set to their unconventional lifestyle. Their friends were an influential group of modern artists, architects, scientists and economists who espoused the same left-leaning politics and later many became residents at the Isokon apartment building. Another aspect of their modern lifestyle was their open marriage which included nude sunbathing with friends and extramarital affairs. While Molly was pregnant with her first child, her close friend Beatrix Tudor-Hart invited the couple to stay with her in the south of France. Jennifer, the daughter of Beatrix and Jack, made her debut approximately nine months later.


PLYWOOD PRITCHARD


photo from the Pritchard Family Archive, from "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

Venesta was a British importer of plywood from Estonia, and they had recently developed a new plywood product combining metal and plywood called Plymax. Jack Pritchard was tasked with promoting this new product to architects and designers. While attending the famous Expositions des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, he met Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier among other modernist architects and began to take an interest in modern architecture and design. Eventually he decided to throw his hat into the furniture design ring, and he began to sell Plymax furniture designed by himself and other designers through his own company, Isokon. (The name was derived from the word Isometric; a type of drawing once used by architects to represent three dimensional views of a building.)


Friends With Benefits


photo of Wells Coates, Wells Coates Foundation, Canadian Center For Architecture

Jack Pritchard met architect Wells Coates while promoting Plymax in the late twenties. The two men became instant besties and in 1931 visited Germany with fellow architect Serge Chermayeff to see the cutting-edge architecture of the Bauhaus and others. Around 1930 the Pritchards hired Wells Coates to design a two-family home for a plot of land they had purchased in London. By this time Molly and Wells Coates were having an affair, while Jack was involved with Beatrix Tudor- Hart. Initially the plan was to build a two-family home on the site for the Pritchards, Beatrix Tudor- Hart and Jennifer (Jack and Beatrix's daughter). At some point, the couple realized that this classic bourgeois set up wasn’t really suited to their unconventional lifestyle. The Pritchards claimed it was Molly who questioned whether it was appropriate to build single family homes in London when housing was so scarce (post World War I), although Wells Coates always maintained that the idea for a multi-unit building was his. This dispute was one of many that led to the deterioration of the relationship between Wells Coates and the Pritchards. Since Jack and Coates had recently returned from Germany visiting the Bauhaus and other modern multi-unit apartment buildings, perhaps the idea of a modern, apartment building was germinating in the minds of all three.

They settled on a combination of studio apartments, double studios, and some larger apartments for families. It was Molly who determined that the demographic would be young professional men and women with an annual income of 500 pounds per year, not unlike themselves. It was to be a full-service building, offering daily cleaning, laundry, and meals.



photos by Edith Tudor -Hart from the Pritchard Family Archives from "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

It was about four years before the building was finally finished, but it instantly generated excitement with a glamorous opening celebration on the rooftop terrace in 1934. Wells Coates designed a classic, modernist concrete building, with steel framed windows and a pristine white plaster exterior that contained just a hint of pink. Exterior corridors and a central staircase tower rising above the building, give it the look of glamorous ocean liner docked in Hampstead Heath. In what was a clever business model, a minimum of furniture was provided in the flats with the expectation that residents could purchase additional modern furniture designed from Isokon.  

Patent Application For the Isokon Long Chair, designed by Marcel Breuer from "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Brtain"

BAUHAUSLER HAVEN

On April 11, 1933 the Bauhaus, now located in Berlin, was occupied by the Gestapo. On August 10, 1933 Mies van der Rohe, (the director) officially dissolved the school and the remaining faculty and students began to flee Germany. In 1934 the Pritchards, along with architects Maxwell Fry and Morton Shand helped arrange for Walter Gropius to immigrate to England, and provided him an apartment at the Isokon building. Gropius encouraged  László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer to join him, and soon they were also living at the Isokon building. Jack Pritchard employed all three at Isokon. Marcel Breuer was given a position as chief designer, Moholy- Nagy designed the promotional material for both Venesta and Isokon, and Gropius was named Controller of Design, perhaps similar to what we would call a Design Director. Marcel Breuer’s long chair became one of the most successful furniture offerings from Isokon, and can be seen at the Gropius House.



Isokon Donkey advertisements, from "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

The Pritchards offered free housing in their flats to many emigrées fleeing Nazi Germany, not just Bauhauslers. One of these was Austrian architect Egon Riss, nicknamed “Chips”by the residents. At first he did building maintenance work at the apartments, but eventually he too was offered a design position at Isokon. This ended up being fortuitous for all, as Riss designed what became Isokon’s most popular design: The Penguin Donkey; a plywood book and magazine caddy.



ISOBAR

Despite his left-leaning politics, Jack Pritchard was a fan of the traditional British men’s club and eager to create something similar for the residents. The name Isobar was a pun on the company name, but the word also refers to a line drawn on a meteorological map connecting points with the same barometric pressure.


Interior of the Isobar, from the Pritchard Papers Archive

It was critical to have a high quality restaurant as the apartments had been advertised as full-service for working men and women. Pritchard engaged Tommy Layton, a well-known figure in the London restaurant scene to run the restaurant and bar. Designed by Marcel Breuer and furnished by Isokon, members could recline in the upholstered long chairs in the well-stocked bar and eat in the dining room opening onto a terrace overlooking a wooded garden. Sounds heavenly! Tommy Layton quickly turned over his position to Philip Harben, a local foodie/chef from Hampstead who in addition to being a talented cook was a natural showman. Not only did he cook sophisticated continental favorites but he even developed a series of low cost, themed, culinary events which became extremely popular. Harber’s excellent cooking and flair for the dramatic was a huge draw for the club. Post Isokon he went on to become the first chef on television, on the BBC in1946.


Philip Harben


Just as important as the modernist décor and foodie menu were the people. In addition to Bauhauslers, it was a mecca for modern British artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, Russian sculptors Naum Gabo, and Naum Slutzky. Architects Wells Coates, Serge Chermayeff, and Erich Mendelssohn, were all regulars, as well as  writers Nikolaus Pevsner and Herbert Read. During the Blitz, Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan moved into the flats after their home was bombed. Eventually Max was sent to Cairo to work for the intelligence arm of the RAF. Agatha Christie remained in the Isokon building during his station, and it was here that she wrote her some of her most famous mysteries such as “Death on the Nile, “Appointment with Death”, and eight other Poirot mysteries.


photo of Max Mallowan and Agatha Christy as seen in "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

A Cocktail of Spies

photo of Edith Tudor-Hart, born Edith Suschitzky as seen in "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

Most of the inhabitants of the building, including the Pritchards, held left leaning political beliefs, which created an atmosphere of tolerance that was easily infiltrated by Russian intelligence. The first floor flats had back entrances, making it easy to carry out clandestine activities without running into other residents. Alex Tudor-Hart, (the brother of resident Beatrix Tudor-Hart) fell in love with Edith Suschitzky, a Jewish Austrian refugee who was in England studying early child education. She was also the protégé of notorious Soviet recruiter Arnold Deutsch. In 1930 she was expelled from Britain for her communist activities. She returned to Vienna and decided to study photography at the Bauhaus. After the Bauhaus she returned to Vienna and worked as a photographer. She was arrested and convicted of communist activities in Vienna and served one month in prison. Alexander Tudor-Hart followed her to Vienna where they were married but eventually the couple returned to England where Edith Tudor-Hart opened a photo studio near Lawn Road. Jack Pritchard hired her to document the construction of the Isokon building. Alex Tudor-Hart was also recruited by Deutsch who referred to the  couple by the code name ‘Strela’. Edith’s “best friend” Lintzi Friedman married Kim Philby, who later became the most notorious double agent of the cold war and eventually defected to Russia in 1963.

Want to learn more about Edith Tudor-Hart? Check out the Isokon Gallery exhibit about her here


The Cambridge Five In 1934 Soviet spy Arnold Deutsch moved into unit 1 of the Isokon building.  His mission was to recruit the best and brightest from British Universities before they began their careers so that the Soviet Union would have spies in the highest positions of power throughout government and industry. Deutsch went on to recruit more than twenty spies, with Kim Philby giving him the names of five of his friends who became some of the most powerful players in 1950’s Britain, while secretly Soviet spies. One of the Cambridge Five, Anthony Blunt, was the curator for the Royal art collection, often working with Queen Elizabeth II. When they were eventually caught, the scandal shook England to its core, with the five men referred to as the “Cambridge Five”. *Arnold Deutsch was such a super spy that there is only one very grainy photograph of him, as a young man, that exists. Much of his life is in dispute, no one is certain if he was Czech, Hungarian, or Austrian. No one knows when or where he died. He just disappeared.


NUCLEAR SECRETS ON THE MENU

photo of Klaus Fuchs from the Everett Collection Los Alamos

A German Jewish family named the Kuczynskis lived directly across the street from the Isokon apartments. There were six Kuczynski children, three of whom became communist spies, two of whom lived in the Isokon building. Ursula (code name Sonya) became one of the most successful and decorated Soviet military agents. Her sister Brigitte was married to a resident of the building, Anthony Gordon Lewis. Their brother Jurgen, an economist and head of the exiled German communist party, also lived in the building and so Sonya often used the Isobar to meet with recruits to give them their marching orders and money. Simon Kremer, secretary to the Russian military attache  and a Russian intelligence officer, not coincidentally, was also a resident. “Sonya”, Jurgen, and Simon Kremer were responsible for recruiting one of the most important assets of the twentieth century, Germany refugee physicist Klaus Fuchs. Klaus Fuchs was one of the scientists involved in the creation of the atom bomb, eventually working with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan project at Los Alamos. Prior to Los Alamos, a British team was also working on the atom bomb, with the mission called “Tube Alloys”. (I love all these code names. Do spies still use them?) Klaus Fuchs joined the British team in 1941. When Germany invaded Russia, he felt compelled to share information about the nuclear weapon with the Russians. He contacted Jurgen Kuczynski, to find a channel for him to transfer information to the Russians. Prior to leaving England to work on the Manhattan project, Fuchs gave a document detailing the entire history of the project to "Sonya". In 1951 Fuchs was interrogated by MI5 about his espionage and confessed. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

ISOKON MID-CENTURY

photo of the Isokon building, from the Pritchard Family Archive as seen in "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

With the outbreak of war Isokon could no longer import plywood (from Estonia), so Jack Pritchard was forced to shutter the company. He took a job at the ministry of Information in the censorship division, eventually moving to the ministry of supply. Wells Coates joined the RAF to design fighter planes and Philip Harben also left for the RAF. Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy and many of the other Bauhaus alums had already decamped to America around 1937. The Isokon building, like many modernist buildings became a victim of its own success. Having been one of the few buildings to survive the war with little damage, post WWII it wasn’t looking so great. It had been painted dark brown during the war so that German bombers could not use it as a navigation aid, and was understandably showing signs of wear and tear. Eventually the building was repainted and in 1955 the Pritchards threw a 21st birthday party for the building. The party was a veritable Who’s Who of Design in Britain with everyone from Robin and Lucienne Day, to critics Reyner Banham and Nicholas Pesvner. Philip Harben even returned to cater the event which took place on the rooftop terrace.


BLYTHBURGH

photos from the Pritchard Family Archive, as seen in "Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain"

In 1962 Jack and Molly bought a plot of land on the Suffolk coast in Blythburgh , where Jennifer (Jack Pritchard’s daughter with Edith Tudor-Hart) and her husband  Colin, also an architect, designed a classic modernist house, for the extended Pritchard family. Six years later, having both reached the age of 70, Jack and Molly decided to sell the Isokon building. The Left Leaning publication New Statesman bought the building for 67,500 pounds. Molly and Jack were still able to live in the penthouse for another five years with a fixed rent. In 1974 they moved permanently to Blythburgh. In 1981 Jack Pritchard gave his permission to cabinet maker Chris McCourt to reproduce the classic Isokon designs such as the Long Chair, Nesting Tables, and Donkey. Molly died in 1985 and Jack in 1992. What an extraordinary couple.


In 1996 Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby brought several new designs to the company including the Loop table, made from a single sheet of plywood, which brought the Isokon label back into the spotlight. The duo designed several other pieces of furniture that expanded on the Loop concept. In 1998 McCourt renamed the company Isokon Plus. You can still purchase the Donkey, Long Chair, and Nesting Table as well as their contemporary cousins at:https://isokonplus.myshopify.com/



Bummer

Sadly the Isokon building did not fare as well. The New Statesman did not retain the building for long and eventually the building ended up being owned by the Camden Council, who did not maintain it properly, to say the least. At forty years, it is not uncommon for plumbing infrastructure to need replacing, (particularly in a building that survived a bombing campaign) and the Isokon building was no exception. Additionally, the Camden Council removed the internal heating pipes and illegally installed them outside of the building. (Don't ask me about this particular item of total insanity. I just report the facts.) By the nineteen nineties the building was desperately in need of a variety of repairs including plumbing, and was basically uninhabitable. In 1994 it was estimated that basic repairs to the building would cost over one million pounds.


The Comeback Kid

In 1997 English Heritage filed paperwork to sue the Camden Council for the neglect of this historic building and the council was forced to make repairs. They spent 300 thousand pounds to restore the heating system, waterproof the building and renovate one apartment to raise public awareness for the building. In 2001 the Isokon Trust and Notting Hill Housing Group bought the building for 1.6 million pounds. John Allen of Avanti Architects was selected as the architect for the restoration. In the newly renovated building eleven units were sold on the open market and 25 units offered at below market rates to teachers and police officers. Sadly the renovation of the Isobar was left off the table, but the garage has been renovated into a gallery space. The building was officially re-opened in 2005.


Thirsty For More? If you'd like to get all the juicy deets about "Isokon and the Bauhaus", you can purchase the book here


If you would like to donate to the Isokon Trust to help preserve this wonderful building and its history, you can do that here.


This years marks the ninetieth year of the building and no doubt there will be events planned in London to mark the anniversary. Don't forget to check the Isokon Trust website for updates on events here.


SHOPPABLES!!!



Thirsty For More? Don't forget to check out the accompanying cocktail here


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