As you walk down Lawn Road in Hampstead, you do a double take what looks like a sleek white liner seems to be moored alongside the pavement. This is no mirage, but the Isokon building, which even now, 84 years since it opened on 9th July 1934, seems an immensely radical building. The first Modernist block of flats in Britain and the first to be constructed of concrete, it was the brain child of Jack and Molly Pritchard.
When Jack, the marketing manager of Venesta, an Estonian Plywood company and subsequently founder of Isokon furniture and his wife Molly, a psychiatrist, first bought the plot of land in 1928, they asked Molly's sister and brother-in-law to design a moderne' villa. Instead after a trip to see Germany's new form of compact apartments, the couple decided to build a serviced block of 24 studio flats, 8 one bedroom flats and staff quarters for businessmen or women who have no time for domestic troubles. The services included in house laundry, shoe-shining and cooked meals from the communal kitchen sent up to individual flats via a dumb waiter, to save residents cooking in their tiny galley kitchens. The communal kitchen evolved into the Isobar, a restaurant and bar, which became the gathering point for Hampstead intellectuals.
The Pritchards lived in a one bedroom penthouse flat, with an enormous terrace overlooking London and their two sons Jeremy and Jonathan lived next door in a studio. Plywood was used extensively in the apartments: on the floor, on the walls and in the furniture. The Pritchards chose Wells Coates to design the building. An untrained architect, his careful planning of space saving ideas, owed much to his early life in Japan and his interest in yacht design. However the trio fell out, in part over Jack's lack of experience as a property developer and Coates inexperience as an architect. The situation was perhaps exacerbated by the affair he had conducted with Molly, who in her speech at the opening, failed to name check him and made only a passing reference to our architect.'
Although there were initial difficulties in letting the apartments, with the Anschluss in Germany, Lawn Road soon became home to a number of emigres fleeing Nazi persecution, several of whom were found jobs by the Pritchards. Pioneers of Modernist art and design such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, head teacher of art at the Bauhaus, as well as goldsmith Naum Slutszky, soon took up residence.
During the War the building flourished as its concrete structure offered protection against bomb damage, attracting Agatha Christie, who occupied 2 flats. It also became home to several spies, like Arnold Deutsch, the NKVD (KGB) spy and recruiter of the Cambridge Five. Post War Philip Harben, the first television chef became the resident cook.
In 1969 the Pritchards sold the building to the New Statesman, who eventually resold it to Camden Council, under whose ownership it deteriorated so badly, that by the 1990s it was home to just rats and owls. After considerable pressure it was refurbished by Avanti Architects for the Notting Hill Housing Trust in a co-ownership scheme for key workers, where residents can buy a limited share of their flats. The garage has been converted to a museum, open at the weekends from April September, which tells the story of the flats and its residents.
Today Isokon is Grade 1 listed and its aura of glamour and continental panache has been restored, nowhere more so than in the Penthouse, the background to the TOAST shoot, now occupied by Magnus Englund and his wife Gjril. One of the leading lights behind the museum and a passionate custodian of the Isokon legacy, Magnus was co-founder of design store Skandium, but today is an eminent authority and author on Scandinavian design and owner, with Gjril, of the Moomin shop. Magnus who rents the apartment, positively fizzes with enthusiasm for Isokon. I get so excited, he says as we promenade on the huge terrace, standing on the spot that Gropius stood. His pride overflows as he shows me where the pioneers of contemporary design lived. Gjril and I were married on this terrace, just as the Pritchard's son Jonathan was.
The Englunds take their building's heritage very seriously, furnishing their flat with Isokon furniture once produced by Jack Pritchard, as well as ply furniture by Alva Aalto. We have the original plywood walls and floors, we live much as they did. The detailing is amazing, he says as he leads me into the small, but perfectly formed bedroom. I'm using Jack's built-in cupboards, just look at this remarkable detail of a curved sliding shelf, designed by Wells Coats. His enthusiasm extends to almost everything. The concrete has always caused problems. It was the first example and they didn't get it right, so it can be cold and damp and there's no lift, but I wouldn't ever want to live anywhere else. I relish the history and the design legacy.
Words by Corinne Julius.
The Isokon is a short walk from our new shop in Hampstead.
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