ROBIN DAY: Leading Every Step of the Way

The Robin Day collection - photo by Loft Furniture, Ltd.
Robin Day in his studio, with Q-Stak chair, Hille, 1953 – photo by Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation

Robin Day was born on the 25th of May of 1915 in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Day’s birthplace was a great influence on his chosen career path as High Wycombe was a place renowned for its furniture making. Numerous timber yards and workshops that specialised in cabinet-making was part of the High Wycombe local scenery. Day possessed a talent for drawing and his parents, having recognised this, enrolled him as a junior day student at the High Wycombe Technical Institute, a school with close ties to their local furniture industry. His talent would later land him a scholarship at the High Wycombe School of Art and catch the attention of Ercol founder, Lucian Ercolani. Day was invited to the Ercolani home, was offered a job to work for the furniture maker and promised a payment of £1000 a year. Despite the tempting offer, Day went on with the plans he had for himself.

He won a scholarship in London’s Royal College of Art, where despite being disappointed in the college’s focus on sculptures and paintings instead of industrial design, Day made use of his time there in improving his already exceptional skill in drawing. He also spent time visiting exhibitions and showrooms as well as poring over magazines on architecture and design. In 1938, openings in the furniture industry were scarce, that there was no job opportunity even for one as talented as Day. Nonetheless, the lack of opportunity did not deter him. After leaving RCA, Day decided to make models for architects. When war broke out, it did nothing to improve prospects for the designer. Having been ruled out of active service due to asthma, Day found himself teaching at Beckenham School of Art. It was also there that he devised quite the innovative three-dimensional course.

Lucienne Day with Script (1956) at Cheyne Walk – photo by V&A | Central Office of Information

Day met Lucienne Conradi, a young textile designer at an RCA dance in 1940. Their shared passion for modern design brought them together, despite their different backgrounds. The two married two years later and set up a home in a flat in Chelsea. Eventually, they managed to purchase a tall Victorian house on Cheyne Walk which served both as home and studio for the two designers for the next fifty years. The two helped shape each other’s work. As they worked on back to back drawing boards, they gave each other suggestions and discussed what might better fit whatever the other was working on. Perhaps it was through these exchanges that the couple managed to rise as influential designers, Lucienne in textile and Robin in furniture.

Beginnings of An Influential British Designer

Robin Day began teaching at the University of Westminster (Regent Street Polytechnic at that time) sometime after the war. There, he met Peter Moro, an architect with whom he formed a partnership with. In 1946, they designed exhibitions for Central Office of Information which mostly focused on jet engines and scientific instruments. Their projects included an exhibition on atomic energy that toured their country on a train in 1948. Day then independently designed several exhibitions all throughout the 50s. He worked as an exhibition designer for two major industrial clients, radio and plastics manufacturer EKCO and ICI. Day also created a stands series for the former.

Exhibition stand for ICI at British Industries Fair, Robin Day and Basil Spence, 1947 – photo by Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation

In 1951, he collaborated once again with his friend Moro for the Royal Festival Hall. They would collaborate once more in 1963 for the Nottingham Playhouse in 1963. Day was commissioned to design the seating for both as well. Day was also known to design impressive posters despite not being formally trained in the graphic arts. His natural talents landed him a commission to create a series of recruitment posters for the Royal Air Force.

Day’s collaboration with Clive Latimer, a colleague from Beckenham won them the prize in New York’s the Museum of Modern Art’s international competition. The ingenuity of their multi-purpose storage units won them first place at MOMA’s Low-Cost Furniture Competition. This win became a breakthrough for Day as well as a stimulus to British designers during the drabness of the post-war years.

Hille and the Polyprop Chair

Winning the first prize at the MOMA furniture competition got Day noticed by S. Hille & Co. which was a small cabinet-making firm at that time. With Day’s initiative and support from Ray Hille, daughter Rosamind and son-in-law Leslie Julius, Hille underwent a great transformation. Once specialising on high-quality reproduction furniture, the company began producing more modern pieces. 1950 saw the emergence of Hillestaks, a range comprised of stacking chairs and tables made from moulded plywood. The Hilleplan storage units followed shortly in 1952.

Robin Day’s stackable Polypropylene chair – photo by Dezeen

Day continued to work at Hille, expanding their furniture ranges while also becoming a pioneer with regards to the use of square section tubular steel as well as rubber webbing. Hille’s catalogues, which were designed by Day together with the company’s new logo, featured a range of what would be called contemporary furniture for offices and homes by the early 60s.

Day may have produced a wide range of furniture but perhaps the most well-known of his creations was the polypropylene chair, fondly known as the polyprop chair. The polyprop chair was a game-changer and its phenomenal success made it a landmark in modern design. Polypropylene was cheaper, lighter yet tougher than plywood or any other plastic at that time, making it ideal for budget furniture. Day’s furniture designs maximised the use of polypropylenes unique properties, developing comfortable solutions while possessing clever structural as well as technical details. The first polyprop chairs were stacking chairs released by Hille in 1963, followed by armchair versions in 1967. Day also created school chairs, the graduated tots-to-teens Series E. The Polo chair followed shortly in 1975. Polo chairs were indoor-outdoor chairs with distinct drainage/ventilation holes. Polyprop chairs were also adapted as stadium seating. The wide range of polyprop chairs made Day a specialist in the field, recognised locally and internationally. The success of his polyprop chairs did not prevent Day from continuing to refine his skills with other media such as wood and steel. He experimented as well with other plastics during the 60s and 70s, yet the polyprop chairs remained to be his most notable and groundbreaking work.

Robin Day’s Works and Legacy

Designed for Hille by Robin Day, Toro is the high performance beam seating for many public area applications – photo by The Furniture Industry Research Association

Day’s work included the winner of the 1957 Design Center Awards, the Single Convertible bed settee. He also devised a multi-functional, space-saving modular storage system which could dispense detached bookcases, desks and sideboards. This was called Interplan. Day’s other speciality was durable public seating. He was the designer behind the heavy-duty yet elegant British Rail bench in 1956 and the ubiquitously designed London Underground perforated steel Toro seating.

Day was also commissioned in 1964 to design a wooden dining hall and library furniture for Cambridge’s Churchill College. The 70s found the designer occupied by his most demanding project which he completed in 1981. The massive commission included designs for seating for the five auditoria and foyers of the Barbican Centre. Day also worked for Pye in the latter part of 1940s, designing radios and television. From 1960-66, the designer created daring, abstract-patterned carpets for carpet manufacturer Woodward Grosvenor.

His work at Hille not only brought about the polyprop chairs but also the Toro and Woodrobeam seats which came out in 1990 and set the standard for seating in public areas. He designed the Sussex bench for Magis in 2003. Day also created the RD wooden chairs, released in 2008.

Hillestak chair, Robin Day, 1951 – photo by Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation

Apart from furniture, Day also designed interiors. Among those were John Lewis department stores and several Waitrose supermarkets. One of his most notable interior design was in Milton Keynes in 1979.

Robin also had collaborations with his wife Lucienne. The couple worked for John Lewis Partnership as joint design consultants. There they were responsible for the overseeing of the new comprehensive house style from 1962-1987 and its introduction. The Days also designed the interiors for the British Overseas Airways Corporation’s Vickers and Boeing aircraft (1960s).

Day was awarded his OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1983. He was also an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art. His daughter, Paula, established the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, a charitable organisation in 2012. Among its objectives is to advance the public’s education by “generating knowledge, appreciation and understanding” of Britain’s design heritage, particularly the works of Robin and Lucienne.

Day’s designs prioritised durability, function, and comfort. His furniture was an inspiration for many modern furniture designers. Robin Day devoted himself to creating high-tech, mass-produced, budget furniture believing it would contribute to the betterment of the world. The designer believes that with the planet having finite resources, designers and architects have a responsibility for conserving materials and energy and therefore must create in creating things that would endure.