Isokon Penguin Donkey

The story of the Isokon Penguin Donkey has a long introduction beginning in 1921 when the Isokon company was founded and run by Jack Pritchard to design and construct modernist houses and flats, and subsequently furniture and fittings for them. Their key project was the Lawn Road Flats, (a.k.a. Isokon Building), which opened in July 1934. A little later the Marcel Breuer’s Isobar cafe/restaurant was added.

isokon-plus-penguin-donkey-by-Egon-Riss

But back to the Donkey…designed by Egon Riss in 1939, only 100 of these were produced and sold, and as such, an original is a very rare thing indeed. Despite all signs pointing to it being a best seller, it’s success was thwarted by the onset of the Second World War as the company’s supply of plywood was cut off.

The bookcase is made from birch wood and was named the Donkey because it had four legs and two panniers. The shelves are just the right size to house Penguins books perfectly and the space between the side-compartments can be used for magazines. The Donkey impressed Allen Lane, the publisher of the new Penguin paperbacks so much he inserted 100,000 leaflets for it into Penguin books and the newly named Isokon Penguin Donkey looked set to be a great success.

In his memoir ‘View from a Long Chair,’ Jack Pritchard recalls:

‘Selling the Isokon Penguin Donkey had its amusing side. One day a friendly voice came over the telephone saying his son had received one. I asked if he liked it; oh yes, but his son was three years old. Another time a policeman rang saying that a highly indignant man had received a carton containing an unasked-for Donkey, and complaining of improper selling methods. When I told the policeman that a few people would play tricks and send the reply postcard addressed to someone to pull their leg, the conversation ended in chuckles.’

Sadly, timing was not on Isokon’s side as the Second World War brought the end and the company had to close in 1939.

isokon-donkey-at-geffrye-museum

But in 1963, Jack Pritchard revived the Isokon Furniture Company (don’t call it a comeback) and Pritchard began to make some changes to the pieces in the range. He hired Ernest Race to redesign the Penguin Donkey due to changes in the manufacture of plywood. In 1966 Pritchard and his wife Molly retired to Suffolk and in 1968 Pritchard licensed John Alan Designs to produce the Long Chair, Nesting Tables and the Penguin Donkey 2 which they continued to do until 1980.

In 1982, Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture took over the license to manufacture Isokon pieces and since then has been made in Chiswick, London. Not much change happened to the pieces until in 1996, British designers BarberOsgerby were commissioned to design new pieces for the company, now named Isokon Plus.

isokon-plus-penguin-donkey

The success of these new pieces, perfectly fitting the collection of modernist furniture, spawned some other changes when in 2003, Shin and Tomoko Azumi were asked to redesign the Penguin Donkey once more, which they did in birch wood veneer and pale grey lacquered wood.

The Donkey has been through a lot in its 74-year history having seen War and moved through four different companies before settling in its current state. Today, all three versions of the Donkey are available to buy, which shows a great lineage over the best part of the last 100 years when modernism was taking up residence in London.

I’m looking forward to seeing the next version of the Donkey, no doubt to be redesigned in another 30 years time.

Designer: Egon Riss, Ernest Race and Shin & Tomoko Azumi
Manufacturer: Isokon Plus
Year: 1939, 1963 and 2003
Price: £570 – £650

Daniel

Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started ateliertally.com as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.

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