Paula Day remembers her father as a man who was always “up to something”, happiest when he was working with his hands. “He would disappear down into his basement workshop,” she says, “and then he’d come upstairs with something he’d made. It was a bit of a magic process to a child; he always liked to surprise us.”
One of the great figures of 20th-century British furniture design, Robin Day was “all about making something wonderful from minimal resources”. In wartime London he patched together furniture from bomb-site materials, and later modernised an entire genre of design with his bent plywood and steel-rod seating for the Royal Festival Hall, unveiled at the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1963, his plastic stacking chair for furniture company Hille sold in its millions.
His wife, textile designer Lucienne Day, whom he met at a Royal College of Art dance, also had international success at the Festival of Britain with her Calyx fabric, playing on motifs of greenery and growth via abstract artistic influences such as Paul Klee. Together, the Days made a powerful domestic alliance. “My mother used to say how lucky she was,” says Paula. “When she saw a need for something like shelves, he would be her designer and carefully work out what was required.” They were, she adds, “at their happiest together creating their homes”.
Most of the Days’ married life – more than half a century – was spent at their London riverside home on Cheyne Walk, where they worked at back-to-back drawing boards in their ground-floor studio, and where Robin designed in his basement workshop. They spent their last decade (they died within a year of one another in 2010) in a medieval townhouse in Chichester, and it was as Paula was clearing this final home that she felt “very aware that all of the possessions might be of interest because they had belonged to famous designers … It would be a waste to sell or give them away anonymously.” The couple had talked about a sale of heirlooms when they were still alive but the concept bemused Robin: “It was characteristic of my father that he was chuffed but surprised that people would want his things.”
Family, friends and public collections have chosen items from the Days’ estate; the V&A, for example, has picked an upholstered plastic bedroom chair. Now, to disperse more of the remaining pieces and raise money for the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, heirlooms from their 68-year marriage are being sold off during the London Design Festival via a selling exhibition, At Home with the Days.
The vogue for mid-century style means that their pieces are very much in demand. Earlier this year, the foundation auctioned several Robin Day items at Christie’s; his Forum sofa sold for £8,750 – almost three times its highest estimate. The new sale includes larger pieces such as a bespoke kitchen table, but mostly the lots speak of the Days’ playful, elegant taste: Scandinavian tableware, combs from Japan, a print by Bridget Riley, Indian carvings, Mexican stone figures.
Simon Alderson, co-founder of the twentytwentyone furniture store in London, where the exhibition is being held, says: “It’s really a very rich and diverse insight into the designers’ lives. Their own work figures strongly, with rare and one-off designs; a prototype Leo armchair, a bespoke dining table from their Cheyne Walk house, silk mosaics by Lucienne Day. Personal items include jewellery, a collection of blue-and-white mugs, handwritten recipes.”
When these pieces were in situ at Cheyne Walk, it was a home of imposing style: “There was lots of light, and the sitting area had a great atmosphere of space,” Paula remembers. “The brickwork was painted white around an open fire – it would have been very fresh at the time.” The dining area had “a feeling of enclosure and warmth, one wall veneered in walnut, the ceiling painted black … As a child I was very aware that it was a space that was beautifully maintained and I wasn’t to leave any mess. Important clients and journalists were entertained there.”
The Days’ purchases were always made together, although “in no sense were they collectors”, Paula says. “It was terribly personal – something would catch their eye and, if they liked it, both of them would have to choose it.”
Some diplomacy was necessary: “My mother had a very strong sense of high quality – her father [had been] a bit of a connoisseur,” Paula says. “My father, on the other hand, all his instincts were about thrift, and they obviously negotiated that throughout their life.” She laughs: “I think my mother may have sneaked in an elaborate cane chair but that was about it.”
Alderson says: “Some of their antiques express an interest in older and eclectic objects – for example, the brass telescope and Victorian writing slope.” But the practical – and durable – nature of their possessions stands out: “There is wholly functional and collectable Scandinavian table and kitchenware – servers from Georg Jensen, enamelware from Jens Quistgaard, a cutlery set by Kay Bojesen … The Days were thrifty and creative designers and there is a wonderful table ensemble, which Robin made from items in his shed to serve a purpose beside his chair – a reading lamp and drawer for spectacles.”
True to the make-do spirit of the 1940s, they made things last. One lot in the sale is a pair of curtains made in 1957 in Lucienne’s Magnetic fabric to screen the garden door at Cheyne Walk, latterly used to cover the windows of Robin’s room in Chichester. As Paula says: “They had things in their home because they liked them.”
‘At Home with the Days’ is at twentytwentyone, 18c River Street, London EC1R 1XN, September 17-21. The online auction closes at midnight on September 21; twentytwentyone.com; robinandluciennedayfoundation.org