Collection of 1930s Gerald Summers Furniture Up for Sale

Gerald Summers for Makers of Simple Furniture, trolley, c. 1937, - Lyon & Turnbull

An important collection of the work of English modernist designer Gerald Summers (1899-1967) comes up for sale in London later this month. The MODERN MADE auction at Lyon & Turnbull on October 28th includes 23 pieces of 1930s furniture by Summers, lovingly acquired over many years.

Gerald Summers and his partner Marjorie Butcher opened their London shop, Makers of Simple Furniture, in 1931. For a decade, until the firm’s closed with the onset of the Second World War, Simple Furniture produced more than 200 designs conceived in the modernist creed as “furniture for the concrete age.” The emphasis was very much on function, modern materials, and machine methods of manufacture. “A thing had to do a job,” Butcher said, “and so Gerald designed it to do the job it was meant to do.” At the time it was sold through department stores and furnishing shops in London, such as Heal’s.

Gerald Summers for Makers of Simple Furniture, D-end Desk, c. 1934 – Lyon & Turnbull

Like so much of British inter-war design, Summers’ work was largely forgotten by the market until the advent of the 21st century. Summers’ reputations in particular had paled in comparison with contemporaries such as Marcel Breuer or Alvar Aalto who worked in much the same medium. However, increasingly today he is seen as a pioneer and his works the precursor to the ubiquitous moulded plywood chairs made later in the century by Charles and Ray Eames.

For the MODERN MADE catalogue, Martha Deese, an authority on Gerald Summers who will publish a book on Simple Furniture next year, has penned an introductory article. She writes: “Simple Furniture’s products found an enthusiastic audience among forward-thinking members of the British public. Today, as more and more of his designs come to light, we, too, can experience first-hand the rare combination of simplicity, utility, and beauty that distinguishes Gerald Summers’s work and makes his furniture as compelling to us in the 21st century as it was to the avant-garde in the 1930s.”


The collection includes a fine example of Summers’ best-known design, his armchair c.1933-34 made from a single sheet of birch plywood. Summers had the ingenious vision to try to construct a chair that would require no joins and create very little waste, relying instead on simple incisions and mould-bending. The example here was purchased new by the Oxford artist Juliette May Lucille Edwards (1909-2011) and acquired by the vendor from her estate in 2011. The estimate is £7000-9000.

Gerald Summers for Makers of Simple Furniture, armchair, c. 1933-4 – Lyon & Turnbull

Another piece with a provenance to its original owner is as a set of three nesting tables c.1935 estimated at £1500-2000. These came by descent from Cecil Handisyde (b.1908), one of a team of architects who designed the Lansbury Estate in Tower Hamlets, London. The first phase of building was undertaken as the ‘live architecture’ element of the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition. A stained ash plywood and brass trolley c.1936 is Summers’ only documented design for Isokon, the design firm founded by Jack Pritchard and Welles Coates. Both Isokon and Simple Furniture used the same birch plywood manufacturer Venesta in their furniture making. Although a series of copies were produced in the early 2000s, only 20 or so original trolleys were thought to have been made before plywood became difficult to source with the onset of the Second World War. A similar piece (perhaps this one) featured in the Bent Wood and Metal Furniture 1850-1946 exhibition organised by The American Federation of Arts which travelled to nine institutions around the US in the 1980s. Estimate £12,000-18,000.

Gerald Summers for Makers of Simple Furniture, Type P Chair, c. 1934 – Lyon & Turnbull

Another particularly rare piece is a Type P chair, with legs formed from single strips of bent plywood, which rise to form the back supports. The Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino created a pair of plywood chairs for the Casa Cattaneo using a similar technique two decades later. This is believed to be the only example of this chair to exist, though it is known that two were originally produced. It was described in the Makers of Simple Furniture advertising as: “Suitable for occasional or dining use. Constructed of selected birch and finished in clear polish”. The Type P chair is estimated at £12,000-18,000.

You can see specialist Joy McCall talking on the collection here.

MODERN MADE: Modern & Post-War Art & Design and Studio Ceramics
28th October 2022

See also: HELMUT NEWTON. BRANDS Opens in December

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