While lots of fascinating pieces of plywood furniture can be seen in Plywood: Material of the Modern World, there are many others with interesting stories to tell that could not be included. This post will look at the Penguin Donkey bookcase which was designed by the Viennese émigré Egon Riss (1901-64) for the Isokon Furniture Company.
Founded in 1935 by Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) the Isokon Furniture Company was one of the few British companies truly devoted to modernism. Many renowned designers including Marcel Breuer (1902-81) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969) worked for Isokon and lived for a time at Lawn Road Flats – a block of modernist flats in Hampstead designed by Wells Coates (1895-1958) for Pritchard.
Egon Riss escaped Nazi occupied Austria in 1938 and moved into the Lawn Road Flats in February 1939. Whilst living there he produced a series of witty and charming designs for furniture – the Gull, the Bottleship, the Pocket Bottleship and the Penguin Donkey.
The Penguin Donkey was designed to hold the new type of paperbacks being published by Penguin, which for the first time made quality literature available to a wide public for the price of a pack of ten cigarettes (which were a lot cheaper in the 1930s). At the time high-quality literature was only available as expensive hardback books. It was generally thought that people who wanted to read this kind of literature would be willing to pay the high-price of a hardback and that people who wanted cheap books would only be interested the ‘trashy’ pulp fiction already available. Penguin proved this attitude wrong. In 1935 they launched their first ten books which included titles such as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and André Maurois’s Ariel. The books were so successful that the first editions sold out very quickly and had to be reprinted. By 1937 they had published their 100th title.
The bookcase was named the ‘Penguin Donkey’ because its design resembles a pair of panniers sat on four legs. The panniers act as shelving to carry the books while the central slot is used to store newspapers and magazines. Several of the original designs for the Donkey are held in the V&A’s Prints, Drawings and Paintings Collections. They offer an insight into the design process and construction of the bookcase.
This blueprint reveals how the Donkey is constructed. On the right is a key showing the component parts. Each part is identified by a letter which corresponds to the cross-sectional drawing illustrating how each of the pieces fit together. The Donkey is constructed entirely of plywood – mainly pieces cut from board but with one piece of moulded plywood to form the magazine slot.
This drawing appears to show an earlier stage in the design process. In this version the moulded plywood piece that forms the magazine slot does not curve over the top of the pannier sections which leaves the top shelves as a flat surfaces.
This is one of Riss’s designs for a handy little drinks cabinet known as the Bottleship. According to Pritchard only one prototype was ever made and it sadly no longer exists. This drawing shows that the design and construction of the Bottleship may have been very similar to that of the Donkey – the main difference being that one of the panniers has been redesigned to hold bottles. As the prototype no longer exists it is not known whether this particular solution would have worked in practice.
The Donkey was set to become Isokon’s first commercially successful product with Allen Lane, Penguin’s founder, offering to advertise it for free in leaflets inserted into every Penguin book. However, very few were ever made (according to Pritchard only 100 were produced). The outbreak of the Second World War cut off the supply of plywood parts from Estonia so Isokon had to cease production.
In 1963 Pritchard restarted production commissioning British designer Ernest Race (1913-64) to redesign both the Penguin Donkey and the Bottleship. Race’s version of the Donkey retains the panniers and four legs, but rather than being curved and organic in form it is rectilinear with flat tops to hold drinks. Its construction is much simpler – consisting of two plywood boxes attached by screws to two sets of mahogany legs. It could be purchased by mail order and was advertised in Penguin paperbacks. The pleasure of final assembly was left up to the purchaser and involved the turning of eight screws to attach the shelves to the legs – a screwdriver was conveniently supplied with the bookcase. The Bottleship Mark 2 is similar in design but is closed rather than open, with a hinged lid, to allow for space to store bottles and glasses.
As is true for many modernist designers working with plywood Riss’s design for the Donkey celebrates the material – exposing all the plywood edges and using the material’s ability to be moulded to create unusual, organic, curved forms.
Isokon’s successor firm, Isokon Plus, still make Penguin Donkey, Penguin Donkey Mark 2 and Bottleship Mark 2. In 2003 they commissioned designers Shin (b. 1965) and Tomoko (b. 1966) Azumi to design the Penguin Donkey Mark 3.
If you would like to view these designs or other designs for the Isokon Furniture Company please make an appointment in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. Details on how to make an appointment can be found here.
Acknowledgement: the following publications have been very helpful in writing this blog and are fascinating and informative reads for anyone interested in modernist design.
Alastair Grieve, Isokon (London, 2004)
Jack Pritchard, View from a Long Chair (London, 1984)
Christopher Wilk, Modernism: designing a new world (London, 2006)
Christopher Wilk, Plywood: a material story (London, 2017)