Penguin Donkey Bookcase by Egon Riss and Isokon, 1939
In the late 1930s this little bookcase was set to be a best seller, but its success was thwarted by the onset of war. Now it is a rare design.
It was made by Isokon, probably the most forward-thinking British furniture manufacturer of the 1930s. All Isokon furniture exploited the strength and lightness of bent plywood. Its founder, Jack Pritchard, worked with the leading modernist designers and architects of the day to produce what have become design classics, such as Marcel Breuer’s famous Long Chair.
It was named the Donkey because it had four legs and two panniers. The space between the side-compartments could be used for magazines. The Donkey impressed Allen Lane, the publisher of the new Penguin paperbacks. He inserted 100,000 leaflets for it into Penguin books and the newly renamed Isokon Penguin Donkey looked set to be a great success. The shelves in the bookcase were just the right size to house the distinctive orange-covered Penguin paperbacks. Unfortunately the Second World War broke out at exactly the time that the Donkey was launched and the production of the Donkey ceased. Only about a hundred Donkeys were made, which all sold very fast.
In his memoir Jack Pritchard recalled the Penguin Donkey:
'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.' (Jack Pritchard, View from a Long Chair, 1984).