• 12 February 2019
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Seminar Room, Paul Mellon Centre

‘Today,’ wrote the modernist architect and publicist F.R.S. Yorke in 1935, in his first introduction as editor of the annual guide to best practice,Specification, ‘it is impossible to ignore proprietary building products and to continue to practise as an architect.’ The interwar period in Britain saw an enormous expansion of the building products industry - from roofing materials to boilers, paints, bricks and cables – and the development of many new mechanisms through which manufacturers could secure their sales. Architects’ selection of one branded product over another in the specification on behalf of the client was one such ‘devious route’, as formalized in Yorke’s guide or evident in Elisabeth Benjamin’s everyday tussles over product selection for a modernist house East Wall with her Ripolin paint executive client (1935). But they also acted as conduits for these new commodities in other ways; from Architectural Association secretary Frank Yerbury’s four-storey products emporium The Building Centre in New Bond Street (opened 1932) to Edna Mosely’s designs on behalf of the the Electrical Association for Women for demonstration houses, flats, and ‘housecraft’ kitchens and their Regent Street headquarters (1931-35) and Wells Coates’ product-studded Sunspan show home at the Ideal Home Exhibition (1934).

This proprietary turn was hotly debated by architects at the time, and its effects extended well beyond the pragmatic procedures of the building industry, to transform the aesthetic and discursive concerns of modern architecture. That the selection of one product over another may be more associated with the lowly shopper than with the expert designer or architect, and that ‘shopping’ has been so much identified with women, due in part to their recruitment as consumers in the 1930s, may explain why architectural history has overlooked this significant development and our reluctance today to question the architect’s role as product broker.

Image credit courtesy of The Building Centre, Insulight window display at The Building Centre, New Bond St, London, 1930s

The Fellows Lunchs are a series talks given by recipients of Paul Mellon Centre Fellowships. Lunch is provided and all are welcome but please book a ticket in advance.

About the speaker

  • Katie Lloyd Thomas is Professor of Theory and History of Architecture at Newcastle University where she co-directs the Architecture Research Collaborative (ARC), and is an editor of the international journal arq, Architectural Research Quarterly. Katie edited the Material Matters(Routledge, 2007) and with Tilo Amhoff and Nick Beech, edited Industries of Architecture (Routledge, 2015). She was visiting Research Fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal in 2017, and is the recipient of mid career fellowships by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art and Architecture and Leverhulme to prepare her monograph The Architect as Shopper. Katie is a founder member of the feminist collective taking place www.takingplace.org.uk whose collaborations include The Other Side of Waiting, a series of artworks, in the mother and baby unit at Homerton Hospital, Hackney. Her research often explores the intersections between technology and gender. Recent publications in this area include ‘Feminist Hydro-logics in Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean’ in ed. Jane Hutton Landscript 5, (Jovis, 2017) and ‘The Architect as Shopper: Women, electricity, building products and the interwar ‘proprietary turn’ in the UK’ in Architecture and Feminisms: Economies, ecologies, technologies, eds. Hélène Frichot, Catharina Gabrielsson, Helen Runting (Routledge, 2017).