Born in Repton, Derbyshire on 21st December 1903 Richard Drew Russell grew up in the Cotswold village of Broadway.
Dick, as he was known, was introduced to furniture design when he joined his older brother, Gordon, in the repair shop mending furniture for their father’s country hotel, The Lygon Arms. With his brother’s encouragement Russell attended the Architectural Association School, where he studied under the Danish designer Steen Eiler Rasmussen HonRDI. With his education completed Russell returned to Broadway to take charge of the design office for Gordon Russell Ltd. His architectural training introduced the concept of designing rooms rather than individual pieces. He invited young architectural students to work with him, including future RDI Robert Goodden, as well as the carpet designer Marian Pepler, who would become his wife.
The threat of the great economic depression of the 1930s led Russell to design over 80 modernist cabinets for Murphy radios. Such was the success of this venture that Russell commissioned the architect Geoffrey Jellicoe to build a factory in Park Royal to cope with the orders. Another company, De La Rue, invited Russell to design a radio cabinet using a new material, Bakelite, but this was never put into production.
Russell moved to London in 1932 to set up in private practice, although he still continued to design for the family firm. He returned to Broadway with his family on the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy and was drafted into the Admiralty’s camouflage unit, where he worked alongside future RDIs Hugh Casson, James Gardner and Robert Goodden, as well as Robin Darwin.
Appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1944 Russell served as Master of the Faculty from 1957 to 1959. An admirer of Russell’s work, the RSA President, HRH Prince Philip commissioned him to design a lecture bench for the Society. Russell, after the Prince had welcomed the audience, was the first to use this bench, for his oration on ‘Quality’, in 1957. He said that he had ‘become more and more convinced that, in this country, too much attention has been focused on appearance and too little attention given to quality, without which design has no real distinction’. Another commission for the RSA was a mahogany table, to seat 32, for their new Council Room (1957), and he wrote a number of reviews for the RSA Journal, as well as an obituary for Wells Coates RDI.
In 1946 he resumed his London practice and began work on the upcoming ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition, for which he designed one of the furnished rooms, as well as exhibiting radios and school furniture. At Casson’s invitation, Russell and Goodden designed the ‘Lion and Unicorn’ Pavilion, which was dedicated to the British character, for the Festival of Britain, 1951.
In 1948 Russell was appointed Professor of Wood, Metal and Plastics for the Royal College of Art (RCA). He developed a teaching method which owed much to that of the Danish designer Kaare Klint HonRDI, and his tenure saw the emergence of some of the most influential post-war designers, including future RDIs Ron Carter and Robert Heritage. On his retirement in 1964 he was given the status of Professor Emeritus.
In 1960 Russell was approached by Basil Spence RDI to supply him with chairs for the new Coventry Cathedral. Practical, hard-wearing and with minimal visual impact on the interior, Russell’s ‘Coventry’ chair is such a successful design that London based furniture maker Luke Hughes has brought it back into production. Russell’s private practice became increasingly busy with consultancy work and commissions for interiors, including one from Sir Duncan Oppenheim to fit out the Millbank offices of British American Tobacco. Other projects in the 1960s included furniture and interiors for Claridges Hotel, room interiors for the University of Essex and the tourist class cabins for the Orion. His growing reputation led the Rank Organisation to commission Russell’s practice to design and build a ski hotel at Coylumbridge in the Cairngorms, which was opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh in 1965. Unfortunately King Faisal of Iraq was assassinated before he could take delivery of the ‘Baghdad’ rosewood table, with ivory, pearwood and ebony decorative inlays and silver candle sconces. Queen Elizabeth II commissioned a table, featuring a photographic map of the D Day landings, as a present for President Eisenhower when she visited the USA in 1957. Russell’s final major project was in 1968, when he collaborated with Goodden on the redesign of the displays for the Western Sculpture Gallery at the British Museum.
Penny Sparke described Russell and his wife as ‘formulating a peculiarly British brand of modernism’.
Dick Russell died, at the age of 67, on 16th October 1981.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Living room in a large town house – p142
Ray Leigh, Two of a Kind. The Work of Designers Dick & Marian Russell (Worcester: Gordon Russell Design Museum, 2013)
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-R-71-1. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.