Design Heroes Series: Ernest Race

Design Heroes Series: Ernest Race:Track Race [Race and Chapman]

“Anyone seeking Englishness in modern English furniture would immediately think of Race for all his work had the directness, logic, economy and sturdy elegance that one associates with the best of our 18th century craftsmanship and of our 19th century engineering”

Paul Reilly


The A&R has argued that Colin Chapman ought to be considered Industrial Designer of International repute. This has not always been the case, but there is some evidence in academic publications offer a re-evaluation; we hope to rectify this omission by a series of articles and benchmarking. In order to achieve this the A&R are committed to a series of articles entitled Design Heroes in which great designers past and present are compared with Chapman. The benefit of this exercise is that the principles of good design can be analyzed in detail.

The A&R introduced the Design Heroes Series in order to:-

  1. To explain the Industrial/Product Design aspect of Colin Chapman’s career
  2. To benchmark Chapman amongst the foremost designers no just in automobile engineering but in other fields that he attempted diversification i.e. motor boats, microlights, utility furniture, building and garden utility items
  3. To explain that many of the greatest product designers including Chapman extrapolated new materials and technologies and developed these in entrepreneurial ways.

Haskell devotes a short chapter to Chapman’s “Furniture and Other Ventures”

Haskell records that furniture was one of Chapman’s pet interests.

He also explains that “projects motivated by hopes of successful diversification ………..”

So Chapman like most of those in our Design Heroes series possessed a formal design qualification and used their skills to design products on a commercial /entrepreneurial basis complementary to their main discipline

Haskell records Chapman’s first experimentation assisted by Ron Hickman was a range of furniture to be marketed with brand name “Line Lotus”. These items were intended for public utility locations such as airport lounges and railway stations.

They diversified around the core skills .The seat illustrated by Haskell [and our model translation] comprised a group of 3 seats separated with a storage shelf between .This was in glass fibre and mounted on a tube frame.

The concept had precedent but did not prove commercial.

Later between 1973-’78 Chapman allowed Colin Gethin to design a luxury reclining chair [again illustrated by Haskell and our model]. The design as recorded by Haskell “exploited Lotus structural principles, was beautifully finished with leather upholstery.”

This piece won a design award but was not proceeded with commercially.

Chapman attempted to diversify into other household products based on FG moulding including window frames, garden ponds and body mould tools for DeLorean

When we examine Chapman’s design oeuvre we can select from: –

  • Road cars
  • Competition cars up to F1
  • Work of Design Consultancy
  • Furniture [not commercially exploited]
  • Utility building /garden products [again not commercially exploited]
  • Microlights [cut short by premature death]
  • Motor Boats

Our belief that Chapman was an Industrial/Product designer has been reinforced by our visit early in 2017 to the Design Museum, London. Here we explored the permanent exhibition entitled “Designer, Maker, User” .This exhibition triggered connectivity and extent to which Chapman held a holistic relationship with each i.e.:-

  • He was designer –we have ample evidence of his drawings , design briefs and his collaboration with other notable designers
  • He was an entrepreneur manufacturing both road and competition cars
  • He diversified on occasions in entrepreneurial manner [see Haskell above]
  • He founded a design consultancy which undertook a wide spectrum of commissions
  • He drove his own products to obtain objective feed back
  • He contributed to sales literature , set up dealer networks and handled PR primarily through racing and motoring journals

These articles are of interest therefore to a wide audience of professionals in the creative media, advertising, brand management and design.

Here we are able to integrate design orientated commercial disciplines and to do this through benchmarking.

Subscribers might like to see other Design Heroes in the series:-

  • Jean Prouve
  • Alva Aalto
  • Marcel Breuer
  • Walter Gropius
  • Bauhaus
  • Eileen Gray
  • Carlo Mollino
  • Ray and Charles Eames
  • Robin Day
  • Ron Hickman,
  • Giorgio Giugiaro [Ital Design]
  • Brunel
  • Raymond Loewy
  • Buckminster Fuller
  • Dieter Rams
  • Italian Designers/The Italian Line
  • M.Brandt
  • Frank Costin
  • Chapman /Lotus Chassis Design –Lotus Mk.VI etc



During the War there was perhaps a growing awareness that Britain’s World position, its Empire and socio-economic base would need change and updating. Victorian infrastructure was approximately 100 years old and in need of upgrading .In 1941 Picture Post recommended a “Plan for Britain” this was soon followed by the Beveridge Report. In 1944 Hugh Dalton at the board of Trade set up the Council of Industrial Design. The first chairman was Sir Thomas Barlow. The purpose of the Council was “to promote by all practical means the improvement of design in the products of British Industry.”

One of the first opportunities to mark a return to peacetime production was the major exhibition of consumer goods; “Britain Can Make It” in 1946. The purpose and objective was:

  • Demonstrate to the world the quality of British design,
  • Raise morale and perhaps influence taste and market design. An organisation called Mass Observation had an important role in conducting what is now known as market research or to evaluate public taste.
  • Arouse interest in design [this might have been a very complex motive perhaps some realizing the world not be the same again]
  • There may have also been undertones and agenda towards the

Imperative to export, mass production allied to mass consumption, international competition, levels of capital investment and a bolster to free market with democracy.

  • Make the best of enforced scarcity
  • Refocus British traditionalist and perhaps increasingly outmoded manufacturing concepts

The exhibition was a success and displayed approximately 5000 assorted items. Included were:

    • A super streamlined cycle by Allen/Ben? Bowden
    • The “Future Taxicab” by Milner Gray.
    • The “Wingsail Catamaran” by Wells Coates.
    • Light weight portable sowing machine by FHK Henrion & JW Woods
    • Interplanetary spaceship

It’s believed that 1,432546 visitors attended.

There was a circular route and some of the now famous war time “commandments were present in themes of “War to Peace, “Dig for Victory” and “Make Do and Mend”. A central feature was women’s fashion and to promote this was a complex revolving stage 25feet high.

Gordon Russell and Utility Furniture were also given prominence.

Space was devoted to:

  • Great British Designers
  • The Council of Industrial Design
  • What Industrial Design Means
  • The Designer Looks Ahead. [Anticipating projects 5-25 years ahead.]

Mass Observation analysis deducted that the main interest had been furnished rooms, women’s fashion and fabrics and furniture.

Individually Ernest Race made a considerable impact with his Race Cast Aluminum Chair BA/3.

“Britain Can Make It” succeeded in planting new ideas.

“Britain Can Make It” was followed and reinforced five years later with the Festival of Britain [see A&R article].

Here we will look at brief context details and objectives.

Petrol 3/4d gallon

Large white loaf 6d

Seaside hotel [1 week] £6/6/0d

Semidetached house £1450

Pint of Beer 1/3d

Average weekly wage for full time workers

Men: £8/6/0

Women: £4/9/10d

Britain was still struggling; rationing still existed but there were more positive signs of recovery.

Of the 1951 Festival of Britain it was hoped would promote a spirit of optimism and act as a catalyst. It was to be a bright space age funfair cum expo.

In fact it was a considerable success. 8.5 million people are believed to have attended paying 4 shillings entry and 15% of visitors were foreign tourists. It was a considerable achievement in difficult times.

It was extremely popular and offered frivolity, freedom, whimsy, a sense of humour, freedom of expression, gaiety, excitement and steel bands from the West Indies. The Festival and the accompanying fun fair at Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park were extremely romantic when lit at night and accompanied by couples dancing [Dance Pavilion and people had a choice of food to eat at the Crescent Restaurant etc.]

The exhibition was a Universal International Exhibition held in London. Its objective was to demonstrate to the world the UK recovery from the effects of war, morale cultural, spiritual and in material fields.

This was approached by examining themes:

  • Britain’s contribution to Civilization; past present future in arts science, technology and industrial design.
  • Land of Britain
  • People of Britain
  • Britain’s contribution to discovery.

These were addressed and displayed with Festival ship, Land Traveling Exhibition and an Exhibition of Industrial Power

The Exhibition site on the Southbank featured the:

  • Royal Festival Hall
  • Lion and Unicorn Pavilion
  • Dome of Discovery [designed by Ralph Tubbs]. At the time the largest dome in existence.
  • Skylon [300 feet landmark and futuristic sculpture]
  • Power and Production Pavilion
  • Transport Pavilion
  • Sea and Ships Pavilion

In fact it was very inclusive and affectionately recorded “from lipstick to locomotives”

A hardback book accompanied the exhibition and was titled “Design in the Festival”

For many of the design professionals the Festival was the Brave New World and a significant turning point. Wartime destruction would need to be made good and there was a mood demanding social change. For many science, engineering, technology, scientific management and skills of wartime planning were required for reconstruction. The social housing estate in Popular, East London that accompanied the exhibition was to be a model and blue print. For all the idealism and social momentum many of our current problems might have been sown in the attempts to rebuild too quickly, and allow some responsibilities to be handed over to misplaced “experts”.

Colin Chapman and Lotus’s Contribution

This article has set out the major determinates of the era.

Colin Chapman, his peers and helpers more than most were in the spirit of their time and the vanguard of technological driven motor sport. They delivered.

Within a brief ten years they had risen from backyard amateur trials competitor to International Motor-sport dominating national club level sport on the way.

From modest beginnings at Hornsey with minimum of capital or plant they innovated, improvised and extrapolated technology in a free thinking scientific methodical approach.


  1. Build and raced a succession of brilliantly engineered cars; including the revolutionary tour de force of the Elite [which Bridget Bishop captured in photographs]
  2. They won National and International Competition including Le Mans [i.e. at group category]
  3. They employed men including mainly British drivers and acknowledged the contribution of craft skills like those of Williams & Pritchard and Progress chassis. Lotus earned significant income for the nation.
  4. They exported cars and towards the end of the decade were on the brink of mass production.
  5. The lifted the moral of the nation
  6. They became a byword for technological success
  7. They were a significant role model and were copied internationally.
  8. They were particularly British in their “craftsmanship” This was about playing to strength and tradition. A combination of determination, ruthless competitiveness balanced with aesthetic appreciation.

Overall Lotus helped within a decade raise a nation that had been on its knees into a “renaissance” of achievement in the arts music, technology and science. Lotus would further extend and enlarge their contribution in the 1960’s.

The photographs of Bridget Bishop record both a watershed and transition. It’s believed that Bridget may have undertaken her photographic assignment on two occasions [possibly October 1956 through March 1957 and October 1957]. However the greater likelihood that the pictures taken may have been in September or October 1957.

Ernest RACE [ 1913 -1964]

Ernest Race to some is considered one of the most original and influential British furniture designer /manufacturer and retailer of the mid –twentieth century. Also, he is deemed to be one of the significant innovators and inventive and “challenging exponents of mid –century British design “of the period.

There is some evidence to suggest that Race and Jordan [light engineering] translated the technological breakthroughs of WWII into new furniture style to suit the contemporary need.

He achieved “national acclaim during the 1950’s with his unique, forward thinking furniture designs “

He studied design at the Bartlett School of architecture in the early 1930’s. He then worked as draughtsman at Troughton &Young-lighting manufacturers.

“Through his early career as draughtsman he was able to meet many of the leading British and emigre European Modernist figureheads including Walter Gropius and the founder of Isokon –Jack Pritchard [ see dedicated A&R articles]

In 1937 following a trip to India he opened Race Fabrics .This was both a textile firm and shop to facilitate the manufacture of his designs.

During the War Race served in the AFS in London. At the end of the war c 1945 he entered a partnership with JWN Jordan and formed Ernest Race Ltd. Race occupied the positions of director and chief designer.

Developments in the design of domestic objects like the chair came to a standstill during World War II and in the period of material shortages immediately afterwards. Ingenious designers and manufacturers then harnessed the wartime advances in materials and production processes by the defense industry for consumer products. At the forefront of innovation were the US designers Charles and Ray Eames and their collaborators on the West Coast, helped by empathetic manufacturers such as Knoll and Hermann Miller.

Race aesthetics of 1950’s

  • Highly personal design vocabulary –fluid, skilled and at times eccentric or at least whimsical synthesis of modernism and Victoriana
  • Complementary to architecture of the Festival of Britain
  • Ideal for public space use and café
  • Furniture is functional, restrained, robust yet light weight and playful and easy to handle
  • His work is instrumental in formulating contemporary style. Contemporary and a compromise between English traditional, Swedish and Bauhaus objectivity
  • Translates materials and technology of 2WW into contemporary mood and needs
  • The furniture is characterised by clean lines and splayed leg forms


Figure 1. Image from the net.

Race designed furniture

This is summarised list of items by Ernest Race

Year Year Year
1946-48 BA
1951 Antelope
1953 Neptune Lounge chair for P&O
1958 Unicorn
1959 Flamingo
1963 Sheppey

BA Chairs and Tables

Figure 2

The BA chair was very carefully designed and constructed [see diagram in brochure illustration above]. Race or his engineering partner are likely to have been knowledgeable about military aviation practice developed during the war.

The design combined recycled die cast aluminium , bonded plywood , latex foam and a variety of coverings to help soften the functional frame. Its reputed parachute silk was also used when other fabrics were not available.

The BA chair is believed to have been formed in five interchangeable pieces. This allowed economy in production and also the transporting and volume were massively reduced. The BA could be assembled on site and possibly represented the early flat pack option.

The BA range possessed strength and lightness It articulated visual minimalism.

The evidence of its success is recorded in the fact 1/4 million items were sold between 1945- into the 1960’s.

Understandably this item and the Antelope won awards at 10th Milan Triennale.

Figure 3

Antelope and Springbok Chair and Table [metal rod construction]

This contributed to the success of the Festival of Britain [see above]. It very much reflected the spirit of the age and the mood.

This was made in the cold bending method.

The Flamingo and Heron Chair/Sofas

“The Heron chair fuses exceptional comfort with dynamic sculptural form – the chair is a contemporary of similar designs by Eames and Saarinen. Its design incorporates technically challenging upholstery techniques, still in use today.”

See period brochure illustration: –

Figure 4

The Neptune Lounge Chair

This was commissioned for P&O.Obviously needing to be weather proof and durable .[ C&C with Eileen Gray [Transat chair] –see dedicated A&R article]

Sheepey Settee and chair 1963

The editors believe their might have been various forms of this item. One made of wood was possible assembled using off the shelf components. Some forms seem to have metal legs?

“was comfortable and ingenious in its design, being assembled from a set of interchangeable, mass produced components”

The Unicorn

The net suggests only 150 items were built for the British Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair.


During his career and particularly in the later part he was consultant to Cintique and Isokon [ see dedicated A&R article]

He is believed to have designed for Isokon the Bottleship and Penguin Mk.II Donkey

Learning Opportunities

Our learning /educational opportunities are intended to be challenging thought provoking and requiring additional research and/or analysis.

These opportunities are particularly designed for a museum/education centre location where visitors would be able to enjoy access to all the structured resources available in conjunction with any concurrent exhibition.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate:-

  • What raw materials were used in British military aircraft during the Second WW?
  • Why were there material shortages in the immediate post war period?
  • Why was furniture in demand after the war?
  • What qualities are associated with Race designs?
  • What comparisons can be made between Race and Chapman’s designs?
  • Examine photographs of Race rod furniture being made –how does it compare with Lotus?
  • Compare and contrast Race and Chapman and the manner they extrapolated materials
  • What form and Function considerations can you detect in Race furniture designs?
  • Debate the statement “Necessity is the mother of invention” apply it to Race and consider was it style or practicality that determined his production?
  • Use spread sheet to analyise , compare and contrast various pieces of Race design
  • Complete construction detail and leg section of BA table [ see editors illustration]

Applicable to the Steel Rod furniture range: –

  • Why was metal rod furniture suitable for the time?
  • How did Race use characteristics of material to incorporate style with function
  • In his design how does he make wood and metal compatible?
  • What jig would be required to produce metal rod table and chair
  • Estimate materials and labour time required to make rod chair, include finishing
  • Estimate how stable furniture is
  • How moveable are the rod furniture pieces?
  • How many permutations are possibly in the rod chair design?
  • Are the ball feet decorative or functional?

Exhibitions, Education, Entertainment and Economics

In the museum context the editors believe that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our suggested outline Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. It’s suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In this instance we suggest the following exhibitions might be appropriate: –

  • Arms Race
  • Space Race
  • Pursuit Race
  • Design by Human Race
  • Ball Race and Balls of the feet
  • Track Race: Race and Chapman

Conclusion: Race Against Time

In a brief life Ernest Race was extremely influential. Perhaps in more ways than was obvious.

He made the modernist objectivity into an acceptable British conservative traditionalist style by a leaning to the past. Although it must be said that the BA aluminium range was the most “Bauhaus” of his work and the earliest. But his pieces like the rocking chair [illustrated] appeared almost equally calculating but retained an elegance born of its functional but slim and lightweight look.

Race successfully turned post war austerity and necessity into a stylish practicality – no mean achievement.

Bauhaus and Bruer furniture [see dedicated A&R articles] can be criticised for their, cold, stark, clinical, utilitarian objectivity and relatively high cost. Race however embraced the reality of the circumstances, took the available materials i.e. aluminium and steel rod and used their properties to extract sculptural and traditional canon that were: –

  • Affordable
  • Capable of being made in volume
  • Needed relatively little capital or specialist equipment to manufacture
  • Practical as explained in text
  • Capable of customisation , personalisation
  • Reasonably ergonomic and stable in use
  • Sustainable [although not a major consideration of the time]
  • Hygienic
  • A morale boost in that they were new, contemporary, available and highly visible in a new home i.e. they were aspirational

His later furniture was attractive, balanced, practical, comfortable and innovative. They were suitable for the smaller new post war homes and life style is open plan living.

Race did not over theorize and like Lowey produced concepts that were acceptably modern without being intimidating.

Along with his consultancy and work for Isokon he demonstrated he was a consummate industrial designer working in a combination of materials including textiles, lighting and furniture in metal, wood, latex, etc.

Race was an epitome of the Britain Can Make It approach to reconstruction.

Race and Chapman have much in common. They share: –

  • An ambition to solve practical problems and to innovate
  • They extrapolate technologies and materials for new ends, particularly 2WW technologies & materials
  • They both were entrepreneurs and possibly set the standards for a future generation into the 1960’s
  • They both served the nation raising standards of design and providing needed products and raising the status of Britain as a manufacturing and exporting nation. The raised morale in that they delivered high quality design and brought to the market place; both winning International success against strong competition
  • Both used a form of steel tube or rod and aluminium in a construction structure, although it must be accepted the cars Chapman built were more complex and structurally demanding concepts
  • Both men had a highly developed aesthetic and both were competent draughtsman
  • Both men have left a body of work that is collectable, museum quality artifact and a strong legacy of inspiration. Some of Race’s design remain in production like the Isokon Donkey and the Lotus brand continues to produce world beating sports cars whilst the Seven remains motoring folklore produced by Caterham.[ all immediate post war design]

The editors consider it appropriate that a major Design Exhibition is overdue where these comparative stands could be juxtaposed.


Ernest Race. Conway. Design Council.1982.


20th.Century Design.Rennie. Miller.2003.


100 Chairs. Fiell.Tashen.2005.


Conran directory of Design. Ed by Bailey.Octopus.1985.


Design in Britain. Published Conran.2009.


The Look of the Century.Ed by Grange. Dorling Kindersley.1996.


Masterpieces of British Design.C&P Fiell.Fiell.2012.


British Design.Huygen.Thames & Hudson.1989.


Modern Furniture Classics. Fiell.Thames &Hudson.1988.


Design. Bailey/Conran.Firefly.2007.


All above A&R library

“Colin Chapman’s: Lotus Engineering by Hugh Haskell. Osprey. 1993.


Archive and Resource Articles “Festival of Britain” and GPO Film and Documentary, Price Relativities

The A&R articles on Industrial Designers.

The National Archives Kew: The Rural Industries Bureau records:

Hand and Machine in the Country. [The Annual Report of the R.I.B. April 1955-March 1956. *]

BBC.2 Programme: The 1951 Festival of Britain: A Brave New World [shown 8.15pm 24th September 2011]

Ralph Tubbs “Living in Cities “1942 and “The Englishman Builds” 1945 both published by Penguin. *

Picture Post 1938-1957. [Photographers including: Kurt Hutton, Francis Reiss, Thurston Hopkins, Grace Robertson].

Design of British Industry by Richard Stewart. Published by John Murray 1987

ISBN: 071954294

The 1950’s Scrapbook, complied by Robert Opie [New Cavendish Books 1998]*

Lotus: The Early Years by Peter Ross*

Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator by Karl Ludvigsen*

Lotus: The First Ten Years by Smith*

The Lotus Book by William Taylor*

Festival of Britain. The Crown Film Unit, shown on BFI/ London Live, Sat.18th July ,7pm [ film in colour] and also Picadilly Circus.

* Copies in Archive and Resource library.

Please note the editors of the A&R attempt to give the broadest spectrum of references but not all are available for consultation in an article. However by noting their existence it may assist students in their research.

Items in italics non A&R library books.