An Ernest Race for Isokon; Penguin Donkey Mark II bookcase, with opposed white-painted shelves on square supports, circa 1963. 53cm wide
The company Isokon was one of the few British examples of a firm truly devoted to Modernism. Employing a succession of continental Modernists including Walter Gropius, Arthur Korn, Marcel Breuer and Egon Riss.
Riss designed one of Isokon's most intriguing products.
The Penguin Donkey was created specifically to carry the new type of paperback book, which for the first time made available reasonably priced, best-quality, international literature to a wide public for the price of a pack of cigarettes (which were themselves relatively cheaper than today). The books were stacked in the side elements (appropriately referred to as panniers) and newspapers and magazines were slotted into the centre. The organic, curvilinear shape of the Donkey, raised on legs rounded in elevation, was made possible by the use of very thin plywood.
Isokon's production was always very small, but it appears that only a few of the Donkeys were made before war began. Isokon had agreement from Penguin's publisher Allen Lane to insert leaflets advertising the Donkey into every Penguin book. Had war not broken out, it is possible that the Donkey would have been Isokon's first commercially successful product. Despite its very limited production, the Donkey had an afterlife. While many modernist designs have been manufactured after the 1960s (some for the first time in quantity), the Penguin Donkey has been reinvented several times. In 1963 Isokon sold a new version ('Mark 2'), revised by the well-known designer Ernest Race as seen here in Lot 26.
Ernest Race was an English furniture and textile designer born here in the North East in Newcastle in 1913. He is best known for designing the BA3 aluminium chair in 1945 and the Antelope designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951. He died in London in 1964.
In 2003 Isokon's successor firm, Isokon Plus, began making the Donkey 3, designed by Shin and Tomoko Azumi.
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