School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape

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'A Devious Route': Building products and the emergence of the architect-shopper in 1930s Britain

Professor Katie Lloyd-Thomas leads the Paul Mellon Centre Fellows Lunch

Awarded a Paul Mellon Centre fellowship in 2018, Katie Lloyd Thomas led the recent Fellows Lunch. 


‘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.

Katie LT
Professor Katie Lloyd Thomas

published on: 12 February 2019