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The 1920s was an innovative era in many respects. Radio - wireless, as it was called then - was just beginning to impact upon the public consciousness. At first, sets, so called because they really were sets, consisting of separate units, were housed in rather utilitarian cabinets akin to those constructed for technical or scientific instruments. What decoration there was bore some debt to traditional clock case design. Embellishment of this sort for purely decorative purpose was first to appear on the popular cabinet gramophone of the time - another pseudo scientific instrument; but the early years of 1920s found a few fledgling radio makers experimenting somewhat timidly with similar decoration. The truth was that the buying public still thought of radio as a scientific curiosity rather than a necessary adjunct to daily life. Some crystal set makers were rather more daring, however, but in the main these devices looked like and were sometimes considered to be toys for grown-ups.

In the closing years of the decade and into the very early 1930s, some of the efforts that appeared still showed the influence of the organic, flowing natural forms of the Art Nouveau of previous decades, which is odd considering that the 'twenties were the time of Art Deco with its Egyptian motifs, angular styling and glossy, modernist brashness. Perhaps it was a nostalgic glance backwards, or perhaps the makers wanted to ensure that, whatever the taste of the prospective purchaser, he or she would find something to suit! The Pye 'sunrise' cabinet design appears to hold elements of both art forms in its simple fret motif.

It is fair to say that as the 1930s proceeded, notwithstanding the Nouveau exceptions, most styling tended to reflect the current trend in Deco adornment (or perhaps, in certain modernist streamline styling, the almost complete lack of adornment)

In those pioneering days of the late 20s and early 30s, standardisation was largely unknown and dials, knobs and switches were one-off's in many cases. The large full-vision dials we all take for granted had yet to be thought of. Even terminology varied; some makers referring to medium wave as short wave!

The separate loudspeaker still reigned supreme almost to the end of the 1920s and the tiny windowed tuning dial still predominated. This could be marked in degrees or in metres and might or might not have been illuminated.

By 1931, generally speaking the wireless set had become the radio we can recognise as such today by having its elements combined into one box (though still referred to by the term 'wireless set'). There were fewer controls, making radios easier to understand and operate. The term 'user-friendly' had not arrived, but in essence that is what gradually took place)

Ekco, among other makers, took to employing true designers. One of their first efforts in that respect was the 1931 RS3 housed in a very deco influenced cabinet yet with a clearly Nouveau influenced 'trees' loudspeaker grille. The similarly housed RS2 and RS3 models eschewed the trees for plain fabric. Personally I think they look the better for it, but the trees remain popular amongst the collectors of today. The design was by J.K. White, the EKCO staff designer and was an early Bakelite moulding.

Continuing their progress with Bakelite, the famous Avante Garde Canadian architect Wells Coates was commissioned to design their 1934 AD65, the so-called 'round' Ekco so popular with today's collectors. He produced variants on the theme for several years after.

Another designer employed by Ekco was Serge Chermayev, also an architect of the modernist movement, who designed the AC64 (1933) among others.

Murphy radio employed the services of R.D. Russell, the brother of the well known designer Gordon Russell. Dick's uncompromising approach was highly individual and so did not always gain universal approval but it definitely made Murphy stand out from the crowd.

Many setmakers tended to play safe and tone down the creative ideas of their designers, but now and then caution was thrown to the wind and a jewel appeared. Betty Joel designed the delightful wooden cabinet of the strongly Deco-influenced K.B. 'Rejectostat' from 1933. Art Deco styling lent itself admirably to the 'improving' of what were basic cabinet forms*.

Betty Joel was born in 1896 in Hong Kong. Working with her husband David Joel, she formed Betty Joel Ltd at Hayling Island, England, to make furniture. This was after the end of WW1. Her output at that time, produced for her by a team of craftsmen, is best described as a personalised and modernistic version of Arts and Crafts plus elements of Georgian styling.

By the early 1930s, she was attracted by modernism and opened a shop in Knightsbridge, London and a factory in Kingston upon Thames, producing costly commissioned furniture. She also designed carpets and textile designs, film and theatre sets and even added her design flair to certain London boardrooms and offices. She died in England in 1985.

* It is true that one should not judge a book by its cover. Some of the most pleasing cabinet designs belied a mediocre product within. This still holds true today, of course.

As the 'thirties progressed and the technology advanced rapidly, more streamlined designs appeared and simpler forms began to predominate. By the eve of war, almost all receivers boasted a full-vision dial and several makers were employing Bakelite as a cabinet material.

Radio had come of age.

Post war, the Deco influence was still present in the output of some makers, though muted and simplified. Good Bakelite examples with Deco leanings are the Bakelite Pilot Little Maestro series 2 and the Bush DAC90 and 90a series. It would have been prohibitively expensive to construct some of the more intricate Bakelite designs in timber materials.

By the 1950s, radio design had become uniform and it was more difficult to judge the make from external appearances - in much the same way as the motor car industry is today.

The large, imposing cabinets of the 1930s had shrunk to a shadow of their former glory by the end of the 1950s. Miniaturisation, more cost-effective mass production techniques and advancing technology, plus the competition from television, left only the large radiograms which were still part of the output from many makers with any true 'presence' in the home, and often these became exercises in cost-cutting. As the 1960s began, the transistor had all but ousted the valve table radio and lighter, flimsier, cheaper and plainer cabinets became the standard. 

 

 

BUSH DAC90A

PILOT 'LITTLE MAESTRO'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wireless World advertisement, 1931: the cabinet is reminiscent of a clock case. Grille shows simplified Art Nouveau influence

 

Betty Joel's K-B 'Rejectostat' 1933

(model 666 de-luxe)

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