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PERSONALITIES: WELLS COATES

PERSONALITIES  FJ CAMM  FJ AND PW  WELLS COATES  JL BAIRD  MARCONI 

the avant-garde designer

Wells Coates (1895-1958) was Canadian by birth. He studied engineering at the University of British Columbia. After the end of the first World War he travelled to London to research a thesis on Diesel engines.

After working as a journalist he focused his attention on designing and became a key member of the influential group of architects and designers who effectively founded the Modern Movement in British design. This included the Modern Architecture Research Group (MARS) and Unit One.

Because of his background in engineering he was open to the possibilities of new materials. In 1931, together with Jack Pritchard of the Venesta Plywood Company, he formed a new company, Isokon, with the aim of designing functional modern buildings and furniture. The furniture, designed by Coates and by other highly distinguished modernist designers, was largely in plywood, favoured because of its sculptural qualities. 

The most well known of Isokon's (i.e. Wells') architectural work were the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, London, completed in 1934, which became home to some of the leading designers in the modern movement including Walter Gropius. The flats were innovative because they were fully fitted - not simply empty rooms - and used 'new' materials such as concrete, steel and plywood.

Coates also designed a studio for the BBC. His design, originally in 1932, of a circular cabinet radio in Bakelite - the new plastic material - for the Ekco Company was followed by several other successful designs for them including other radio cabinets, fires, alarm clocks and a television. He went on to work in the aircraft industry, designing cabin interiors for passenger airliners.

Of course, as far as knowledgeable vintage radio enthusiasts are concerned, he will be best remembered for his EKCO AD65 radio. Its chrome grille, circular form and large dial broke all the conventions of the time, its strong visual appeal setting a precedent for the future. These radios command a high price today, being highly collectable - and highly prized.

The picture on the right shows a Coates designed Bakelite cabinet being removed from one of the hydraulic presses at the Ekco works. Wells Coates continued on occasion to design for the Ekco company during the post-war period and into the 1950s.

He designed the 'Telekinema' for the 1951 Festival of Britain. This was a 400 seat cinema able to screen both film (including three-dimensional film) and large-screen television. It proved to be one of the most popular attraction of the exhibition. The British Film Institute operated it and it reopened as the National Film Theatre after the exhibition closed.

He began a slow return to his native Canada in the early 1950s, finally settling for good in Vancouver in 1957. He died following a heart attack on June 17th 1958. He was 63 years old. His legacy of design works is sometimes summed up in the relatively modern terms we now use for that wonderfully extravagant period (in design terms) that followed the Paris Exhibition of 1925, namely Art Deco and Deco. However, this barely does justice to the work of Coates. His finest work even today still looks futuristic and one can only imagine the 'shock of the new' that must have occurred when his creations were first revealed to the public eye. A true creative genius.

 

 

 

 

TELEKINEMA

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