the avant-garde designer
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.
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
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
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
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.