The Dunbar Hay Chair

In 1937 Eric Ravilious did something radical for him, he designed a chair. For a watercolour artist to doodle out a design like this, I think was rather brave. The job came as a commision from his friend Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn who ran the shop Dunbar Hay Ltd. Cecilia and Ravilious were pupils at the Royal College of Art at the same time.

Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn, Eric Ravilious and Anthony Betts in the RCA common room.

Design wasn’t unusual for Ravilious, he had done a lot of china designs for Wedgwood and some glassware for Stuart Crystal. However, whenever I have tried to find information on the maker of the chair below I have always hit a wall. The best way was to ask someone on Instagram who collected Kelly’s Guides and other business directories.

Before this the only information to be found in any book or in the V&A archive was that the chair was made by H.Harris.

It might not look to be important but you never know what links come from this information and it could in time help to find out production numbers, if any other designs were made or rejected, any surplus stock and on…


Eric Ravilious Designed Chair as part of a table set sold at Dunbar Hay, 1937

This armchair forms part of a dining suite, the only known furniture designed by Eric Ravilious. He was an artist and illustrator whose paintings included murals for interiors. The chair was commissioned for a new furnishing shop founded by Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn and Athole Hay. Four dining sets with variations were made.

In the 1930s there were still many enemies of the square and sometimes harsh shapes of modernism. Many designers and patrons preferred furniture that had links with the past. This chair is in keeping with the popular Regency revival style of the 1930s. The lines are recognisably those of the English Regency style (about 1810–30), but they are simplified to correspond to 1930s taste. 

The person on Instagram was David Wakefield, a typographer and designer with an amazing collection of books on printmaking and ephemera. It was with his help alone I can tell you now that H. Harris was Hyman Harris.

In 1911, Hyman Harris was recorded at 3 Grimsby Street, Bethnal Green. At that time, advertised as a wood chimney-piece manufacturer with Williamson & Harris at Guy’s Buildings and 85 Kingsland Road. 

By 1931, he is H Harris & Sons Ltd, at 18 Gosset Street and 17 & 25 Newling Street, Bethnal Green, still recorded as chimney-piece manufacturer. However, by 1944, or earlier after 1931, he is H Harris & Sons (Furniture) Ltd, Who. cabinet makers, Grimsby Street, E2. 

 Newling Street, Bethnal Green

The business continued until 1968.


It looks like the Ravilious Chairs were not manufactured beyond a prototype and now belong to the step-sister of John Aldridge.  If you want to find out what a cad Cecilia’s husband was, you can read about it here

V&A Archive CIRC.265&A-1948
c/o D.Wakefield

Post War Furniture

The 1939 war has been responsible for a remarkable social experiment in the furniture field. The extreme shortage of timber, much more marked than in the previous war, and the destruction of furniture by bombing led to an unprecedented situation. A rationing system was essential, and this entailed standard specifications and designs. The President of the Board of Trade appointed a Committee to advise him. 

“On diversifications for the prediction of utility furniture of good sound construction in simple buy agreeable designs for sale at reasonable prices, having regard to the necessity for the maximum economy of raw materials and labour.”

‘The Things We See #Number 3 Furniture’ By Gordon Russell Penguin Books — 1947.:

The interesting feature of the scheme is that there has been a definite and conscious effort to grade up both designs and specification. Through it the public has therefore become accustomed to a much better and simpler type of design than was common before the war. In fact it is true to say that such designs were only obtainable then in the more expensive shops.


This applies not only to the woodwork but to the textiles, some of which reach a surprisingly high standard of design. In view of the immense scope of the scheme, which a range of standard school furniture, it is bound to have a lasting effect, not only on the public but on the trade.

‘The Things We See #Number 3 Furniture’ By Gordon Russell Penguin Books — 1947.:

Permanent government control of design in consumer trades is hardly likely to be beneficial, but it may well prove that war-time control, accompanied by a positive urge, at a very formative period, has enabled this whole trade to review its position more freely, since the anxiety of what to make for next autumn and next sprint has for the moment been removed.

From — The things we see. Number Three: Furniture.
By Gordon Russell. Penguin Books — 1947.