THE PECKHAM experiment
The Pioneer Health Centre, in Peckham (South London), set up by founders Dr George Scott Williamson and Dr Innes Pearse was quite simply a leisure centre whereby the members attending were subject to observation. The doctors observing were looking to study ‘health’ and find out exactly what ‘health’ was. It began with a hunch that ‘health was the factor of primary importance for human living’ and that its ‘secret lay with the infant and its early development’. (The Peckham Experiment: A Study in The Living Structure of Society, Innes Pearse and Lucy Crocker, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1943).
‘… innocent of the fact that, below…
The architect, Sir Owen William, designed (1934) the Centre much to the purpose of the experiment – centered around the benefits of community interaction. And It was for this reason that Christopher “Kit” Nicholson (brother to painter, Ben) was commissioned to design the furniture.
Whilst Nicholson’s furniture might seem clumsy (perhaps), what is present is an economical and experimental use of plywood… and un-veneered. Some seats are padded in Dunlopillo sponge, but not so much to detract from the material underneath.
…one millimeter below…
The crux of the chair is made of two-pieces of plywood slotted together, that en plan look like an X. They were designed so, that out of a standard 5’x7’ sheet of ply, one could make 6 chairs… with no wastage. On this frame would go a seat and a curved plywood back. The X of the chairs purposefully mirrors the reinforced concrete columns separating the floor from ceiling.
The architecture achieves flexibility, open circulation and freedom; with moveable glass walls, a concrete construction and by being open plan. The ‘arrowhead’ table-tops can interlock to form a variety of shapes depending on the occasion – or indeed used independently throughout the building. Nicholson was not the only one commissioned for furniture. PEL (Biritish manufacturers of tubular steel) and Finmar (importers of furniture by Alvar Aalto) were also asked to contribute. Perhaps tubular steel and plywood were contributing the maintenance of ‘health’, physically and mentally?
British furniture designer, Gerald Summers, discusses Nicholson’s furniture for the Pioneer Health Centre (Design for To-Day, June 1935). He remarks the use of plywood, also for grounding his own practice as a designer – who worked almost solely with the same material. Summers says that before experiments like this, ‘plywood had to come in by the back door, secretly’. And now, furniture was no longer hidden by ‘the burriest walnut [whereby people were] innocent of the fact that below, one millimeter below…
… beat the simple heart of plywood.’
1. Socialising, The Peckham Experiment, Innes Pearse and Lucy Crocker, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1943
2. Isometric drawing by Kit Nicholson, Architectural Review, 1935
3. Standard Chair by Kit Nicholson,Design for To-Day, June 1935
4. Isometric drawings by Kit Nicholson, Architectural Review, 1935