Radios as Design Icons of the Twenties and Thirties

by Paul Stewart

Having been a collector and restorer of early and rare radio receivers for over twenty years, the Society’s president delves back to the darkest days of broadcasting and reveals how Art Deco and Modernist design helped consumers accept this new medium into their homes.

The stereotypical inter-war family tuning into the wireless

We’re all familiar with the scene of families sitting in their living rooms around the radio of an evening: dad smoking his pipe, mother reading or knitting and the kids listening along or perhaps already in bed. The room’s interior shows some signs of recent fashion trends, including a sleek, almost sculpted radio cabinet. ‘Here is domestic modernity’, says the picture, ‘Aspire to this!’.

But it was not always thus. The radio receiver itself had evolved over twenty years prior, from apparatus that was unreliable, cumbersome and expensive, with listeners crowding an entire room with valves, dials and power units hunched over a desk with earphones pinned to their heads ‘tickling the crystal’ for hours trying to pick up the faintest sounds. Of course radio could never leave the pioneering age and reach beyond hobbyists without programming. Regular radio services began in England on the 14th November 1922 when Arthur Burrows, Director of Programmes at the British Broadcasting Company, launched Britain’s first regular national radio broadcasting service from Marconi House in the Strand, London at 5.33pm.

An early radio receiver

And listeners still faced inconveniences, despite the BBC and its invisible but impeccably attired radio announcers. Even in the mid-twenties, electricity still wasn’t standard in the home so many had to rely on heavy and hazardous battery packs or accumulators to power their listening. However, the number of homes wired up to receive electricity from the National Grid increased from 6% in 1919 to two thirds by the end of the 1930s. This coincided with the huge rise in popularity for domestic appliances offering convenience and entertainment and right at the heart of millions of homes providing news, music, culture and comedy was the radio set.

1925 BTH Type ‘E’

Listeners were beginning to see fashionable extension speakers like the elegant BTH Type ‘E’ which came out in August 1925 but the breakthrough in combining all the components, speaker, wires and controls into one single unit came around 1927. One crucial factor that made this possible was the rapid improvements in technology which meant valves and components became smaller and more reliable so they could be crammed onto a single chassis with a network of wires underneath; this is the great grandfather of the printed circuit board. These days, we’re used to ‘solid state’ products that have no way of being taken apart should they breakdown but radio sets back then were designed to be examined and repaired at home. They had back panels that could be removed enabling the insides to be pulled out and worked on with components that could be interchanged and upgraded if necessary. Burnt out or ‘leaking’ condensers could be snipped out and a new one soldered back in on the kitchen table relatively easily.

An example of one of the first all-in-one radio sets is the 1927 Pye type 25 (below – left). The controls were concealed in a panel on the side so as not to obstruct the dominance of the classic Art Deco sun ray and cloud speaker fret design. This, too, is an attempt to down play the scientific and technical elements of the appliance and place the furniture-like aspects and aesthetics as the main focus.  If you also compare the sublime ‘Sonnenblume’ (sunflower) cabinet by Dutch company Nora (below – right) which arrived, beaming into the shops in 1930, with the cumbersome apparatus of just a few years earlier, you can see how consumers would be seduced into buying a set over the ‘science lab’ option.

Above: 1927 Pye type 25 / Nora ‘Sonnenblume’ (sunflower) : Image © Peter Sheridan

Despite the rise in radio ownership and BBC licences, there were still many who were sceptical about a humming, crackling box connected to a highly dangerous power source in their homes. Manufacturers therefore emphasised the safety of their sets and began designing cabinets with home furnishings and décor in mind so that it became seen as a piece of furniture and an object to be admired.

1932 Murphy A8

Early signs can be seen in the fretwork of wooden cabinets by companies like Lissen and Murphy. They carry very strong geometric grilles that cover the speaker cloth often with chic, contrasting tones of stained wood. The distinctive fretwork of the sunset with clouds which Pye used extensively on their sets became a strong brand identity and is still very evocative of the inter-War era, recognized by many today. Some featured tranquil scenes from nature and often, the speaker cloth itself was embroidered to mirror carpet and other fabric patterns popular at the time. Murphy were pioneers of this approach due chiefly to them employing master craftsman R D Russell who went on to create dozens of Modernist cabinets for the company’s range of wireless, radiogram and television sets. Their A28C from 1935 for example, is a tall, robotic looking console finished in contrasting veneers but almost completely free of embellishments placing it perfectly amongst the most Modernist home setting. Their showrooms featured ‘listening lounges’ furnished in the sleekest Modernist décor, complete with comfy Club chair, rug and cups of tea. Who wouldn’t want to buy a Murphy radio after being bestowed with such lavish treatment?

Producing wooden cabinets, however, was very labour intensive as they had to be assembled and finished by hand. The industry employed thousands of carpenters, polishers and stainers in their factories; but a revolution in cabinet design was about to free up the designer’s hand and produce a dazzling array of colours and designs had not been seen before in the shops.

EKCO Radio Ltd in Southend-on-Sea

In 1926 Eric Kirkham Cole formed EKCO Radio Ltd with the initial intention of producing battery eliminators allowing consumers to convert their battery set to work on the mains. However, spotting the huge potential in radio sales, he took the leap and invested in an AEG industrial moulding press from Germany to make radio cabinets in the new ‘material of a thousand uses’ – Bakelite. Eric went on to set up a mega factory which became one of the biggest employers in Southend-on-Sea and a major player in the radio industry later branching out into military equipment, television and home appliances. Their cabinets were a complete break with the traditional wooden box type and the huge press plant meant they could create a complete range, fully utilising the moulding properties of Bakelite in a way that would make producing something similar in wood almost impossible. This miracle material was not only robust with non-conductive properties ideal for use with electricity, but could simulate the walnut finish of wood by creative use of fillers and powders. Each cabinet or knob was an exact duplicate of the original mould, churned out in minutes and there was almost no waste unlike its wooden counterpart.

To set their products apart from the competition, Ekco employed some of the movers and shakers of the design and architecture world. As early as 1933 they produced the AC 64 and AC 74 by Russian designer and architect Serge Chermayeff (1900 – 1996) who had become a British Citizen in 1928 and would go on to design the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea with Erich Mendelsohn. Beautifully symmetrical, sleek and imposing, they were available in two finishes; the brown ‘walnut’ effect version and one in pure black with chrome detailing; the latter coming with the optional extra of a chrome, tubular steel stand. The Bauhaus movement had unwittingly come to the British high street. Advertisers also started to use images or photographs of their radios in a home setting, using women elegantly dressed tuning in to their favourite station perhaps in an attempt to win them over, seeing them as the decision maker in the family.

In 1932, Ekco ran a competition for a new radio design which was won by Japanese-born, expatriate Canadian artist, designer and architect Wells Coates (1895-1958). His approach was to consider the most important element of the radio set, the round speaker, and place this as the central focus. The result was the AD 65 which came out in 1934, again in a brown ‘walnut’ version and one in black and chrome. This radio would be impossible to produce in wood marking it out as an icon of Modernist design from its appearance down to its manufacturing process.

1934 AD 65 photo by Robert Chesters and Carl Glover

When you consider that in that same year, the Coates-designed Lawn Road Flats were opened, you begin to see how architecture is cleverly woven into what is essentially an appliance for the coffee table. He went on to design four more ‘round Ekcos’ as they have become known and the record books of Harrods show that non-standard colours such as Onyx Green, Butterscotch, Burgundy and Ivory were also made to special order; but sadly, none of these are known to exist. Today, the wireless sets they produced before the war are highly sought after and regarded as icons of Modernist design.

AD 65 in Onyx Green : Image © Peter Sheridan
1938 Briton Theatrette : Image © Peter Sheridan

Other sets that embraced the same aesthetic included McMichael with their superbly named ‘Supervox Twin’ from 1933, the Philips V57 ‘Theatrette’ and the familiar Philco 444 from 1935. Incidentally, it is rumoured that the 444 was influenced by the sleek rear of the Volkswagen Beetle; but this made its début later, in 1938.  There were many streamline cars around already in the mid-30s however, including an early Volkswagen prototype, the Porsche Type 12 (1932), also designed by the legendary Ferdinand Porsche.

1935 Philco 444

Architecture played a part into the next decade too as can be seen from this Odeon style approach to the Murphy AD 94 Bakelite set of 1940 designed by Eden Minns which, aptly perhaps, was only available in ‘blackout’ black.

1940 Murphy AD 94

By the end of the 1940s and early ‘50s, components had become so small and efficient, a large, elaborate cabinet design was no longer necessary. Neater, more compact cabinets designed for the shelf, bedside table or on top of the fridge were the norm and, like car design, the American ‘atomic’ influence was what consumers wanted. Silver knobs, glittery cloth, spiky ‘Sputnik’ aerials and legs started to appear, mirroring the nation’s craze for space travel and for many, the television was now the media centre piece of the home. Millions of cabinets from the pre-War ear were trashed and transistor technology and printed circuit boards heralded in the tiny Japanese ‘shirt pocket’ radio, complete with earpiece. Personalised entertainment had really arrived and dad’s old wireless set was cast up into the attic where it would not see the light of day until an eventual house clearance decades later, or popping up on an on-line auction site ready for its new owner.

With any luck, a pre-war set coming on to the market now will make its way to a collector who will spend time seeking out the right parts to restore it and bring it back to its original glory: but even if you’re not technically minded, many of them remain beautiful, stylish objects in their own right.

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