Molly and Jack Pritchard founded design practice Isokon in the 1930s with the aim of bringing European Modernism to Britain. The pair’s first landmark project was the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead – a pioneering development that was far ahead of its time.
Designed by architect Wells Coates, it was the first residential building in Britain to be made chiefly from reinforced concrete and resembled an ocean liner with its curved white exterior and deck-like balconies.
Each of its 32 flats came kitted out with minimal plywood furniture – marketing brochures promised that occupants needed to add just “an armchair, a rug and a picture” – and early residents included Agatha Christie and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
Isokon later focused on making furniture and recruited some of the leading figures of the Bauhaus school of design. Gropius was appointed Controller of Design in 1935, Marcel Breuer created plywood nesting tables and chairs for the brand and László Moholy-Nagy designed its logo: a Futura word mark alongside an image of a plywood chair base.
The company ceased production in the 1940s after plywood became difficult to obtain during World War Two but Pritchard later licensed a London furniture company to make some of its most popular products.
Chris McCourt took over the Isokon name in 1982 and launched Isokon Plus. The company makes historic Isokon products from a two-storey workshop in Hackney and has created new pieces with leading London designers including Barber & Osgerby and Michael Sodeau. It also works on bespoke commercial interiors – recent commissions include a Spiritland bar in Mayfair and a new Carhartt store in King’s Cross.
This week Isokon Plus launched a new identity system created by London studio dn&co. The studio has designed a new website and printed communications for the brand and has redrawn Isokon 1930s word mark.
The identity is designed to appeal to customers who might shop at the likes of Hay or Skandium as well as potential commercial clients. It also aims to educate people about Isokon’s fascinating history as well as its collaborations with contemporary designers and the fact that products are still made by hand in London.
A ‘+’ symbol now appears after the Isokon brand name – the company had been using the word ‘plus’ but dn&co designer Ed Hawkins says this “looked a little crude typographically”.
“We gave them a + icon because it’s more universal,” he adds. “It also puts the focus back on the Isokon brand and highlights this notion of collaboration.”
The word mark looks much the same as it did in 1936 but letters have been redrawn digitally to create a more uniform logo. “It was a great bit of lettering but we needed to introduce a little more rigidity in the way it was aligned,” says dn&co Creative Director Patrick Eley. “Now the forms can line up in a much stronger and more graphic way.”
The brand’s signature colour – a bright shade of orange – appears in the word mark and as an accent colour in communications. dn&co was keen to avoid creating anything that felt too retro. Hawkins says the company’s previous branding featured black-and-white images and “swathes of orange” but this has been replaced with a neutral palette and a more restrained use of colour.
Gill Sans (Isokon Plus’s secondary typeface) has been replaced with Moderat – a geometric sans serif with some distinctive touches. “We wanted a typeface that felt crafted – one that would work well with the word mark but not be too characterful because the mark is already quite unique,” says Eley.
“The key was not to do something too similar to other brands in the same field. Ercol uses lower case Gill for its identity and I think there needs to be some space between the two brands,” he adds.
Hawkins says Moderat was also chosen for its character: joints on letters such as the crossbar on t’s reminded the creative team of woodworking joints and Eley says it offered a more “expressive” alternative to something “cold and monolinear and Helvetica-natured”.
Isokon Plus look books are printed on a mix of uncoated sugar paper and high gloss stock for images – Eley says the contrasting textures aim to reflect the tactile nature of the company’s products and its attention to detail. Business cards are also printed on textured card. “Everything is quite considered and aims to reflect that level of detail and quality but also a kind of understated aesthetic,” adds Hawkins.
Editorial photographer Sam Bush captured people making products at Isokon Plus’s workshop in Hackney for the ‘Stories’ and ‘About Us’ sections of the brand’s new website.
Architectural photographer Rory Gardiner photographed products in domestic and commercial settings for the online shop and look books. His images were shot on film and aim to capture the distinguishing lines, angles and details in Isokon Plus’s products.
“One thing we really pushed them on was the value of photography,” says Eley. “[Isokon Plus] needed to invest in really good photography and show people what it’s like to live with their pieces and do it in a way that is going to talk to different audiences. They don’t just want to talk to individual customers on their website but manufacturers and people who can buy their furniture for larger commercial jobs. We knew the way to do that was by using photography in a lifestyle way but also in a way that was architecturally sensitive,” he explains.
dn&co also redesigned invoices and order notifications to feel more polished. “They don’t have shops and they don’t tend to sell through other suppliers … so a lot of their sales come through their own website. Building a more beautiful e-commerce experience has been really key,” says Eley.
“They’re a company that needs to look careful and considerate and I think that comes across in these things. If the buying process is a little shaky [for example with badly designed invoices or emails] then you can deal with it, but if it’s well designed, it gives you that level of unspoken confidence in the brand and that’s really important,” he adds.
“We called them out of the blue. No presentation to start with – just a ‘we’d love to work with you and think you could do a lot more”
dn&co was appointed to refresh Isokon Plus’s branding after approaching the company around two years ago. “We had known about the brand for a long time … but I don’t think enough people know about them and we thought there was a real opportunity there to help make them better known,” explains Eley.
“We called them out of the blue. No presentation to start with – just a ‘we’d love to work with you and think you could do a lot more’,” he adds. “When we first [met] with them we went with a few things to talk around but [these were] more strategic than creative. We listened and asked a lot of questions before designing anything.”
With so many companies replacing distinctive logos with simplified sans designs it’s a pleasant surprise to see Isokon Plus retain its distinctive word mark. Hawkins says dn&co was keen to avoid “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and instead wanted to “retain something truly characterful” while bringing the brand’s identity up to date.
The chair symbol does not appear in Isokon Plus’s new communications – it may be incorporated as a pattern in the future but Eley says the brand wanted to be known for more than its plywood designs.
The new website has a similar look and feel to websites for upmarket furniture stores and Scandi brands such as Hay – and Eley says this was intentional. “We wanted the website to be able to stand alongside contemporary lifestyle furniture brands like Hay and not feel out of place. It couldn’t look the poor cousin [but] it was important that it had its own look and feel.”
This distinction is achieved through a bold word mark and a use of orange which he says offers a contrast to other brands’ “sensitive but often un-opinionated designs”. The end result is an identity that is mindful of the past but avoids looking retro or pastiche – and has been created on a modest budget. The branding is much more contemporary but still maintains a nod to the brand’s Bauhaus roots and its fascinating past.
Offering some advice for other designers working with heritage brands, Eley adds: “It’s about making sure you’re doing what’s appropriate [for the brand] and the needs of the company you’re working for…. Having a sensitivity is important I think – but also knowing that you don’t have to hold on to everything.”
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