William Plunkett's Kingston Range, 1969. Photograph: William Plunkett Archive 18.06 BSTFirst published on Wed 15 May 2013 18.06 BST
William Plunkett, Furniture designer whose work combined sculptural flair with engineering precision
The furniture designer and manufacturer William Plunkett made a memorable and lasting contribution to postwar British design. His heyday was the 1960s but some of his designs are still being revived today. Working in a Modernist idiom but in a highly individual style, he combined engineering skills with sculptural flair to create striking metal-framed seating and tables that won a string of design awards. "My generation of designers were idealists," Plunkett reflected in later life. "We really believed we could make a difference to Britain by producing well-designed products." Although his furniture was sold by design-conscious retailers such as Heal's and Liberty, there was only a limited market in the domestic field. For this reason, and also because of the uncompromising modernity of his designs, the main focus of the business was high-specification projects for the contract market, such as the Commercial Union's London headquarters in 1969. His steel-framed semi-circular Coulsdon Chair (1964) and glass-topped Coulsdon Coffee Table (1965) – which won a Council of Industrial Design Award – were particularly refined in form, materials and construction. These pieces were juxtaposed to stunning effect in a lounge bar on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Plunkett's work proved particularly popular with shoe shops, notably the high-end firm of Russell & Bromley, as well as Ravel, Peter Lord and Clarks.
Born in India, where his father was involved in the shipping industry, Plunkett came to Britain in 1946 to train as an army officer at Sandhurst, and then served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery until 1959 before embarking on his design career. At Kingston School of Art he specialised in sculpture and furniture, dual interests that would later be fused in his individualistic approach to design. His early promise was recognised in 1961 when he won the Aeropreen award for a demountable steel-framed armchair with a cantilevered seat. Because of its construction and materials, the seat had a slight rocking action, a recurrent feature of Plunkett's later designs. After leaving Kingston, Plunkett briefly worked for his inspirational tutor Aidron Duckworth, who had actively encouraged his sculptural inclinations, before establishing his own company, William Plunkett Ltd, with his first wife, Mary, in Croydon in 1963. His primary motivation as a designer was his interest in materials. "He was very creative and artistically driven," recalls his second wife, Ruth, with whom he also later worked. "He would find a piece of metal and wonder what he could do with it." Adopting a hands-on approach, he created high-precision designs from aluminium and steel at a time when the British furniture industry was still largely preoccupied by timber. Components were produced by specialists, then assembled by the designer and his assistants in his workshop. In some ways Plunkett's approach was closer to that of an artist-craftsman, particularly his direct involvement with making and his minute attention to detail. In the case of the Reigate Rocking Chair (1964), which won a Council of Industrial Design award in 1968, Plunkett made the frames of the first 24 models himself. He also made one-off pieces, such as decorative screens, for churches and civic buildings.
The sculptural quality of his designs was central to their ethos. Even at the height of his success, Plunkett's furniture was only ever batch-produced in limited quantities, which explains why his work is less well known than his more high-profile contemporaries, such as Robin Day. Plunkett preferred to keep the operation small so he could retain creative control. "I don't want my furniture to lose its character," he told the Guardian in 1964.
One of his most successful and long-lived designs was the Kingston Range (1967), a flexible seating system, later known as the Plunkett Plan, in which chairs, sofas and benches were created from rows of individually upholstered foam rolls glued to plywood boards, mounted on an aluminium frame. The Epsom Range (1966) worked on similar principles, but used pre-formed plywood strips to create curved seats. The Epsom Swivel Chair, resembling segments from an orange, was particularly arresting. After selling his company to Giroflex in 1977, the designer set up a new firm called Plunkett Plan Ltd the following year. Having retained the rights to his earlier designs, he carried on producing furniture to order until as recently as 2005, latterly mainly for Russell & Bromley, his most loyal and longstanding client, where his furniture is still in use in some stores. During the 1990s Plunkett returned to sculpture and he later took up painting. By this date his earlier work had largely fallen into obscurity. But his reputation was resurrected in 2000 when Tony Cunningham and Simon Alderson from the astute design-led furniture supplier twentytwentyone tracked down the designer and put the Kingston Range back into production as the WP Range. Further reissues are scheduled for later this year and Plunkett's work will also be featured in a book, Modern British Furniture: Design Since 1945, to be published in October by the V&A, whose collection includes several of Plunkett's classic 1960s designs. Plunkett is survived by Ruth, their children, William and Marigold, and his daughter Belinda, from his first marriage.
Lesley Jackson Wed 15 May 2013
•William Frederick Plunkett, furniture designer, born 31 May 1928; died 5 May 2013
Offical photo of Queen Elizabeth 2 Lounge Bar, 1969