Furniture Friday: Penguin Donkey Bookcase – Egon Riss & Isokon, 1939

As a collector of vintage Penguins books, my bookshelves and various sections of my floorspace are home to part of my collection. Recently, I’ve been thinking of other ways I can store them and while researching something the other day, I was reminded of Isokon’s wonderful Penguin Donkey bookcase.

Designed by Egon Riss for Isokon furniture in 1939, only about a hundred of these were produced and sold out very fast, and as such, an original is a very rare thing indeed. Despite all signs pointing to it being a best seller, it’s success was thwarted by the onset of the Second World War as the company’s supply of plywood was cut off.

The bookcase is made from birch wood and was named the Donkey because it had four legs and two panniers. The shelves are just the right size to house Penguins books perfectly The space between the side-compartments can be used for magazines. The Donkey impressed Allen Lane, the publisher of the new Penguin paperbacks so much he inserted 100,000 leaflets for it into Penguin books and the newly named Isokon Penguin Donkey looked set to be a great success.

In his memoir  ‘View from a Long Chair,’ Jack Pritchard recalls:

Selling the Isokon Penguin Donkey had its amusing side. One day a friendly voice came over the telephone saying his son had received one. I asked if he liked it; of yes, but his son was three yeas old. Another time a policeman rang saying that a highly indignant man had received a carton containing an unasked-for Donkey, and complaining of improper selling methods. When I told the policeman that a few people would play tricks and send reply postcard addressed to someone to pull their leg, the conversation ended in chuckles.

Unfortunately, the Second World War broke out at exactly the time the Donkey was launched and production ceased, making it an incredibly rare design/piece of furniture.

Many years later in 1963,  Jack Pritchard revived Isokon Furniture Company. However, changes in the manufacture of plywood meant a redesign of some of the key pieces in the Isokon portfolio, for which Pritchard hired Ernest Race. Almost immediately, Race designed Penguin Donkey 2 comprising a white lacquered wood body with cherry wood legs.

In 1968, Pritchard licensed John Alan Designs to produce the Long Chair, Nesting Tables and the Penguin Donkey 2 which the company did until 1980.

In 1982, Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture took over the license to manufacture Isokon pieces bringing the original Egon Riss’ Penguin Donkey back into production.

Joining it was Race’s Penguin Donkey 2, and in 2003, Penguin Donkey 3 was born – designers Shin & Tomoko Azumi were commissioned to redefine the iconic bookcase,  which they did in birch wood veneer and pale grey lacquered wood.

What these three wonderful little bookcases show is how something so simple can be reinvented time and time again, each thoroughly individual in themselves yet so similar to each other at the same time. While I’m not a fan of things being remade or redesigned, this is one design classic that I look forward to seeing what its next regeneration brings.


Lead photograph courtesy of halfbeak on Flickr (and taken by D Cortés and her husband when they were guests at Blythburgh in the house Jack build for him and his wife).

Egon Riss (1901-1964) was an Austrian architect of Jewish decent. Riss arrived in Britain in 1938. After fighting with the British army during WWII, he moved to Scotland where he became employed by the Scottish Coal Board as architect, a job he held until his death in 1964.

Founded in 1935 by Jack Pritchard, Isokon was probably the most forward-thinking British furniture manufacturer of the 1930s. Pritchard worked with many of the leading modernist designers and architects of the day. All Isokon furniture exploited the strength and lightness of bent plywood, and many became design classics, such as Marcel Breuer‘s Long chair, which brought the company to international fame.
Isokon has a fascinating history and is also responsible for one of my favourite buildings in London, which I’ll be writing about soon.

As in the 1930s, Isokon Plus (as it is now known) is still very much a British company, the pieces are all made by hand in Chiswick, south-west London.

Quote courtesy of  V&A.

All other photographs taken from Google images and V&A.

Copyright © 2012 · All Rights Reserved · By Way of the Green Line Bus

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This entry was published on June 29, 2012 at 5:12 PM. It’s filed under Furniture, Penguin, Things I Like and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Furniture Friday: Penguin Donkey Bookcase – Egon Riss & Isokon, 1939

  1. Wow. I would very much like any one of those!

  2. rebecca korbet-wootton on said:

    Furniture Friday! Furniture Friday! …those are really adorable. It truly is a piece of furniture you want to cuddle, or at least pat on the head (if it had one).

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