In the years between 1910 and 1939 the highly innovative design form known as Art Deco emerged, flourished, shone like a laser beam and was eclipsed by the events of World War 2. In company with many things classical it was revived, and its reappearance stimulated a new generation of followers.
Northampton played host to three significant examples of this, the greatest art form of the twentieth century. 78 Derngate (Art Nouveau), ‘New Ways’ (Moderne), and W Pearce & Co (Art Deco). Derngate is well chronicled and, by reason of association, ‘New Ways’. But it is the third building which forms the focus of the article. Apart from their historical importance they are served by a common denominator in the form of W J Bassett-Lowke. W Pearce & Co was founded in the early part of the 20th century by brothers Charles and William Pearce and is concerned with the production and tanning of leather. The business prospered. By 1936, it became evident that a move to newer and larger premises was of pressing concern. In 1937 land was purchased at Billing Park. Charles Pearce like W J Bassett-Lowke was an innovator and a proponent of modern architecture. He was insistent that this styling be adopted. And so it was. In conjunction with local architects Lawson Carter, plans were prepared. Work commenced in 1938 and was completed and opened on the 1st June 1939. All phases of construction are supported by a 25 min. film in black and white and colour. One of the company’s directors with singular presence of mind recorded these events for posterity. It is doubtful that many buildings Art Deco or not would be accompanied by such provenance.
Miraculously everything survives. A Journey via the beautiful staircase to the boardroom, director’s offices, social hall and showroom is a unique experience. Not in any sense high style Art Deco; nor was it intended to be. But it retains a quietly stated reflective elegance which, often or not is the general mood of Art Deco in this country. One of the most significant features to be found in the factory is a magnificent model of the entire complex designed and constructed by none other than W J Bassett Lowke. Its experience is not widely known and possibly not at all to the ‘Friends of 78’. Without W J Bassett-Lowke, the design genius of Charles Rennie Mackintosh would not be in evidence and, similarly, architect Peter Behrens may not have created ‘New Ways’. It is interesting to note that, in 1925, Bauhaus director Walter Gropius designed and built a house similar to ‘New Ways’. It 1s generally recognised that ‘New Ways’ was the first house to be constructed in the UK embracing the new architectural forms. W Pearce & Co was the last to be completed prior to the war. Northampton is guardian to the ‘first’ and the ‘last’. Unlike many forms that are essentially eclectic, Art Deco forged a clear and powerful identity which remains to this day. W Pearce & Co is one such example. In 1987, the Company received the Queen’s Award for Industry. The Bassett-Lowke model remains in glass encased splendour. A testament to one of the great designers of the 20th century.
First published in November 1999 In The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 7.
Author: Christopher Dark
Transcribed 2018: Barbara Floyer