Iconic bookcase: Penguin Isokon Donkey


The Penguin ‘Donkey’ has been a piece I have been fascinated with ever since I saw it on show at the V&A many years ago.

I’ve been looking at Modernist furniture quite a bit lately, and this piece is another good example.

Jack Pritchard’s Isokon company was one of the few British examples of a firm truly devoted to Modernism. In addition to building London’s Lawn Road Flats, in Hampstead, Pritchard employed a succession of continental Modernists to work for his furniture company. These included the Germans Walter Gropius and Arthur Korn, and the Hungarian Marcel Breuer, as well as the Viennese emigré Egon Riss.

image used with permission from ‘halfbeak’ on Flickr. click on the image for more furniture and architecture pictures

Above the original Isokon Penguin Donkey, is seen in an authentic setting, Jack Pritchard’s Isokon house in Blythburgh on the Suffolk Coast. Commissioned by Jack Pritchard and ISOKON, designed by Egon Riss. The Donkey was produced in 1939 in a very short run, so it is a rare item.

The Penguin Donkey was created specifically to carry the new type of paperback book, which for the first time made available reasonably priced, best-quality, international literature to a wide public for the price of a pack of cigarettes (which were themselves relatively cheaper than today). The books were stacked in the side elements (appropriately referred to as panniers) and newspapers and magazines were slotted into the centre. The organic, curvilinear shape of the Donkey, raised on legs rounded in elevation, was made possible by the use of very thin plywood.

As the V&A explains, the Donkey was designed to Bauhaus/Modernist ideals, that art should meet the needs of society and that form and function should work together. That the Donkey was designed for the new (at that time) cheap Penguin Paperbacks also meets with these ideals. Even the design of the Penguin cover is functional yet stylish – covered in the great Penguin By Design 70th anniversary book.

The Penguin Isokon Donkey is reproduced in a modern design, seen below in a photo reproduced with permission from Rich Watts on flickr. Click through for more images of the 70 Years of Penguin Exhibition at the V&A.

The Mark II Donkey was redesigned by Ernest Race, in 1963. Jack Pritchard asked Race redesign the piece to bring it up to date, simplify its form and make it more practical, with a flat top that could be used as a side table.

The original design is available to buy at the Conran Shop and both pieces are available from Isokon Plus.


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