Nicholas Russell

Revolutions at Home?

Improving Domestic Life in the Mid-20th Century
The Kitchen as the centre of Aspirational Lifestyle
The Book Guild

The Book Guild

28 February 2021
High-Rise Council Housing for living in Cities
The Book Guild

The Book Guild

28 June 2023

The Books in Context

The forty years from 1920 to 1960 seem dull, apart from the drama of the Second World War. But important innovations were bubbling under the surface even in the quiet, neglected years.

Household Names describes the design of electrical devices that made life easier at home. Lubetkin and Goldfinger focuses on high-rise council building, designed to improve home life in big towns and cities. Labour-saving devices like irons and kettles sometimes created more work, while the cost of building good homes for everyone proved beyond Britain’s capacity. Poorly designed and badly built high-rise slabs and towers still blight our townscapes.

These are stories of innovation in unpromising times of economic and cultural transition. The modern world began in the mid-twentieth century and big themes of the period are explored in Household Names and Lubetkin and Goldfinger.

RH automatic K2 kettle

The Last Days of Industry and Empire

The British Empire created a beneficial economic cycle for Britain; we imported raw materials from the colonies and exported manufactured goods back. The Empire crumbled from the 1950s and Britain lost its guaranteed export markets. Global competition showed British industry’s inefficiencies, causing industrial upheaval that undermined many post-war innovative companies like Russell Hobbs.

Household Names is one story about the end of Empire and its effect on industry and the lives of British people.

Modernism arrives 

In the early 20th century new visual art, architecture, literature and other cultural forms emerged in Continental Europe. Some leading symbols of modernism, abstract art and modernist architecture for instance, did not really penetrate British consciousness until after the war.

There are stories about the survival of our provincial traditions and others about the arrival of modernist ideas, often with migrants and refugees from Europe. Lubetkin and Goldfinger were members of this forcibly scattered diaspora.

The Rise of Social Democracy

The Labour Party finally established itself in the 1930s, went into coalition with Churchill’s Tories in the war, and emerged as the party of government in 1945. The longest lasting products of this first Labour administration are the National Health Service and local authority social welfare.

More transient were the nationalisation of the railway, coal, electricity and water industries to organise these monopolies for public benefit. Lubetkin and Goldfinger played leading roles in expanding council housing as part of the system of social welfare. Empire, modernism and social democracy are now history. The social democratic consensus was undermined by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government from 1979, but has nevertheless persisted. Perhaps it will experience a resurgence?

Lubetkin Sivill House
Goldfinger Balfron Tower

Who am I and Why Have I Written these Books?

My father Bill Russell, was the design engineer founder of Russell Hobbs, the first maker of automatic kettles. My boyhood memories of the firm between 1952 and 1962 are at the core of Household Names. The book sets that firm’s development in the wider pattern of expanding British manufacturing in the 1940s and 50s and its subsequent decline in the 1970s and 80s.

Since retirement I have volunteered at various heritage sites, including 2 Willow Road, Hampstead, the house built by Ernö Goldfinger for his family in the 1930s, now owned by the National Trust. We tour guides feel we know Goldfinger and his family quite well. Discovering that Goldfinger had a near exact contemporary, Berthold Lubetkin, of similar background, professional expertise and attitude, led me to put together this joint biography, illustrated with examples of their buildings.

Between youth and antiquity I was an academic tourist, teaching applied biology, the history of science and technology and latterly science communication. I also undertook curriculum development work on vocational science qualifications.

I now live in Bath and currently volunteer at the American Museum and Gardens at Claverton Down, an institution unique in Europe. The history and culture of America are vast themes so it seems unlikely I will extract a story for another book, though it might be foolish to rule it out!

The very young Nicholas Russell
Bill Russell and Peter Hobbs