Magnus Englund is an eponymous London-based Scandinavian author, anticipating the launch of his newest book - 'Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain', written with Leyla Daybelge, coming out March 7th on Pavilion Books, which you can pre-order here. An author of numerous books on design, twenty years ago he also co-founded Skandium, the store specialising in Scandinavian design and interiors. He had been involved in fashion before - opening the concept store 'Nitty Gritty' in Stockholm in 1991. We sat down with Magnus in our West London to have a conversation about the numerous ways in which design impacts our lives.
TN: Design has very much been your career. How important you would say that design is in your everyday life?
Magnus smiles, probably thinking this is far too a heavy subject for our quick chat, but quickly replies.... The last few years with my intimate involvement with the Isokon Gallery and the writings of this book that is being launched in a few days, have made me more and more interested in the social and historical aspects of design. The Bauhaus period and the influence of the Isokon building have transformed the 20th century and form part of its history. 'So it is not only about having pretty things around me, although I like to do that too: my problem is that I buy far too many books on architecture and design... hopefully on a deeper level than just being beautiful things’.
You have lived in the modernist Isokon Building, completed in 1934, which was designed in response to the question ‘How do we want to live now?’ and has been very influential in the pioneering of the concept of minimal living. Would you say that living in the Isokon Building was a different experience to any of the previous homes you have lived in?
It has, because people are so aware of the history of the building (and because of the museum), this has created a community in the building. When moving out, the residents of 25 out of 36 flats came to the leaving-do that had been arranged by the head of the resident’s association. I think that is pretty unique - meanwhile, in the new building where we live now, yesterday, I tried to say hello to the man in the flat next door, and he almost rushed in and slammed the door behind him. I could see he was really uncomfortable with me saying hello. At the Isokon, there were often gatherings in the forecourt with a glass of wine, so I started to have an annual barbecue at our terrace. And also the flats are very small. They are below the modern building regulations of min. 38 sqm - and these are 25 sqm, so it doesn’t lend itself to socialising in the flats, you have to do it in the forecourt or at the back of the building.
This year marks a hundred years ago since Bauhaus was founded. A few generations of designers, artists and craft makers have set their mark on our world since. Do you see any impact of Bauhaus in today’s design language - and can we still learn from the Bauhaus?
What made Bauhaus unique is that it only lasted for fourteen years, as that it was forced to shut down as it fostered free thinking - which was hated by the Nazis. So that’s interesting in today’s world. The curriculum, drawn up by Walter Gropius, and the mix of interesting people that he surrounded himself with: the masters that were of such a wide variety. You had architects, product designers, textile designers, and you had painters, photographers
But also, I am fighting against the view that the Bauhaus was all about white and chrome and concrete. It was so much more than that - like the Anni Albers exhibit at the Tate Modern showed; that it was all about textiles and patterns. They also had artists like Paul Klee and Kandinsky who were masters of colours. It’s almost a shock to see how many colours there are inside the Bauhaus building, with deep blues and bright reds - and Kandinsky even painted a wall in gold in his house.
Your design interest started off in fashion, opening the store Nitty Gritty in Stockholm and completing a fashion degree at the London College of Fashion. What are your feelings about fashion today?
I was a self-taught retailer and I liked what was coming out in London, as Stockholm was very dull at the time, and since it is still existing it seems it has been a very good idea. I am more interested in architecture and design than I am in fashion today, I have to say, but the aesthetics do fit together - and I have also been interested in the fashion at Bauhaus. If you look at the photos of the students at the time, they look like 1980s Goths and not like something out of the 1920s and 1930s - so they were pretty fashionable there actually.
What made me change from fashion to architecture, was when I made a visit to Finland and visited a few of Alvar Aalto’s buildings in the centenary year of his birth - and I realised suddenly that I was dealing with products with a lifespan of 3-6 months, but he had made products that had a 100 year lifespan. So I asked myself who was the better designer here? I've always liked classic clothing that lasts forever.
You and Tracey have known each other for a long time, having run your stores not far apart in Marylebone, so you are very familiar with her creativity and the continuously developing collection. Considering Tracey started her business twenty years ago, long before the very strong awareness of the female struggle in many creative industries that we presently are experiencing, what’s your feeling for Tracey Neuls shoes?
It is a debate regarding the Bauhaus; because the women in the Bauhaus were mainly put in the textile workshops, and not in the architectural training - but you had lots of very strong women coming out of the Bauhaus, for sure. For what it was, at the time, it was groundbreaking for women and not reserved only for men.
Tracey’s shoes are very interesting - they are very unique. I have some shoe background, and it is not easy; you have to have new models all the time, lots of sizes, the right suppliers etc., so I have huge respect for what Tracey has done. I realise that she’s really taking off, I mean the three shops now are very, very impressive. And the collection is growing with more accessories etc.
I admire Tracey for always developing - not stopping to rely on previous successes only. Her shoes are always on the borderline with art, so its a very unique brand - and long may it last.
Pre-order Magnus's book Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain here.