Max Clendinning’s ‘unclassifiable inconsistencies’

The architect and designer Max Clendinning was a protean talent who turned his hand to buildings, interiors, furniture and art. Neoclassicism, modernism, pop art: he referenced them all in his own way – avoiding categorization.

A retrospective at Sadie Cole’s gallery in Bury Street, London (until 1 October) looks at the work of Clendinning, who died in 2020. Curator Simon Andrews has traced previously unseen pieces – overscaled lighting, decorative objects and futuristic furniture in brilliant colors alongside artwork by Clendinning’s partner, set designer Ralph Adron. Inside eulogies immerses visitors in Clendinning’s idiosyncratic, exotic world.

“I want it to feel like a discovery,” says Andrews.

Unlike his better-known contemporaries – such as Robin Day or Sir Terence Conran – Clendinning was not a household name. Despite the success of his Maxima furniture series from the 1960s, he preferred to channel his creativity into individual and private commissions rather than mass-produced products. Today, despite campaigns by conservationists, only two of his buildings remain, while his furniture is scattered across museums or guarded by the collectors who make up his fan base.

Clendinning and Adron’s north London home, its various incarnations captured in photographic shoots for magazines and books, are part of his fragmented legacy. The couple moved here in 1972 and transformed the Victorian interior into a laboratory of ideas – shelves filled with cubist-style sculptures, furniture in flaming reds and yellows. Adron points to the hand-painted fireplace and walls that sparkle with layers of watercolor. Gilded shutters add to the surreal atmosphere.

Max Clendinning (right) with his partner Ralph Adron © James Balston

Andrews, an independent art consultant, recalls discovering Clendinning’s work in a book. “It stood out from everything else,” he says. “What struck me was the way he mixed different elements in such a personal way. Clendinning understood the formality and dogma of architecture, but it was an inventive search for expression that guided him.” It’s Clendinning’s “unclassifiable incongruity”, says Andrews, that makes him feel relevant even today.

Growing up in rural Northern Ireland, where his family ran a furniture factory, Clendinning (born 1924) spent his early years sketching the local landscape. Through his Royal College of Art-educated art teachers Crawford Mitchell and George MacCann, a pupil of Henry Moore, Clendinning learned about modern art. He recalled one class when MacCann asked his students to paint a series of “big fat ladies, very simply shaded in bright colors,” much to the astonishment — and dismay of the headmaster.

During the Second World War he enrolled at the Belfast College of Art, where, despite the absence of an architectural school, a professor organized classes for a small group, drawing baroque buildings in the style of Sir Christopher Wren or drawing from casts of classical sculpture. Clendinning’s affinity for architecture was recognized when he won the university’s Sir Charles Lanyon Prize.

the north London home of Clendinning and Ralph Adron from 1972

‘A laboratory of ideas’: Clendinning and Ralph Adron’s north London home from 1972 © James Balston

the north London home of Clendinning and Ralph Adron

This led to an apprenticeship in 1944 with Belfast architect Henry Lynch-Robinson. A key figure in Northern Ireland’s post-war urban planning, Lynch-Robinson spotted Clendinning’s potential and involved him in designs for factories, offices, houses and schools. In 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, he won a scholarship to the Architectural Association in London, which enabled him to complete his studies. Two years later, after winning a British Council scholarship, he went on a Grand Tour of Italy to study its architecture, which he compared to “sculptures” in stone.

Materiality and manufacturing had fascinated Clendinning since childhood, when he helped out in his father’s furniture factory, sweeping the wood shavings and learning about its machinery.

In 1956, after working for Sir Denys Lasdun – architect of the National Theater – he moved to British Railways’ architectural department to develop prefabricated buildings for its modernization programme. Now Grade II listed, Clendinning’s 1960 station on Oxford Road, Manchester, was based on a light wooden shell. The innovative roof – three arches with vicarage lighting in between – garnered praise from architecture critic Nikolaus Pevsner.

By contrast, his Neoclassical Civic Center in Crawley (demolished in 2020) was built from Portland stone, the same stone used to build Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Clendinning oversaw every detail of the interior, including the furniture.

plywood furniture with foam cushions designed for Liberty & Co

Plywood pieces Clendinning created for the department store Liberty © John Donat/RIBA Collections

Clendinnings Grade II-listed Oxford Road station, Manchester (1960)

Clendinnings Grade II listed Oxford Road station, Manchester (1960) © RIBA Collections

It caught the eye of a buyer from Liberty department store, who asked him to redesign the tea room. The flat furniture, made of interlocking ply panels with rounded edges, was produced in the family’s factory, its childlike shapes inspired by the computer-generated numbers developed in the 1950s for use on checkbooks.

The painted tables and chairs — essentially boxes to sit in — appealed to Clendinning’s democratic instincts and his “clear, logical way of thinking,” says Adron. A gray cabinet – repainted several times – is now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s permanent collection.

“Max would bring the furniture back in suitcases and reassemble it in London,” Adron recalls. When displayed in shop windows, the pieces – upholstered in Irish tweeds of mustard and purple – attracted so many people that the couple received a call from the police: “They thought Max was trying to incite public disturbance.”

It led to a more commercially successful venture for British manufacturer Race Furniture. With names like Saturn and Satellite, the Maxima series (produced 1966-70), aimed at a younger demographic, was also marketed in the US. Maxima pieces still occasionally turn up on antiques websites and at auction.

The dining room of the couple's former home, also in north London, decorated with Maxima furniture

The dining room of the couple’s former home, also in north London, decorated with Maxima furniture © RIBA Collections

But it was interior design that suited his approach best, allowing him to choose ideas from Le Corbusier, the Aztecs or Sir John Soane. Charming and sociable, he set up a studio in 1965 and attracted a wealthy clientele who gave him carte blanche to do as he pleased. For Christian Dior’s then unisex boutique from 1971 in Conduit Street, he painted the walls gray and chose silver Georgian moldings for a jewel-box effect that contrasted old and new.

None of this brought him great wealth. “Max never thought about such things. I think he sometimes forgot to recharge. But he enjoyed it all enormously, because he was fascinated by the way people lived,” says Adron.

There was always an element of theater. “He liked things to be witty—and fun. If something was overthought, he’d say it felt heavy,” says Adron. Murals swirled across walls; ziggurat-shaped screens offset low wooden or vinyl furniture. But this was not merely surface decoration.Clendinning’s architectural training, grasp of proportion and classical furnishings – an octagonal dining room, a Pantheon-inspired round skylight – supported even the most avant-garde designs.

Ariel armchair, 1967

Clendinning’s Ariel lounge chair (1967) © Katie Morrison

The pair worked as a team: “Max would come up with ideas and I would produce them. As a scenographer, you are trained to work with what is at hand,” says Adron. What a ruthlessly minimalist, all-white room – later parodied in the 1990s comedy series Absolutely fantastic – they used the chicken wire to make a giant, tulip-shaped lamp that towered over the surroundings like a primeval creature.

From the late 1960s, Clendinning also worked for Christina Smith, the property developer who saved parts of Covent Garden from demolition by buying up its warehouses and converting them into shops and restaurants. Clendinning’s teahouse, with its latticed black and red window display, still exists.

In recent years, he set up a studio on the top floor of the house. Tucked under the eaves is an evocative space, filled with sculptures and the cabinet he designed that opens to reveal a sink and faucet for watering plants on the patio or washing brushes. “He was drawing, always making — galloping off with ideas,” Adron says. “Even now, I keep finding bits of Max that make me smile.”

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