Our Favourite Vintage Brands

by Emma Shakeshaft

You may have seen our vintage fancy dress blog and wondered what it was all about. As much fun as dressing up in polyester in 21°C heat is (!), the point of it was actually to use it as a chance to reflect on some of our favourite pieces of vintage design. We were each asked to choose our favourite piece of design from the past, unrestricted by era and industry. The results are a fantastically eclectic mix; from architecture to fashion, from automobiles to homeware.

If you’ve not seen our time-travelling fancy dress yet, you can check it out here

  • Ian Thompson – The Brough Superior 1919-1940

    I’ve always liked motorbikes (although I’ve never had one, apart from a Peugeot moped I bought from my Physics teacher for £4.00 when I was 14). When I was a kid it was all about Moto Guzzi and Harley Davidson, but as I’ve got older it’s really vintage British bikes that look the most interesting to me. The Brough Superior was considered to be the Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles for the 21 years they were in production in the inter-war years from 1919 to 1940, when the factory was turned over to produce Rolls-Royce Merlin aero-engines for the war effort. It was made in Brough Superior works on Haydn Road in Nottingham. A total of 3048 of these were made and third of this run still exists, in the hands of museums and collectors. Famously, 8 were bought by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and in fact he died riding his 7th. The 8th was on order at the time of his death and is now on display in The Imperial war Museum.

    Design doesn’t exist in a separate world to its context. There’s no question that the T.E Lawrence story contributes to the caché of this object, but it is now part of what the object ‘is’ and represents – no different to the associations we have with leather jackets, jeans and other cultural icons. It looks British. It’s less showy and styled than its American or continental contemporaries although it was always a premium product. It looks like real Boys-Own stuff and it’s a product of a time when Britain was emerging from one of its darkest hours, only to be plunged back in again. It looks like a bike for proper hard-cases, even though only poshies were able to afford them, even in the 20s. But men raced on these in the days when, if you crashed, you almost certainly didn’t walk away. If a bunch of blokes turned up with old leather hard hats and goggles to take on a load of Hell’s Angels, I know who my money would be on.

    I’m certainly neither man enough or rich enough to ride one of these, but we can all dream.

    Thanks to the originator of the photo, whoever they are. Unfortunately, I can’t find out who it is, but it has appeared on a great many blogs.

  • Chris Skelton – Skelox Hair Curlers 1957–2011

    When I started to consider my favourite piece of vintage design the first things that came to mind were all the obvious classics (and clichés). The original iMac, Eames furniture, the E-Type Jag etc. But then I stopped myself in favour of something that summed up an era, rather than a one-off moment in time. And I didn’t pick my favourite piece, but something that means a lot to me instead.

    If you think of the 60s you might think of the attitude, the clothes, but also the hair. If I asked you to imagine hair curlers I’m sure the image in your mind’s eye would be a vivid representation of women of the era.

    Now you might be thinking “hair curlers are a bit of a random choice”, but they actually illustrate the perfect balance of form and function. They’re as simple as can be, every element has a role (excuse the pun) to play and the design has stayed the same for decades. This, coupled with the fact that my grandfather was a pioneer in hairdressing in the late 50s and 60s makes these little plastic cylinders, in my view, a quintessential symbol of a vintage era that everyone can relate to.

    My grandfather (Wilfred Skelton) was an award winning hairdresser from Sheffield. He opened the first women’s hairdressers in the city, and he designed the Skelox perm curler, which was the first-of-a-kind and influenced the design of curlers from that moment onwards. His business (Skelox Productions) lasted for 54 years and to this day I remember as a young child playing in his shed for hours with these colourful bits of plastic.

  • Jimmy Smith – Johnston typeface

    The kind of vintage design I find most appealing is something that is not so obviously vintage in its style. I much prefer design that ages well and feels as relevant today as it did when it was first created.

    With that in mind I’m choosing the Typeface Jonhston. Since its first commission in 1913, Edward Johnston’s font has become the face of the London Underground. Designed at the time to give a sense of identity what was then called the Underground Electric Railways of London. The humanist style has an overall simple look about it, but the quirks in the font from the diamond tittles on the lowercase ‘i’ give a recognisable personality. It speaks with authority but it all has a certain charm about it.

    It’s been given an overhaul a couple of times since it’s first design, more recently by Monotype who have brought the font a bit more up to date, with a couple of new weights for digital use and the addition of a # and @ symbol, which we’d be lost without either these days.

    I’m sure it’ll be good enough for another 100 years.

  • Rachel Cook – The Morris Minor, 1948-1972

    I’ve got a thing for Morris Minors. Their shape, the traditional muted colours, and especially their extreme Britishness. My Uncle Phillip has been doing them up for years now, making him easily the coolest of all of my uncles. He still now sends me photos of his current green Morris 1000 (hard copy photos with the date written on the back in pencil, like they should be).

    The Minor was born in the early 1940s to Oxford-based manufacturers Morris Motors. This British firm would later become known for that Italian Job favourite, the Morris Mini, but it’ll always be the Minor that does it for me.

    This beauty, launched in 1948, was originally going to be called the Mosquito, but the firm later plumped for something safer, not wanting to scare off an already skittish post-war British public from what promised to be a rather radical and innovative car. It became the first British car to ever sell more than one million examples, with models ranging from the wooden framed, split screened ‘Minor Traveller’ estates, to the ‘Minor 1000 Convertible’. All beautiful examples of design and production, but it’s the Minor 1000 (so called due to its whopping 948cc engine) that I know and love best, thanks to Phillip’s collection.

    It’s not just the family connection that means this beauty is my favourite of all the vintage autos, though. This happy looking car, with its beautiful curves, muted colours, distinctive bonnet and arches, is surely the archetypal British car. Whenever I see one, I long for one of my own, to be accessorised with a headscarf, cigarette holder and picnic basket packed for two. Alright, it’s a ridiculous notion, but I’m sticking with it all the same.

  • Nick Ramshaw – The Moscow Metro

    I have chosen the Metro in Moscow, inspired by a recent visit and because it is such an amazing example of art and design being used to influence feelings.

    When the Metro opened in 1935 it immediately became the centrepiece of the city’s transportation system. More than that, it was a Stalinist device to awe and control the populace, and give them an appreciation of Soviet realist art. It became the prototype for future Soviet large-scale technologies.

    Stalin’s right hand man, Lazar Kaganovich, designed the subway so that citizens would absorb the values and ethos of Stalinist civilization as they rode. The artwork of the 13 original stations became nationally and internationally famous. For example, the Sverdlov Square subway station featured porcelain bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of the Soviet peoples, and the bas-reliefs at the Dynamo Stadium sports complex glorified sports and physical prowess on the powerful new “Homo Sovieticus” (Soviet man). The metro was touted as the symbol of the new social order—a sort of Communist cathedral of engineering modernity.

    The Metro was iconic also because it showcased Socialist Realism in public art. Socialist Realism was in fact a method, not a style. This method was influenced by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Lenin’s favorite 19th-century nihilist, who stated that “art is no use unless it serves politics”. This maxim explains why the stations combined aesthetics, technology and ideology. Any plan that didn’t incorporate all three areas cohesively was rejected. Without this cohesion, the Metro would not reflect Socialist Realism. If the Metro did not utilise Socialist Realism, it would fail to illustrate Stalinist values and transform Soviet citizens into socialists. Anything less than Socialist Realism’s grand artistic complexity would fail to inspire a long-lasting, nationalistic attachment to Stalin’s new society.

    Images by Nick Ramshaw

  • Daisy Kennedy Isobel in the Land of the Pink Bears by Jane Carruth

    This tatty old book with yellowed sellotape on its cover and a flakey spine is my Mum’s. Its pages feature the odd doodle, word underline and scribble, but the state it’s in also shows how much she loves it. Obviously she doesn’t draw on it any more. It’s kept in a cupboard away from light (and little hands). I love this book because, when I was small, if i was lucky Mum would get it out and read it to me as a bedtime story. It’s about a little girl who had a pink teddy bear, which one night woke her up and took her on a little white cloud to the land of the pink bears, where she met her teddy’s family and ate honey cakes and drank blossom tea. I still love the pretty illustrations and the sweet soft colours, though it’s a million miles from the styles of illustration I’m drawn to today. I’ve not seen it for years, until recently when my mum got it out to read to my little girl, Honey. It’s become even more special because Honey looks just like Isobel.

  • Emma Shakeshaft – Lucienne Day

    Lucienne Day was a British textile designer during the 50s and 60s. Her fabrics use bold colours and shapes overlapped with line details, in a similar abstract style to that of Joan Miro. I love going to vintage fairs to see how some of her original fabric has been reawakened to create cushions, lamp shades and artwork stretched over canvases.

  • Leanne Watkinson – Converse

    I’m rarely seen out of my Converse, so it seems fitting to choose these as my favourite piece of vintage design. Converse began in 1908 as a rubber shoe company specialising in manufacturing wellies, but soon began making sport shoes, too. In 1920, their basketball hi-tops were renamed ‘All-Stars’ and the name has stuck ever since. Although they’re now available in almost any colour, pattern and finish you could think of, the design of the shoe has remained largely unchanged in 96 years, making them a design classic that continues to grace modern shoe cupboards.

  • Chris Kemm – BassanFellow architecture

    BassanFellow completely restored the mid-century house in New Canaan. It was originally designed in 1956 by Wills N Mills, who remodelled the interior space for a better flow for modern living and dressed each room with iconic mid-century design pieces.

  • Paul McGuigan – E.W. Barton Wright’s ‘New Art of Self Defence’

    As a lover of both all things vintage and all things martial arts, it would seem remiss of me not to marry the two for my choice of beloved design of yesteryear. I’m currently reading a version of E.W. Barton Wright’s ‘New Art of Self Defence’ (C.1900) which, like most of my choices of reading material, was chosen mainly for the pictures.

    The original ’how-to’ photography is mesmerisingly brilliant. By modern martial arts standards, much of it is fantastically impractical – the stances too upright, the guards too low – but yet you want to emulate it, despite the almost comical composition. It has a kind of dignity you just don’t see in the hunkered-down, shrugged-shoulder kind of stances that blended martial arts have evolved into.

    I also love how Barton Wright depicted using absolutely anything and everything at his disposal in order to belabour any troublesome oik unfortunate enough to be found irksome by the great man. From coats and cloaks to his hat, walking stick and even his bicycle. I’ve started to carry a full-length umbrella, large silk handkerchief (and further justify my love of hats) largely as a result of his work.

  • Ella Marke – Vespa

    Vespas are the epitome of cool. There’s no fuss with this design — its simple, elegant and super clean, but still beautifully organic. As Audrey Hepburn proved in Roman Holiday, riding sidesaddle on a Vespa is still the most glamorous way to travel.

  • Kirsty Stevenson – The Chrysler Building, New York

    Art deco designs take your eyes on a journey. Along a floor. Up a wall. Into the sky. I love the opulence, optimism, geometry, future feel and great scale of this design style, and the Chrysler Building epitomises this for me.

    Imager credit New York Public Library

  • Liz Calvert – Drinks Trollies

    Many years ago we had a drinks trolley. It was a solid wood 17th Century replica globe with handcrafted legs and covered in a decorative map. It had an impressive equator ring around the centre – which we used to precariously balance drinks glasses on when pouring.

    It was seen as a prestigious piece of furniture that took pride of place in our family living room. I never really grasped this as a child. The map was mis-aligned in places and to me, it just seemed brown and ugly.

    Roll on 40 years and things have changed. I now look at bar globes with fondness. Although I wouldn’t have one in my living room, I would definitely consider a more modern drinks trolley – and looking around at the choices and styles available, it seems that this has once again become a very fashionable thing to own.

  • Joe Mitchell – The Moog Synth

    An iconic brand in the world of Synth, Moog have continually been at the forefront of analog synth design and sound production and the original Minimoog was no different. The minimoog is a favourite design piece of mine due to it’s continual impact on the future of live sound. Although it’s now had a re-design (which has become a modern classic already) the original still has a genre defining look and the beautiful woodwork really stands out from the now crowded market. As a synth lover I’ve always had a space reserved in my rack for the minimoog, but with it’s hefty price tag, for now it’ll have to remain a dream rather than a reality.

  • Ollie Langridge – Eames House Bird

    So, the Eames House Bird is a bit of a funny one… it wasn’t actually designed by Charles and Ray Eames and the one that’s sitting in on my shelf at home isn’t actually vintage, but the origins of this handsome bird date back to the early 1900s and the design has barely changed since.

    Originally the hand carved birds were used as crow decoys rather than fancy shelf ornaments. Charles and Ray Eames had picked up a bird for their personal collection during their travels and after the bird started appearing in more Charles Eames’ photos it soon became an icon in it’s own right.

  • Jake Greenwood – Catalogue

    A typeface by Wim Crouwel, originally designed in 1970 for the Stedelijk museum’s exhibition of the sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s work. Designed to echo the soft forms of Oldenburg’s work the typeface represents what was a new approach to expressive design.

    I’ve chosen this particular piece of work because I think it was the first or one of the first pieces of Crouwel’s work I came across. It was how the design carried meaning that is what first struck me, this expressive quality that all of Crouwel’s work carries has had a great impression on how I approach design.

  • Jamie Moore – Telecaster

    When it comes to guitars, it should all be about the sound but there’s something about the way the Fender Telecaster looks that, for me, puts it ahead of it’s competition. Introduced in 1951, the guitar was quickly picked up by many people due it’s versatility and affordability. Played by some of my all-time favourites, Springsteen and Strummer to name a few, it’s been prevalent throughout many different genres of music from punk, reggae, country, metal (although, not common) and pretty much any other genre you can imagine.

    The original design is as simple as it is beautiful. The guitar is a pretty stripped back machine only featuring, neck and bridge pick ups, the iconic ashtray bridge, a tone selector, two tone dials, and well… that’s about it.

    The Telecaster really comes into it’s own when a more exciting finish is applied. The simple design really puts the finish centre stage. One of my personal favourites is the ‘sea foam’ telecaster. Rarely seen outside of the surf rock scene, when I see this guitar on stage, I just can’t look away.

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