The ‘unclassifiable non-conformity’ of Max Clendinning

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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 — eluding categorisation.

A retrospective at Sadie Coles gallery in Bury Street, London (until October 1) looks at the work of Clendinning, who died in 2020. Curator Simon Andrews has tracked down hitherto unseen pieces — overscaled lighting, decorative objects and futuristic furniture in brilliant colours alongside artworks by Clendinning’s partner, the set designer Ralph Adron. Interior 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 1960s Maxima furniture range, he preferred to channel his creativity into one-offs and private commissions rather than mass-made 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, is part of his fragmented legacy. The couple moved here in 1972, turning the Victorian interior into a laboratory of ideas — shelves crowded with Cubist-style sculptures, furniture in blazing reds and yellows. Adron points out the hand-painted fireplace and the walls, sparkling with layers of watercolour. Gilded shutters add to the surreal atmosphere.

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

Andrews, an independent art adviser, remembers 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 personalised way. Clendinning understood the formality and dogma of architecture, but it was an inventive quest for expression that guided him.” It is Clendinning’s “unclassifiable non-conformity,” says Andrews, that makes him feel relevant still today.

Growing up in rural Northern Ireland, where his family ran a furniture factory, Clendinning (born in 1924) spent his early years sketching the local countryside. Through his Royal College of Art-trained art teachers Crawford Mitchell and George MacCann, a pupil of Henry Moore, Clendinning learnt about modern art. He recalled one class when MacCann asked his pupils to paint a series of “huge fat ladies, very simply shaded in bright colours”, much to his amazement — and the headmaster’s consternation.

During the second world war, he enrolled at Belfast College of Art, where despite the absence of an architectural school, a professor organised classes for a small group, designing Baroque buildings in the style of Sir Christopher Wren or drawing from casts of classical sculpture. Clendinning’s affinity for architecture was recognised 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’: the north London home of Clendinning and Ralph Adron from 1972 © James Balston

the north London home of Clendinning and Ralph Adron

It led to an apprenticeship in 1944 with the Belfast architect Henry Lynch-Robinson. A key figure in Northern Ireland’s postwar urban planning, Lynch-Robinson spotted Clendinning’s potential, involving 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 making had fascinated Clendinning since childhood when he helped out at his father’s furniture factory, sweeping up the wood shavings and learning about its machinery.

In 1956, after a stint working for Sir Denys Lasdun — architect of the National Theatre — he moved to British Railways architects’ department to develop prefabricated buildings for its modernisation programme. Now Grade II-listed, Clendinning’s 1960 station at Oxford Road, Manchester, was based on a lightweight timber shell. The innovative roof — three arches with clerestory lighting in between — drew praise from architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner.

By contrast, his neoclassical civic centre in Crawley (demolished in 2020) was built from Portland stone, the same stone used to build Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Clendinning supervised every detail of the interiors, 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

Clendinning’s Grade II-listed Oxford Road station, Manchester (1960)
Clendinning’s Grade II-listed Oxford Road station, Manchester (1960) © RIBA Collections

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

The painted tables and chairs — essentially boxes for sitting in — appealed to Clendinning’s democratic instincts and his “clear, logical way of thinking”, says Adron. A grey 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,” recalls Adron. When it was displayed in the shop windows, the pieces — upholstered in Irish tweeds of mustard and purple — attracted such a crowd that the couple received a call from the police: “They thought Max was trying to incite public unrest.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The couple worked as a team: “Max would come up with ideas, and I would produce them. As a set designer, you’re trained to work with whatever is at hand,” says Adron. For a ruthlessly minimalist, all-white room — later parodied in the 1990s comedy series Absolutely Fabulous — they used chicken wire to make a giant, tulip-shaped lamp that towered over the setting 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 turning them into shops and restaurants. Clendinning’s Tea House, with its gridded black-and-red window display, still exists.

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

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