Sylvia Reid 1924-2022

Celebrated mid-century architect and designer Sylvia Reid, whose designs brought the gleam of post-war modernism to millions of British homes, passed away in Penzance on 20 August at the age of 98.  

‘Her love affair with Cornwall began in 1961 when she and her husband John bought a cottage in Marazion where they spent their holidays for many years. She moved to Cornwall permanently in 2003,’ says her son Dominic.

‘Sylvia Mary Payne was born in 1924 and attended Notting Hill & Ealing High School, where she excelled at art and music. She went on to the Regent Street Polytechnic to study architecture at the beginning of the Second World War. There she met John Reid who was to become her husband and collaborator, a relationship which was to sustain them both personally and professionally throughout their happy marriage and lifelong design partnership, until John’s death in 1992.

‘On qualifying, Sylvia began working with Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew who had recently worked with Le Corbusier. John & Sylvia Reid was established in a rented flat on South Lambeth Road in London in 1948. And it wasn’t long before the couple became engrossed in work on the 1951 Festival of Britain with many notable figures including Milner Gray, FHK Henrion and Daphne Hardy Henrion, Misha Black, Paul Reilly, Theo Crosby, Willy de Maio, Ernest Race and Gordon and Ursula Bowyer, who all became lifelong friends.

‘Sylvia worked particularly closely with Robin Day during this period. A defining feature of their design partnership was that they collaborated on their entire output. It is therefore often hard to discern where the influence of one ends and the other begins. In this regard they differed from other famous design couples of the period.

‘Their work was prolific and wide-ranging, winning three Milan Triennale medals (1954, 1960 and 1963 ) and four Council of Industrial Design awards (1957, 1958, 1959 and 1961). Their enamelled cast iron Anniversary Ware for Izons is part of the permanent collection at the V&A Museum. They also undertook a good deal of graphic design, of which the most enduring is the NIC EIC logo which has remained unchanged since 1967 and can be spotted every day on electricians’ vans throughout the UK.

‘But they are perhaps best known for their furniture designs for British manufacturer Stag and their lighting fittings for Rotaflex. Their iconic S230 dining chair was awarded a Design Guild Mark on its 60th anniversary in 2019. They believed that “good design is the product of logical thought and the attempt to provide for the requirements of the world in which we live. Whether it be of furniture, interiors or complete buildings, it is concerned with the intelligent usage of suitable materials, arranged so that the functional requirements of the particular problem are solved.” Thanks to this pragmatic and functional approach, Sylvia welcomed the fact that much of their architectural work was altered over time, including the Wiegerinck House in Oulton Broad mentioned in Pevsner’s Suffolk. However, she was delighted when their decagonal, brick, Wheatsheaf Pub in Camberley was listed Grade 2 in 2018.

‘Their design philosophy was informed by the austerity of post-war Britain. They were working in a country recovering from the devastation of war, whilst simultaneously energized by the prospect of building a bright new future. Throughout her life she remained a strong advocate of design literacy and good quality design for everyone. Having coined the phrase “good design for the young in heart and pocket” for Stag in 1960, Sylvia was adamant in a recent interview that “if people can’t afford it, what’s the point?” Sylvia was a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers. She later became a founding Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects, of which John was the founding Master in 1988. She went on to become Master herself in 1996, making them the first couple in history to both become Masters of the same Livery Company.

‘Sylvia was always assured of her equality, famously declining an invitation to debate the issue on Joan Bakewell’s BBC2 arts programme in the early seventies, proclaiming the argument to have already been won. She was married to John for 43 years until his death in 1992. She is survived by their three children Dominic, Suzannah and Victoria and three grandchildren James, Elizabeth and Grace.’

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