Betty Joel - Glamour and Innovation in 1930's Interior Design
Presented by Clive Stewart-Lockhart
10th January 2023
I, like many others had not heard of Betty Joel, an English Art Deco furniture designer and maker who in her heyday between WW1 and WW2 competed for business against traditional household names such as Waring & Gillow and Heal’s department stores.
Who was she? Well, she was the Great-Aunt of this evening’s speaker, Clive Stewart-Lockhart and the driving force behind a furniture business that had thrived, but which now is long lost. Clive is on a mission to rehabilitate her image with tonight’s talk providing a fascinating insight into how Betty and her husband David developed fame and fortune designing their attractive, reasonably priced and functional furniture for over 20 years.
Betty spent most of her youth in what Clive described as a dysfunctional colonial family. She lived a lonely life with her academic father who was working for the Hong Kong Government as a Commissioner. He took charge of her education. She met her husband David, a naval officer whilst in China where they settled down to family life. They had been unable to furnish their home adequately so began to design and make their own furniture. After a couple of years, they moved back to England settling on Hayling Island where they continued to produce home-made furniture for their cottage.
They ended up making customised furniture for their friends too and thus grew a substantial business venture. The company was called ‘Token’, the name reflecting the wood they used which was in these early years either teak or oak and which they had acquired from the ships that were being broken up after the first World War.
Betty was the main designer for Token but employed many craftsmen over the years to whom she was utterly devoted. Although she had no formal training it appears she was a natural at promoting Token’s work and employed extraordinary marketing ploys to attract custom. She marketed herself as an influencer, a woman designing utilitarian pieces of furniture for women’s benefits such as a glass-topped dressing table enabling the user to see through the glass to the contents in the drawer underneath. She chose The Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition to launch her products in person then subsequently used The Daily Mirror to illustrate the benefits of her niche concepts. She gave demonstrations to groups of women, made a film in 1930 with Gaumont cinema and produced post cards as advertisements.
Throughout the mid 20’s until just before the second World War she became a market leader who was critical of any opposition or plagiarism. Although a Socialist she mingled with many celebrities such as Winston Churchill, The Mountbatten Family, Gertrude Stein (friend of Picasso and hugely influential in Paris), royalty, and her business premises moved to London, initially near Sloane Square but ultimately to 25 Knightsbridge. She branched out into using textiles (always obtained from abroad) and gained contracts with a variety of famous clients such as Coutts Bank, The Daily Express, British Airways and The Savoy Hotel, to name but a few. She added a basement gift area to the Knightsbridge store, which stocked knickknacks from Paris to entice customers to enter their show rooms. She also became involved in refurbishing whole areas of buildings for her clients, using timbers from around the world: Canada, Australia, and West Africa. David was a keen Rolls Royce owner - their flagship delivery van added flair to the business – it was a huge, bright yellow Rolls Royce.
Unfortunately, little of her work is still visible today. Clive gave us a few examples: the altar piece at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, White Lodge in Harrogate, Hays Wharf in Tooley Street, London Bridge (designed by the architect Goodhart-Rendel who gave her lots of business), 63 Harley Street and the altar rail at St Mary’s Church, Bourne Street, Belgravia. There is little to be seen at the V & A though, which Clive found disappointing.
By 1937 Betty’s father had died and she and David decided to ostentatiously refurbish the facade of 25 Knightsbridge. But their marriage was breaking up and David left Betty for another woman. Betty herself never remarried and ended her days moving back to Hampshire, to a bungalow in Andover. War was imminent and the business folded.
Our speaker tonight however will continue to pursue his desire to promote his Great-Aunt’s work. He has already written a book about Betty and awaits its publication. I found his talk this evening amazingly interesting for all its content, the references to places I know and the connections it made with my parents’ generation. Yet again a great lecture.