Thoroughly modern Murray

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Adapted from KEITH MURRAY (1892-1981): A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY, by Linda Tyler*

Blue bowl
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New Zealand-born Keith Day Pearce Murray was one of the most influential and significant modernist designers. Born in Stokes Road, Mt Eden in 1892, Murray emigrated to England at the age of 14 with his parents Charles Henry Murray, originally from Peterhead, Scotland, and Lillian Day Murray (nee George), from Nelson. Although he graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1921, he turned his considerable design and drawing skills to working in the decorative arts for most of the 1930s.

Inspired by the 1925 Exposition in Paris, and by the 1931 Exhibition of Swedish Industrial Art in London, which emphasised the idea of co-operation between artist and producer, Murray sought out opportunities to design vases and tablewares for factory production. He produced some experimental glass designs which were executed by Whitefriars, but the shapes of these were not suited to the production processes used. He was subsequently employed as a freelance glass designer by Stevens and Williams for 3 months each year from 1932 to 1939, where he produced about 150 designs annually. These were executed by either free-blown or blown-in-mould techniques. Keith Murray complemented the simplicity of his modern shapes with strategic decoration, which included engraved, enamelled or acid-etched patterning in abstract 'Jazz-Modern' style; images of exotic fish and seaweed and branching cacti decorations.

Green vase

Coincident with his successful glass work, Murray began designing ceramic tablewares for Wedgwood. In contrast to the highly coloured decorated wares of contemporary Art Deco designers such as Clarice Cliff, his style of ceramic decoration was characterised by subtle glaze finishes and an architectonic furrowing of parallel horizontal grooves which served to accentuate the classical purity of his forms. The simplicity of his designs meant they were relatively inexpensive to produce, and could be adapted to slip casting rather than hand-potting, thus fulfilling Wedgwood's request for 'new cheap shapes, attractive to modern eyes' which would be 'the best possible for the money and reasonably attractive to that growing section of the younger public which has some taste but no money.'

Murray's first designs for Wedgwood were made in a cream-coloured earthenware (Queensware), and also in black, and later bronze, basalt stoneware, produced by mixing colours obtained from cobalt oxide, iron oxide and manganese oxide. At the end of 1932, the first of the matt 'Seinnese' glazes, with their characteristic egg shell sheen, were developed. The colour range eventually included: Moonstone (soft white); Matt Green; Matt Straw; April Green; Dark Green; Turquoise and Windsor Grey. A range of ornamental wares in two-colour combinations: champagne, celadon green or Grey slip on ivory body was produced from 1937 onwards; and, while Murray was a shaper, not a decorator, he did design some decorative patterns for bone china and Moonstone wares. These included: Lotus; Weeping Willow (also known as Green Tree); Iris; Pink Flower; Pink Pimpernel; Red Pimpernel, and border patterns Radio and Lotus.

Tall blue vase

His work was widely exhibited and photographed, and won Murray numerous awards and accolades, including a gold medal at the 5th Triennale in Milan in 1933, and a place among the ten designers to become Royal Designers for Industry, where he later held the title of Master of the Faculty from 1945 to 1947.

In 1936, Murray resumed his architectural practice - his first major commission was for Wedgwood's new factory on the Barlaston Hall Estate near Trentham. Although Wedgwood produced the last of his designs as late as 1956, Keith Murray ceased to produce new designs for them in 1948. The architectural practice of Ramsey, Murray, White and Ward went on to specialise in airport, commercial and industrial work, including the Hong Kong airport during the 1950s.

* Linda Tyler was Head of Section, Historical and Theoretical Studies in the Design School, Faculty of Architecture and Design at UNITEC Institute of Technology.