Betty Joel (1894-1985)

Born: Mary Stewart Lockhart

Sector: Household Goods (Furniture and interior designer)

I am often asked how I find the women who feature in this project.  I owe my discovery of Betty Joel to a window display in the Cirencester Oxfam.  I was researching Constance Spry and Syrie Maugham and so a book on ‘The Decorative Thirties’ caught my eye.  When I got it home I read the nine-page entry on Syrie Maugham, then flicked through the rest of the book and noticed this:

Betty Joel's prize winning bedroom set from the 1935 exhibition, 'British Art in Industry' at the Royal Academy.
Advert showing Betty’s prize winning bedroom set: ‘The Decorative Thirties’ by Martin Battersby (1971)

The name was not familiar and although there were two more pictures of Betty Joel furniture, there was almost nothing else in the book about her. My curiosity was piqued and I started doing some digging. 

I soon discovered that, on some criteria, Betty is better known than many of the women featured in this project: she has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, her work can be found in the V&A collection and the National Portrait Gallery holds a photograph of her.   But given her broad and innovative portfolio of work, her status at the time – the revolving bed was part of a show that also showcased work by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Cedric Morris, Oliver Hill and Edward Maufe – and her notable commercial success, Betty has received relatively little coverage compared to other women and men working in interior design between the wars.

Betty was born in Hong Kong on 7th June 1894. Her mother Edith had grown up in Asia, the daughter of a bullion broker, while her father, James, had arrived there in the 1880s to start a career in the Hong Kong Government.  Betty, as she was known from about the age of thirteen, was educated in the UK, returning to live in China when she finished her schooling aged 18.  She met her future husband David (1890-1973), a naval officer there, when she was still a teenager, and they married in Sri Lanka in 1918 when Betty was 24.  

Portrait of Betty Joel by Frederic Whiting, November 1929
Portrait of Betty Joel by Frederic Whiting, November 1929, frame designed by Whiting and David Joel

A year or two later, the couple returned to the UK and settled on Hayling Island where they built their own cottage.  David had already made furniture to Betty’s design back in Sri Lanka and now needing more furniture for their new home, Betty again got to work.  Friends who visited the house started to make requests and in 1921, she and David set up a furniture manufacturing company. 

The launch
Even though this was a partnership, the couple wanted to create a differentiated brand with strong appeal to women and so called the business Betty Joel Ltd.  Betty was an attractive woman, with a slim build, reddish-gold hair and deep blue eyes and she featured in promotional material, leaning up against mirrors or sitting down at a dressing table.   ‘Into the somewhat sultry atmosphere of British furniture design shortly after the war the name of Betty Joel entered like a gust of fresh air: disturbing to some, invigorating to many’, John de la Valette later reflected.  Betty is usually credited as the primary designer, with David managing the business but David said that ‘almost every piece was separately designed either by the two principals or made to their own design for architect.’  Whereas in other partnerships, branding with the male name has led to the woman’s contribution being lost, here branding with Betty’s name seems to have resulted in both partners being forgotten…

Their first line of furniture was called Token, reflecting the use of teak and oak, and quickly came to public attention on its first official outing in March 1922 at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia. Betty was soon being featured in papers and magazines from the Bystander to the Daily Mirror.  She had wide cross-appeal: while tabloids highlighted the practicality of her furniture and the fact that the lack of decoration made it quick and easy to dust, high-society magazines were more interested in her family connections and fashionable dress sense: Betty was allegedly the first woman to wear lizard-skin shoes, which she had made for her in Sri Lanka.

Right from the start, journalists noticed the craft in Betty’s work: ‘This new period furniture achieves beauty by line and form rather than by ornament and relies for effect upon the careful blending of beautiful woods.  These virtues, allied to perfect workmanship, characterise ‘Token’ furniture’, commented The Sketch in December 1924.   Betty did not subscribe to a particular ‘ism’.  Writing in 1935, she said: ‘In fourteen years I have spent hours which total up to nearly a year of my life on exhibition stands so I know what the public want… Once a thing is made so that it really fulfils its function, it should be allowed to look as lovely as can be.’ 

Desk, wastepaper bin and chair by Betty Joel, 1929
Desk, wastepaper bin and chair designed by Betty Joel, 1929 (c) V&A Collections

When Betty thought about the function of furniture, she drew on her own experience. John Gloag, the design writer, commented as early at 1924 on her ability to find fresh and simple solutions to various problems.  The drawers of dowry-chests were lined with cedar, as a natural defence against moths.   Stools were designed to slide under dressing tables, to save space and table tops were made of glass, to make it easy to see what was in the drawers underneath.  One innovation which seems commonplace today was replacing handles with streamlined ‘finger sockets’.  Dressing tables had built-in lighting and she was particularly interested in two items of furniture every girl needs: a well-laid out wardrobe and an in-house cocktail bar.  

While pregnant in 1923, Betty designed ‘the comfiest of nursing chairs’, but tragically her daughter Idina died when she was just seven months old and Betty did not have any more children.

Growing the business
By 1924, Betty and David had opened their first London store at 177 Sloane Street. Furniture was delivered in a van with a Rolls Royce bonnet, bright yellow, with blue detailing and Betty Joel emblazoned in large letters across it.  David’s brother, Humphrey, and his wife, Vera, were photographers of interiors and documented many Betty Joel projects. Shown here are a selection of images featured in ‘Decoration for the Home’ published in 1939. The wall tapestries in the main image were designed by Anna Zinkeisen.

If furniture was designed and made by Betty Joel Ltd, on the back could be found a card signed and dated by the person who made it, but the company did not make just Betty’s designs: often, particularly earlier on, the firm would partner with an architect on a project and make furniture and fittings to their specification.   By 1927, Betty was starting to use other woods, like walnut and in 1928 at the Ideal Home Exhibition had a long conversation with HRH Duchess of York who was ‘tremendously interested in the electrically lit and electrically warmed bed’ and mentioned various Australian woods to her. 

That year, the shop moved to a much larger location at 25 Knightsbridge where a bright yellow front door opened up to reveal furniture displayed in a dozen carefully-styled rooms, with rugs, lighting and curtains.   Clients could request changes to the size and colour of furniture on display.  Personalisation was one differentiator and although Betty designed rugs and carpets, she never ventured into textile design so she and David sourced fabrics from France to enable them to create unique upholstery.

Betty Joel rug (1935-37) (c) V&A Collections

At the back was a large picture gallery managed by Jean Aron where displays of work by Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Marie Laurencin could be seen.   Betty and David had a flat on the upper floor that acted as an extension of the ground-floor show room and featured in magazine articles.

The 1930s saw Betty moving more firmly into the area of interior design.  The gallery was used to display a ‘1931 Living Room’, which was successful, in the view of the Times due ‘to its not attempting to please everybody’.  The Sphere thought that it ‘typifies what will probably be the decorating style’ for that year.  In 1932, she designed a four room show apartment overlooking Park Lane. ‘The latest idea in flats’ had walls lined with ‘sumptuous’ polished wood panels. She continued to expand the range of woods she was using to include sycamore, cherry mahogany, Queensland silky oak and Canadian pine.   Design writers started paying more attention. In 1932 Derek Patmore described her as ‘one of the most important figures of the British school of decoration’.

Room set with furnishings by Betty Joel
Room set with furnishings by Betty Joel: ‘Colour Schemes for the Modern Home’ by Derek Patmore 1933

She designed furniture and rooms for high-profile clients including Lord Mountbatten and Sir Winston Churchill and also worked on larger projects with architects.  She was wary of a tendency she saw to celebrate a few high-profile architects at the expense of designers and was no fan of the totalitarian approach favoured by architects like Mies van der Rohe, Erno Goldfinger and Serge Charmayeff.  ‘I discern an unfortunate tendency in some contemporary architects’, she wrote in 1935. ‘They seem so convinced of the perfection of their taste, so sure of their views on what constitutes a perfect home, that they insist on designing everything about the house from the weathervane to the bath tap, from the dinner ware to the waste paper basket.’   Even though she created show rooms and even show flats, she thought consumers needed to be given room by designers to express their personalities and mix the old with the new, keeping with them possessions they cherished and letting them sit alongside newer pieces.  In the same way, she felt designers needed to be given freedom by architects to create furniture for their buildings.

Betty therefore worked with architects who were prepared to let her do her own thing.  One early high-profile collaboration was with Arthur Kenyon on the exhibition house for Welwyn Garden City.  Priced at £675, the house had three bedrooms, two reception rooms, kitchen, scullery, electric light, heating and cooking.  Betty sought to furnish it fully for an additional £300. 

She also took on a wide range of commercial work in some of the most iconic buildings of the 1930s including the Daily Express building on Fleet Street, Shell Mex House on the Strand and Viyella House in Nottingham.   Betty Joel panelling adorned the walls of Coutts’ Bank in Park Lane.  Harley Street patients leant on her reception desk, Savoy Hotel guests and transatlantic voyagers on the RMS Queen Mary sat in her armchairs.  

One notable partnership was with Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel (1887-1959), who designed St. Olaf House on Tooley Street as the new headquarters for Hays Wharf.   Built between 1928 and 1932 in Art Deco style, this Grade II listed building is now part of London Bridge Hospital but although the exterior terracotta panels and mosaics designed by Frank Dobson survive, Betty’s furniture for the Board Room and Directors’ Common Room is long gone. 

Board room for the directors of Hays Wharf designed by Betty Joel
Board room for the directors of Hays Wharf, from ‘Furniture Design set free’ by David Joel

Goodhart-Rendel went on to design a new shopfront for 25 Knightsbridge as well as interiors for high-profile exhibitions.  He also designed a grand new modernist factory in Kingston-upon-Thames, which opened in 1934 and was shown on a full-page advert in the Royal Academy’s 1935 Exhibition Catalogue.   Combining workspace and showroom, with the Betty Joel name writ large on the outside, customers were encouraged to come and experience for themselves the smell of the wood and the skill of the craftsmen and could also buy fabrics and all sorts of other interior design items. 

Brand building
Throughout the 1930s, Betty diversified further.  She opened a theatrical and film furnishing and decoration hire department in 1931, lending out furniture for productions and then selling it off at a discount afterwards.   She also got involved in production design, one known example being her work with Alfred Junge on ‘Sleeping Car’, a 1933 film starring Madeleine Carroll. 

Betty complained that ‘we have many times been asked to design commercial articles for large firms and offered prices which would hardly pay for the paper on which they would be drawn but a few clearly paid up.  In 1933, she designed a radio of Queensland walnut bound with chromium-plated steel for Kolster-Brandes Ltd.   It was ‘one of the sensations’ of Radiolympia, with 2,500 sets sold on one day alone.  Even the Duchess of York bought one.  Three years later, she designed a stove for leading British manufacturer Esse.   

Betty wrote about design, in newspaper columns, magazines and books.  In her essay for John de la Valette’s 1935 collection ‘The Conquest of Ugliness’ her voice can be clearly heard, her views so forthright that the editor added a note to say ‘the enthusiastic utterances of the contributors to this book are made on their exclusive responsibility.’  She was eminently practical and very interested in space-saving ideas that today seem commonplace: tables that could be used as dressing tables with a fold up, mirrored centre flap; bathroom stools that doubled as laundry baskets; fold-out tables that when not in use masked radiators. 

Visible role model
Betty later dismissed anyone attempting to label her a feminist – ‘I was simply a woman doing business’, she would say.  Although she had a good relationship with her long-standing assistant, Ella Adler (née Cohen), she and David did not employ any women in their furniture factories.  She sometimes collaborated with women, notably Marion Dorn and Anna Zinkeisen, but did not make a particular point of this.  However, in 1937, the gallery did put on a display of women’s work to celebrate the Coronation where the work of these artists featured alongside Dame Laura Knight and Eileen Hunter and she also staged a solo show of Anna Zinkeisen’s work.

There is also no evidence that Betty was part of any one of the many business women’s networks in London during this period but thanks to her success she was held up as an example of what women could achieve. In 1933, she was featured alongside Gracie Fields, Madeleine Carroll, Jessie Matthews and Gertrude Lawrence as one of the highest-earning women in the country, said to be running a business with an annual turnover of £60,000, employing 200 people, and earning £5,000 a year (equivalent to c.£365,000 now). In reality there were no more than eighty employees at the peak and the other figures were probably similarly exaggerated but it gives a sense of Betty’s profile. Pamela Smith, daughter of anti-suffragist Lord Birkenhead, gossip columnist and Bright Young Thing described her as a ‘pioneer among women decorators and designers’ and in 1937 she was listed as one of the steadily increasing ‘army of highly paid-women’.

Betty signalled her self-confidence in her entry in The Women’s Who’s Who 1934-5, describing herself as ‘Artist Designer. An expert on House Designs and Interior Decoration & furnishing, especially in the modern manner’.  A different measure of her popular success can be seen by the ‘for rent’ notices mentioning ‘Betty Joel style furnishings’ as a selling point.

Exit stage left
In 1936, the Daily Mirror featured Betty in a series on high-achieving under-40s: ‘She is one of Britain’s leading designers of furniture and among the few women in the history of furniture designing who have touched anything like eminence in this most specialised craft.’   They went on to forecast that in a couple of hundred years collectors would be running after Joel furniture ‘as today they chase Chippendale or search for Sheraton’.

Betty Joel (1894-1985), designer
Betty Joel (née Mary Stewart Lockhart by Bassano Ltd; bromide print, 1930s
NPG x85483 © National Portrait Gallery, London

A year later, her marriage to David had unravelled and Betty left both him and the business. She never did any more design work and soon reverted to her maiden name.   The retail arm was wound up and David purchased the factory to sell furniture to the trade under his own name, David Joel Ltd.   The name of Betty Joel soon faded from the annals, despite David writing books on furniture in the 50s and 60s where he devoted ample space to the work of the partnership.  The Daily Mirror‘s forecast seemed remarkably inaccurate.

But slowly, quality started to win out.  Bernard Levin wrote in 1980 of his joy in seeing a Betty Joel dressing table at a Hayward exhibition, ‘Thirties: British art and design before the war’ and she was featured in Isabelle Anscombe’s book on women designers in 1984, the year before she died. She started to garner more serious attention a decade later in 1995, when Christopher Wilk, a V&A curator, penned an essay ‘Who was Betty Joel?’ and now when her work appears at auction, it is attracting much more interest.

Given her high profile for twenty years, what could explain Betty’s disappearance for the next sixty plus?  The decision to abandon her work in 1937 is one reason but not the only one: after all, Marion Dorn and Syrie Maugham both worked in the UK between the wars, yet they both feature consistently in articles about British design during this period.  Based on the research I have been doing for the last eighteen months, I see some emerging themes.

Women who don’t fall neatly into specific pre-defined boxes tend to suffer when histories are written.  There are a number of dominant design trends in the 1920s and 30s: Bauhaus, Modernism, Art Deco, Vogue Regency.  Although Betty would have described herself as part of the modern movement, her work did not clearly align with any of these four categories.  Her view of good design was making ‘something so unassuming that when you live it, you do not get tired of it’ and she didn’t leave behind a stand-out room or piece of furniture.  Some forgotten women have come to the fore as a result of the re-evaluation of the careers of men they worked alongside but Betty’s design partners were many and various.  Self-taught, Betty was not part of any art school gang. Brought up overseas, she was a social outsider and never became a Bright Young Thing, a member of the Cecil Beaton crowd or part of the Bloomsbury set. She did not have a racy private life helpfully recorded in a diary or letters.   If she met one or more of these criteria, I think we would all already know a lot more about Betty Joel.

In some ways these themes hold true for women in the workplace now.  Drawing attention to their individual achievements, being involved in high-profile projects, attracting executive sponsorship and having access to influential networks are all areas where women tend to do less well than their male colleagues.  And just like Betty Joel, if it takes longer for their achievements to be recognised, it is not necessarily a reflection on their ambition or their capability but on systemic biases influencing assessments and decision-making. 

Many thanks to Clive Stewart-Lockhart, Betty’s great-nephew, for his help with this article and for providing some of the images.

Sources include:

The Times 2/3/1922; The Sketch 15/3/1922; The Graphic 24/3/1923; The Bystander 28/3/1923; Sunday Pictorial 9/3/1924; The Graphic 3/5/1924; The Sketch 10/12/1924; Sunday Pictorial 15/2/1925; Westminster Gazette 7/7/1925; 3/6/1926; The Sphere 3/9/1927; Sunday Pictorial 25/3/1928; Britannia and Eve 1/11/1929; Weekly Dispatch 20/7/1930; The Sphere 13/9/1930; The Times 13/2/1931; The Sphere 28/2/1931; Daily Mirror 19/5/1931; Evening News 4/5/1932; Sunday Pictorial 26/2/1933; Sunday Dispatch 17/12/1933; Daily Mirror 18/6/1936; Yorkshire Post 8/10/1937; The Times 15/1/1980

‘Betty Joel: British Interior Architects of Today’ by Derek Patmore in Studio, November 1932; ‘A House and a Home’ by Betty Joel in ‘The Conquest of Ugliness’ (1935) ed. John de la Valette; ‘Betty Joel: Glamour and Innovation in 1930s Interior Design’ by Clive Stewart-Lockhart in The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 – the Present (2013) No.37, p.10-29

‘Industrial Design and the Future’ by Geoffrey Holme (1934); ‘Decoration for the Small Home’ by Derek Patmore (1938); ‘Furniture design set free’ by David Joel (1969); ‘The Decorative Thirties’ by Martin Battersby (1971); ‘A Woman’s Touch: Women in Design from 1860 to the Present Day by Isabelle Anscombe (1984); ‘Twentieth-Century Decoration’ by Stephen Calloway (1988)

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