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Betty Joel
Glamour and innovation in 1930’s design

Report of the lecture given by Clive Stewart Lockhart
on May 25th 2016

Virtually nobody at the beginning of the evening had ever heard of Betty Joel but by the end of his talk her great-nephew, Clive Stewart Lockhart, had ensured that from then on her name would be deeply embedded in our memories.

Betty Joel grew up to be a beautiful, instinctively clever and forceful woman.  Born in 1894 in Hong Kong, she spent her early years in the colony, where her father was Colonial Secretary.  The outbreak of war caught her mother and siblings in England, so she remained in virtual isolation with her father in the backwater of Weihaiwei, a territory leased to the British in north-east China where he had become Civil Commissioner.  During this time she became a student of Oriental art under the tutelage of her father, a renowned expert in the field, and it must have been his influence that encouraged her discerning and sensitive approach to visual art.

She married a naval officer named David Joel in 1918 and they came to England and established their first home on Hayling Island.  Having no furniture they set about making their own.  Friends admired what they had created and gave them commissions, and thus began the Token business (the name being a corruption of teak and oak) that was to become such a trendsetter.  So great was the popularity of its designs that the factory moved to bigger premises at Portsmouth, and from there to London.  Betty and David’s creativity produced innovative pieces of furniture.  Often the form was curvilinear and the bases and handles would be made of monel metal (an alloy of copper and nickel), and these designs attracted clients such as the Queen Mother, Sir Winston Churchill, Lady Edwina Mountbatten and Gertrude Stein.   There was definitely an irony in this very staunch Socialist attracting such an affluent clientele.

Betty wanted their designs to be practical yet beautiful, made from Empire timbers such as teak and Queensland silky oak, and executed by superbly skilled craftsmen.  Middle-class housewives were her target and through her designs she taught them what they had not realised they needed.  For example, her furniture had rounded edges (so no bruised shins) and no beading (so no trapped dust).

Not only did she and David design and produce their furniture but Betty also became very adept at marketing it.  The factory on the Kingston by-pass became a desirable one-stop destination because it also housed a gift shop where fabrics and all manner of interior design artefacts could be purchased. To encourage sales she even dressed a stage set with their creations and then took guests to watch the play and see the furniture.

Her marriage to David did not last.  They lost their only child, and the cards they sent for Christmas 1939 bore the last photo of them together.  David had fallen in love with Peggy, then in 1944 there was a deed of separation, with the divorce being finalised two years later.  In 1932 Betty had been the top UK interior designer, considered the Clarice Cliff of furniture, yet by 1939 the glory years were over, and she simply walked away from the business to spend the last 46 years of her life in seclusion.

Alison Morton

Related Link (opens in new window):

Betty Joel exhibition 2007 (recommended!)