How Erskine inspired Clare Hall's mid-century revival

Clare Hall is widely regarded as one of Ralph Erskine's greatest buildings, so it was fitting that the iconic 20th-century architect was the inspiration behind the refurbishment of the Common Room – the College's main shared space, where members relax, converse and study. Interior designer Magnus Englund explains how Erskine's take on modernism shaped the new design. 

When Ralph Erskine completed Clare Hall in 1966, the language of modern architecture was changing, and Clare Hall is a reflection of that. Red bricks had replaced the early modernists’ use of white painted concrete, which can also be seen in the works of Alvar Aalto, someone Erskine was very familiar with. But concrete would soon return in its rawest form, in particular in Britain where Brutalism gained popularity.

We don’t know what furniture Erskine would have used for Clare Hall, as he never got to complete the interiors, and as he is no longer with us, we are unable to ask him. But we do have detailed photographic records of what furniture he used in his own home, Villa Erskine outside Stockholm, which was completed in 1963 and therefore very close in time to Clare Hall.

His house was filled with a who’s who of the best of modern Scandinavian design, with many of the great mid-century masters from Denmark, Finland and Sweden represented: Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto, Hans Wegner, Bruno Mathsson and Poul Henningsen to name a few. Most of their designs are still in production, but we were conscious that we did not want to create a design museum, frozen in time in the 1960s, but a modern environment that works today. We, therefore, used the design classics of the time – stretching from designs by Alvar Aalto in the 1930s to Yngve Ekström in the 1960s - but picked more contemporary finishes of the woods, lacquers and upholstery. Look quickly, and you won’t notice that some of the furniture is older than the building, some by several decades.

In the end, we didn’t decide on the furniture, Ralph Erskine himself did, and we therefore also proposed a large portrait of him in the reception, tracking down the original photographer in Sweden and obtaining her permission. That the building also got listed Grade II* during the process proved the importance of honouring the original architect and his vision. We hope Ralph Erskine would have approved – and we hope the staff and students will too.

Magnus Englund together with Christina Schmidt, joint founders of Skandium, worked with Clare Hall members on the new interiors for the Common Room. The room was reopened at the start of Michaelmas term 2018. The refurbishment was made possible by donations to the Liz Ramsden fund.

Furniture installed at Clare Hall:

  • Stool 60 – Alvar Aalto (Finland) 1933, by Artek
  • Pendant A330S Golden Bell - Alvar Aalto (Finland) 1937, by Artek
  • Bench 154 – Alvar Aalto (Finland) 1945, by Artek
  • Lamino coffee table – Ynge Ekström (Sweden) 1956, by Swedese
  • Laminette chair – Ynge Ekström (Sweden) 1956, by Swedese
  • Grand Prix chair – Arne Jacobsen (Denmark) 1957, by Fritz Hansen
  • Accent armchair/sofa/coffee table - Ynge Ekström (Sweden) 1959, by Swedese
  • Miss Holly high table – Jonas Lindvall (Sweden) 2012, by Stolab
  • Miss Holly round table – Jonas Lindvall (Sweden) 2018, by Stolab
  • PVC flooring – made by the Swedish company Bolon. The choice of Bolon was based on four reasons; its Swedish heritage reflecting the history of Clare Hall, its environmental credentials which include no need for chemicals to maintain, its 15-year guarantee, and finally its stylish appearance


The design team pictured in the new Common Room (back, left to right) Fellows Frances Spalding and Alan Short with Domestic Bursar David James, (front, left to right) Magnus Englund and Christina Schmidt