On the beach: memory, modernity and how an émigré‘s artistic vision built an English seafront icon

The De La Warr Pavillion is a modernist classic. But the legacy of its co-creator, Serge Chermayeff, says everything about the English coast as a place of identity, exile and reinvention

“Bexhill is a really boring place,” my boyfriend warned me. “The only interesting thing about it is the pavilion.” Bexhill-on-Sea is a small seaside town in East Sussex. The people you meet on the street tend to be either incredibly young or incredibly old: eternally idling teenagers or retired couples on seaside promenades. There are a few crumbling hotels on the seafront. And there’s the pavilion. Built to resemble a great ocean liner, the De La Warr Pavilion is one of the most significant modernist buildings in Britain. Its clean lines and strong geometric shapes bear no compromise, and almost 80 years after it was built it still strikes you as a slice of pure artistic vision.

The man behind this vision was Serge Chermayeff, a Russian immigrant with no formal architectural education. He was born in Grozny in Chechnya in 1900 and moved to Britain to study at the age of 10. After the family wealth vanished in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, he had to give up on his ambition of going to Cambridge University. Instead he spent his youth as a professional tango dancer, before finding work with Waring & Gillow furniture makers as a designer in 1928. Together with German émigré Erich Mendelsohn, he won a contest to build the De La Warr pavilion in 1935. In 1940, Chermayeff emigrated to the US where architecture and interior design were much more in demand than in war-time Europe. He stayed there till the end of his life, teaching architecture and design at universities including Harvard, Yale and MIT.

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The current exhibition at the De La Warr showcases the work of the Chermayeff’s son Ivan, a legendary Madison Avenue graphic designer. The show is not just about individual artistic pathways, inherited talent or even about different ways to assemble circles and squares; it’s also about how timeless artistic vision has the power to transform a community, an environment, the world.

Ivan started his career in graphic design in New York in the 1950s, at a time when the discipline in its contemporary incarnation did not really exist. Together with partner Tom Geismar, he created many instantly recognisable logos: NBC’s rainbow peacock, National Geographic’s golden rectangle, Mobil’s red O, Pan Am’s globe and many more. He was also the creator of the Nine sculpture in front of the Mobil building in New York (at the exhibition, a small copy sits in a glass cube like a cute pet).

The other side of Ivan’s work has much less to do with the real world and is much more about what happens in one’s head, about the essence of the work done by designers and artists. He started making collages at the age of 17 to overcome his fear of not being able to draw. They are mostly made from day-to-day ephemera: envelopes, stamps, cigarette packs, train tickets, strips of coloured paper, found images, stones from the beach or squashed rusty cans. Organised by the artist’s hand and complemented with strong lines, they make faces, figures, fragmented narratives. Like all great designs, they evoke surprise and the pleasure of recognition. As he put it: “Design is all about seeing and making connections which are not so obvious.”

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Carefully placed in an exhibition space designed by Ivan’s son, architect Sam Chermayeff, the collages overlook the sea through the pavilion’s panoramic glass windows. The question many visitors might ask themselves is: what is the connection between a collage of a face eyeing you with a squashed Galloise pack and the De La Warr pavilion itself? The friend whom I visited the show with resolved my confusion pretty easily: “Essentially the pavilion is a collage made of a shoebox and some cake tins.” It’s true, the De La Warr, the first steel-framed structure in Britain, is an ode to straight lines and geometrical forms. There are two glazed cylinders for the north and south stairwells, long horizontal auditoriums with large windows (one used as the main gallery space, one as a cafe), framed by balconies. A true architectural masterpiece, the pavilion shapes the way you think and feel when you are next to it, and later it dominates your memory about the place, just like it dominates the seaside landscape.

The pavilion reflected two major trends in British Modernism, and especially its popular seaside incarnation: the influence of ocean liners and the cult of the sun. You’d have to be blind not to notice that the De La Warr looks like a white ocean liner — sweeping curves, external balconies, deck railing, ribbon-windows. Its creators both had experience with transatlantic liners: Erich Mendelsohn travelled to New York in 1924 aboard the Deutschland (one of his fellow passengers was Fritz Lang) and Chermayeff designed the interior for the first-class grill restaurant aboard the French South Atlantic liner, L’Atlantique, in 1931 while working for English furniture firm Waring & Gillow.

Much like the new generation of lidos and recreation centres, the pavilion was designed to embrace the sun, with open balconies and rooftop for sunbathing and a large terrace for outdoor sports. The 1930s were a golden era for the British seaside resort. The working classes had days off and money to spend and the railway provided quick escapes from big cities. The seaside revolution came in many shapes: from the tacky attractions of Blackpool and Margate amusements parks to clean and efficient modernist structures like Bexhill’s pavilion.

The De La Warr was meant for the new people of the new era, healthy and tanned, free from the past, looking into the future. These people came, but then they were gone. The British resorts, unable to compete with cheaper and warmer rivals on the Mediterranean, declined sharply in popularity. Serge Chermayeff moved to the States, but the De La Warr stayed — as a reminder of the Modernist dream and a ghostly Russian trace on the British seaside. It was used as military headquarters during the Second World War and, after decades of neglect, was finally restored in 2005 to become an art gallery. In 1934 Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr and the mayor of Bexhill, commissioned the pavilion to keep pace with progress and draw tourists to the unfashionable resort. Time cycles on and somehow, the pavilion has ended up in a sleepy, forgotten resort, the way Bexhill was before it was built.

Serge Chermayeff moved to the States, but the De La Warr stayed — as a reminder of the Modernist dream and a ghostly Russian trace on the British seaside.

There is a path that leads from Bexhill to Hastings along the seafront. The path goes past the back of a huge Tesco and a graffiti-covered skate ramp on the hill. In between the two towns there is an overgrown, weirdly low field: it used be to the biggest outdoor swimming pool in Britain, but now it is entirely covered in weeds. Further down in St Leonards, there is another Modernist masterpiece and another ocean liner, Marine Court; the paint is peeling, the roof is leaking, and the flats inside are cheap enough to attract dodgy tenants. It’s a windy day in mid-August, the sea is stormy and grey, and from here I can observe perfectly the great cycle of creative work. Some masterpieces of our culture end up eaten by the sea, and some are made from rubbish. They can end up in a suburb to bore to death my then teenage boyfriend in the 1990s; they can be a witness to you falling in love, as happened to me. They can sit in the corner in your evening TV programme, but they can also inspire, travel down through generations and then end up in dust. They have a power which never stops, like the ocean waves hitting the beach: the need to create, the ability to make something new and extraordinary — a humble justification for the fact that we too are still here.

Ivan Chermayeff: Cut and Paste is on at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until 14 September