15 February 2019

A brief history of the Isokon Donkey

The Isokon Furniture Company was founded in 1935 by Jack Pritchard, a British entrepreneur and visionary. He believed modern architecture and design had the ability to transform society for the better.

First designed in 1939 the Donkey got its name from its distinctive shape of four legs and two compartments resembling the panniers used on the animal. Publisher Allen Lane was an early fan of the design and as the shelves were the perfect size for the iconic orange Penguin paperbacks, the Donkey was renamed the Penguin Donkey.

The Penguin Donkey was launched just as World War Two broke out, with around 100 manufactured and sold before production ceased as a result of the war. In 1963, a new incarnation of the Isokon Penguin Donkey Mark 2 was released, designed by Ernest Race. This mid-century modernist bookshelf was inspired  by the original Penguin Donkey, a visionary piece of furniture which had become part of a collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Isokon Penguin Donkey Mark 2 holds plenty of paperbacks and features central slots for newspapers and magazines. Compared to its curvier predecessor, the flat countertop doubles as a side table with storage and as stated on its 1963 advertisement, “provides a convenient chairside table for your tray of hors d’oeuvres, coffee cups, glass, ashtray, knitting or anything else you want to keep beside you," while the lacquer finish "treats hot cups and splashed drinks with equal equanimity."

The Penguin Shop has exclusive colourways that correspond to the origin countries of the Pocket Penguins collection, which are limited to 10 Isokon Donkeys for each Pantone shade.

Related articles