Elizabeth Denby was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, and studied Social Science at the London School of Economics (LSE) between 1916-17. At the LSE she learned rigorous research methods and picked up an interest in sociology that informed her work as an urban planner.
In the 1920s, Denby became active in the voluntary housing movement and ran a series of campaigns, including 'Old Homes for New' (1931). Here Denby displayed models which set existing slum dwellings alongside new, spacious designs. The impact was dramatic and led to the building of thousands of new properties by the mid-1930s.
Denby became a champion of urban renewal, favouring the improvement of terraced housing with gardens over new-build properties. After years of working within the voluntary housing sector Denby decided she wanted to play a more active role in the improvement of workers’ lifes through the construction of new housing. Denby started working as an advisor, writing articles and she applied for a fellowship to study rehousing schemes in Europe in 1933, which was granted. Her book Europe Rehoused is the result of that intensive research. Moreover, she invented the role of the housing consultant to advice on the design and management of social housing.
In 1936 she became the first woman to address the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) with her vision for renovation, and was later elected an associate member.
With the architect Maxwell Frye, Denby designed a number of inner city flats which displayed her awareness of residents' needs. Two balconies - one for relaxing, one for drying clothes - became a feature of her designs. Among their projects, the scheme for low rental flats, Sassoon House in Peckham, which was completed in 1934, and the later Kensal House (1938) which was commissioned by the Gas, Light and Coke Company. Denby and Fry collaborated on this project for four years, but in 1937, Denby's name was omitted from the credit list for both schemes in two major publications. She is credited with prompting Fry to adopt a more progressive style.
From 1936 she also established House Furnishing Ltd, a shop in central London, which supplied well-designed curtains and fittings - items typically reserved for the middle class - at prices working-class residents could afford.
Denby demonstrated her interest in social housing during World War II when she lived in London. In May 1942 she organised with Noel Carrington an exhibition "Living in Houses" in London, a sequel to the successful exhibition "Living in Cities" held the previous year, showing solutions to the problem of providing, after the War, new houses "suitable and convenient for the ordinary man and his wife and children".
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