Back to the future (Quintessentially)

Like so many iconic World’s Trade Fair sites of yore, with their futuristic monorails, giddy revolving restaurants and vast, utopian domes, London’s most glorious moment in the design spotlight – The Festival of Britain – passed all too quickly. But, sixty years on, its influence is being felt again. The furniture it showcased has never been more desirable. Wooden tables and chairs – both originals and those inspired by the era – are sporting splayed and tapered legs, while the stylistic trappings of the time have filtered back into the mainstream, from Gil Sans typography at Peyton and Byrne to Lucienne Day’s mid century modern textiles and Wayne Hemingway’s Vintage at Goodwood festival.

It’s difficult to comprehend just how modern everything looked at The Festival of Britain in 1951. The most eyecatching of the temporary structures erected on London’s South Bank was the Skylon, a several-stories-high space-age, elliptical, needle that appeared to be suspended in mid-air. From a distance it looked like an elegant sci-fi portal to another time and space – cold-war Anish Kapoor. It captured the mood of the times simply and eruditely: there was an abundance of adrenalin-filled post war optimism, immersed in science and technology, with a hunger for all things new. The designs that were showcased at the Festival were radical in a way that we simply can’t appreciate today. One of the wallpaper patterns exhibited – by William J Odell – was based on the crystal structure of boric acid, as seen through a microscope. The British had survived the war and felt more alive than ever before. Floral chintz was dead.

This year, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, where the world’s interior designers showcase their attempts to reinvent the style wheel every year, Britain’s heritage furniture was back with a new emphasis on both luxury and colour. It taps directly into all of that post-war emotion and excitement. And while maximalist tendencies still dominate in certain contemporary quarters, this is a stripped down and user-friendly kind of modernism that mixes and matches well with just about anything you want to pair it with. You can put Missoni cushions on your Ercol Originals Love Seat if you like. It’ll look great.

Ernest Race’s distinctive Antelope chair, with its narrow steel rod frame and fluid, curvaceous silhouette and orb feet was designed exclusively for use at the Festival in 1951. Along with a bench version and a rocking chair predecessor, it’s become a Great British piece of furniture: slightly rusted originals are a thrilling find in vintage stores. At the Salone in April, new versions of all of these were exhibited in Laduree-bright and tasty new colours: pink, yellow, blue and pistachio. It was a vivid, hip and smart update of a collection of solid gold classics.

On another stand at the Salone, a triumvirate of wood wizards displayed their first collaboration together. Matthew Hilton – Britain’s most celebrated and modern carpenter, with something of a penchant for mid century modern motifs – unveiled four Windsor chairs that he’s designed to be produced by Ercol and distributed by De La Espada. He’s partnered with both companies before, independently, but this was the first project that brought together the expertise of all three. The chairs are a bold and chic (and at £654 each, high end) reworking of the classic Ercol Windsor furniture that filled parental dining rooms for over half a century. They’re beautiful, quintessentially British and rehabilitate a style that has been unfairly dismissed as provincial. When NASA-endorsed carbon fire furniture was the Zeitgeist, it was difficult to appreciate 1950s wood familiar from school assembly halls. Now it looks like the height of fashion again.

Contemporary Windsor chair by Matthew Hilton with Ercol/De La Espada

“People say my work is very British,” says Hilton. “I’m not sure about that, but I am definitely influenced by what I think of as a kind of funny, amateur 1950s modernism. I feel it was diluted and softened for England. The Royal Festival of Hall and the Festival of Britain were part of that. It’s like Scandic modernism, it’s very soft and domestic, cosy and nice.” Hilton’s current work takes that unthreatening and “nice” aspect and gives it a new edge. There’s no denying that Ercol – the company formed in Buckingham in 1920 by Lucian Ercolani – has been synonymous with all things “cosy”. The bulk of its product still filters through to the home counties and finds a friend in chintz, but at its heart are classics that, though “softer” than American modernist equivalents of the same period, look very fresh today. And that “softness” shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing – in hard times, and with the benefit of history and nostalgia on its side, it’s very appealing indeed. And just because it’s doesn’t have the sharpness of, say, Prouve, it still has a modernist purity to it. People form a deep emotional bond with this kind of furniture.

In 1946, five years before the Festival of Britain, the Victoria & Albert – still a hulking empty shell, with the bulk of its collection stored in the countryside, safely away from the bombs that had been falling during the Blitz – hosted the Britain Can Make It design exhibition. It was a precursor of what would take place on the South Bank, and Ercol was one of the key exhibitors. Its elegant, steam-bent furniture was revolutionary, and the Windsor chairs that appeared at the V&A fast became classics.

“Some of our designs have stayed in production since they were first introduced,” says Edward Tadros, grandson of Ercolani, and current head of the company. “The Stacking Chair and the Butterfly Chair have come back thanks to Margaret Howell. She is a champion of British design. She was selling reconditioned pieces by us in her shops five years ago and came to us and asked us about relaunching the pieces, which we did.”

Fashion designer Margaret Howell’s aesthetic of workwear and prosaic, intellectual luxury, chimes perfectly with Ercol’s classics. The Japanese, in particular, go crazy for it. And it’s telling that the style has now filtered back into the mainstream. A couple of years ago Tadros experimented with reproducing a set of Ercol’s cross-bar backed 376 candlestick chair and exhibited them at a very progressive Shoreditch design fair, in a room full of some of the youngest and most maverick product designers in the country. 376 originals are scarce and highly sought after by collectors (many go straight to Japan after they are found and restored). The chair held special significance for him – he remembered drawing a picture of one as a child in 1956, the year it was first made. He gave his grandfather the picture and his grandfather gave him one of the chairs in return. He wasn’t sure whether there’d be a new market for the 376 (even the Butterfly classic scarcely sells 1000 units per year – at £395 it’s a fairly expensive chair and a niche, tastemaker’s market), but struck gold when buyers from John Lewis visited the show and were taken with the display. With a few tweaks, the 376 was rechristened as the Chiltern, and a whole new range of mid-century modern furniture went on sale in the UK’s favourite department store.

Vintage 1950s Ercol

The design name most associated with the Festival of Britain is, of course, Robin Day, Britain’s answer to Charles Eames. Day was, in fact, offered a job at Ercol at the very start of his career, but opted to study at the Royal College of Art instead. Decades later, in 2003, he designed a chair for Edward Tadros at Ercol. “I reminded him that he’d almost single-handedly wiped out our stacking chair business by designing the polypropylene conference chair, in 1963” says Tadros, referencing Day’s all-conquering, utilitarian piece of furniture for Hille, still produced in numbers averaging 500,000 a year. Day and his wife, the textile designer Lucienne, were an impossibly glamorous couple during the 1950s. They even appeared in a high profile Smirnoff advert in 1954. Lucienne’s textile prints for Heals – composed of spindly irregular lines and smart graphics in muted colours – were avant-garde, but quickly became an accepted part of the language of modern furnishings. Robin Day’s wooden chairs had a lightness and a transparency to them that was refreshing and practical. “What one needs in today’s small rooms is to see over and under one’s furniture,” he said in 1995. It was a new, modernist, way of thinking. As with Race and Ercol, original Day pieces are very collectible, and his work still defines a lot of what the national treasure that is Habitat is about. There are also smaller pieces of his that are an excellent snapshot of 1950s heritage style: the Tricorne tray, produced in birch and walnut, is an eloquent, sculptural piece of furniture that looks like it could hail from modern day Japan rather than London in 1955.

Part of the excitement generated by the then new wave of furniture at the Festival of Britain was that it was largely affordable. Long before Ikea or Habitat, British manufacturers looked at how they could create bold fresh product that would chime with the post-war rock and roll generation, a generation that was eager to dispense with their parents dusty, hefty and oppressive interiors. It was something that was central to the point of the Britain Can Make it exhibition at the V&A. Speaking at the opening, King George VI said: “The Council of Industrial Design is an expression of our national will to improve both our commercial prospects and our personal standards of living.” Good design had to be democratic. Style and living well would become a civic duty.

G-Plan was, of course, one of the market leaders in this area, but there were other brands too. Architects Sylvia and John Reid were commissioned by the Stag Cabinet Company in Nottingham to design machine-made, mass-market products. Their C range of box-shaped units with recessed handles in oak or walnut launched in 1953 to huge success, and look very au courant in their simplicity when sourced and restored today.

Some of the strongest work that came directly after the Festival-era of design was from Merrow Associates, who were active primarily in the 1960s. The Skylon had long disappeared (a tragedy – who wouldn’t love to see it sitting next to the Royal Festival Hall today?), but Britain was still immersed in technological and social mountaineering. Concorde was around the corner. Designer Richard Young worked with engineers Percy Wyatt and Peter Weeks at Merrow Associates, fashioning an aesthetic that was stark but provocative. Their furniture looks like its been crafted for a Peter Saville art directed photoshoot at Corbusier’s Highpoint apartments, all chrome plated steel and deeply graphic tiger-grained rosewood and teak. The lines are squeaky clean and muscular. It looks (and indeed at auction now, is) expensive. There was an exuberance and a confidence about it that disappeared with the advent of post modernism, when design decided it needed a sense of humour in lieu of a personality, and when tastes turned to the continent, and anything but British furniture.

It’s cause for celebration that British heritage furniture is being appreciated again. For too long, and erroneously, the archives of Ercol and similar British companies were seen as risible in comparison to international design firms. Now the likes of the Butterfly Chair can comfortably take its place in the canon of 20th century design classics, alongside the best of Knoll and Vitra. The spirit of Britain in the 1950s, meanwhile, continues to pervade modern style. As feted contemporary carpenter and designer Russell Pinch says, “The Festival of Britain still has a huge influence on British design. The air of optimism and opportunity that surrounded the event inspired designers of the time and has a lasting legacy in today’s aesthetic.” Nostalgia and spirit aside, the main reason why post-war design is enjoying a renaissance is that it’s, quite simply, great. “It’s deeper than being cyclical”, says Edward Tadros. “Things do go full circle, but these designs are classic in the first place. They have form, function, comfort and elegance.”

 

 

 

 

 

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