Photographs (above and cover image) courtesy of Ercol/Richard Dennis Publications
Following her article on British furniture manufacturer Ercol in our print issue 06, author Lesley Jackson gives her insights into why Ercol furniture design has stood the test of time. And how she came to write her book, Ercol: Furniture in the Making, published in November 2013.
How did you come to write your book on Ercol furniture?
My parents bought two 392 stacking Ercol chairs in the 1960s, which I ‘repatriated’ about 15 years ago and now adorn my home. Having sat on these chairs during my formative years, I was thrilled to be invited to delve into Ercol’s history and explore the Windsor Range in detail. I’ve been researching Mid Century design for the last two decades and have always had a soft spot for Ercol. Given the significance of this company from a design point of view – or simply as a mass-market phenomenon – it seems astonishing that hitherto there were no publications on this firm. This book was simply crying out to be written!
What was the origin of the Ercol ‘Windsor’ aesthetic?
As the name suggests, the origins of Ercol’s Windsor range lie in traditional Windsor chairs. Lucian Ercolani, who founded Ercol in 1920, was asked to manufacture 100,000 Windsor kitchen chairs by the Board of Trade during the Second World War as part of the Government’s Utility Scheme. Having overcome the technical problems of manufacturing Windsor chairs industrially at low-cost using machines – something that no other company had hitherto managed to do – Ercolani decided to expand the range and create a whole Ercol ‘Windsor’ furniture family after the war. Turned spindles, as used in the stick-back seat of traditional Windsor chairs, were adopted as a leitmotif in Ercol’s collection, but the designs had a modern flavour too as they also reflected ‘Contemporary’ idioms, such as splayed legs and organic forms.
Did Ercol use any pioneering manufacturing techniques?
Ercol adapted and customised existing woodworking machines, such as lathes for turning spindles and boring machines for drilling holes, in order to speed up the production of its furniture. If a machine didn’t exist to do what Ercolani wanted, he and his engineers would invent it. As well as being ultra-efficient, the machines were extremely precise. It’s because Ercol furniture is so robust and well engineered that there are so many vintage pieces still in circulation today.
Are there parallels with the furniture produced by Ercol in the 1950s and ’60s and furniture produced by Danish manufacturers like Carl Hansen?
Yes definitely. Although Ercol is quintessentially English, there are close parallels to leading Danish firms, particularly in their mutual respect for – and mastery over – wood. The reason why Danish furniture was so popular during the post-war period was because the Danes harnessed machines to create stylishly designed, beautifully crafted furniture in wood. The same was true of Ercol, which is why the company was so phenomenally successful.
How important is Ercol today in terms of British furniture manufacture?
Ercol is still one of the top British furniture brands, sold through top department stores such as Liberty’s and nationwide through John Lewis. Ercol re-issues and vintage examples can be purchased in the flagship London store of one of the brand’s principle advocates, Fashion Designer Margaret Howell. Remarkably, Ercol is one of the few leading British post-war furniture companies still in operation. Most of its competitors from the 1950s and ’60s, such as G-Plan and Parker Knoll, only exist as brand names today, whereas Ercol is still family-owned and run. Its factory in Princes Risborough is just a few miles down the road from its original base at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.
Is it easy to find vintage Ercol furniture?
For those in search of vintage pieces, there are plenty available on eBay and in antique centres up and down the land. Look out for the silver and blue Ercol labels or characteristic features such as the ‘wedged-through-seat legs’, a circular motif with a line through the centre, visible on chair seats, tabletops and armrests. Pieces with a ‘natural wax’ finish, rather than the dark stain used on Ercol’s quasi-historical Old Colonial Range, are the most desirable.
As a general rule, larger pieces such as the arresting four-seater Ercol 355 Studio Couch (1956), with its bow armrests and long ovoid elm seatback, will tend to be more expensive. You’ll also pay more for cute designs such as Ercol 354 Stacking Tables (1957), a trio of oyster-shaped tables in graduated sizes, and for short-lived models such as the Ercol 360 Desk Bureau (1957), a small portable writing cabinet with a drop-flap front, only manufactured for a year.
Would you advise sourcing a new piece of Ercol furniture today?
Ercoloholics have the best of both worlds because they can either buy vintage pieces or contemporary reissues of post-war designs, marketed by the company as Ercol Originals. The reissues are manufactured to a very high standard, often using the same distinctive combination of wood (beech and elm). In the past this was locally source but today, for practical reasons, most of Ercol’s timber is imported from abroad. If you like your furniture to have a patina, go for vintage, but if you can’t find the design you want in decent condition, it’s definitely worth considering a new piece, as they are just as authentic. Some pieces from the Windsor range have been in continuous production, with only slight modifications, since the 1950s.
Do you have a favourite piece of Ercol furniture yourself?
Top of my wish list has to be the Ercol 349 Love Seat (1956), an extended two-seater version of a Windsor chair with 13 spindles and a double ‘shaped -out’ seat. This was the first of two Love Seats produced by Ercol. The second one, the Ercol 450 Love Seat (1960), has 19 spindles, so it’s easy to tell them apart.
Useful Links and Information
Check out Lesley Jackson’s article ‘Ercol: The Other Windsor Dynasty’ in MidCentury issue 06
Ercol: Furniture in the Making by Lesley Jackson is published by Richard Dennis Publications and is available to buy through www.richarddennispublications.com