Hille Furniture: A national treasure
Hille are one of the great British furniture manufacturers of the 20th century. In fact there cannot be many people in the UK who haven’t sat on a Hille chair at some point in their lives. Remember those polypropylene stacking chairs at school? They were manufactured by Hille.
With a catalogue of 20th century design classics to their name and a tradition of bringing the work of young British designers to prominence, we jumped at the chance to spend the day in the company of Hille icon, Cherrill Scheer and her husband Ian. We were given a tour of their stunning Modernist house as well as an insight into some truly unique pieces. Then, over an iced coffee, we learnt a little more about the Hille story.
Hille Furniture: A potted history
Salaman Hille, a Russian émigré, arrived in London in the early 1900s and soon set up a business in an unused factory in London’s East End, reproducing some of the fine furniture he had grown up with. Employing craftsmen and using only the finest materials, he made a name for himself for good reproduction furniture, and his daughter Ray soon joined him, learning the skills of the trade.
Then came the outbreak of war in 1939. A bomb destroyed their factory on Old Street and Salaman Hille died soon afterwards. Ray re-started the company after the war and was joined by her eldest daughter Rosamund and son-in-law Leslie Julius. They chose to leave the craft-based business behind and work for big public commissions, producing furniture made of new, lighter materials that was easy to stack and move around.
Robin Day and Hille Furniture
The Hille name became synonymous with affordable furniture that was light, bright and easy to use. The company looked at contract markets and employed designer Robin Day in the hopes of creating a brand. Cherrill explains: “It was really a contract business. Although a lot of Hille designs would fit into domestic settings, it was mainly architects and designers who specified them.”
Hille discovered British furniture designer Robin Day at the International Competition for Low Cost Furniture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was 1948 and Hille was eager to discover what America was doing to furnish its population. Quick to recognise and use his talents, Hille commissioned Day to design easy to move, stackable chairs that were suitable for mass production.
In 1951, Robin Day designed chairs for the foyers, dining rooms and auditorium in the Festival Hall for the Festival of Britain. Cherrill explains: “He took on this contract on condition that Hille would manufacture the pieces. He believed we were the only company who would understand the pre-forming specifications”. Day was experimenting with the use of pre-forming technology for furniture, a spin-off from the aircraft industry. He designed a vast amount for Hille over the years. “There was no contract between us, but we didn’t really do anything without him. He always wanted to design furniture that the general public could afford”, says Cherrill.
Robin Day and the Hillestak chair
Robin Day’s first plywood stacking chair was in fact called the ‘Hillestak Chair’, which some people bought for their homes, although most went into schools and church halls. Hille also pioneered its own range of modular furniture in the 1950s, which they called ‘Hille Plan’. The polypropylene prototype was developed in 1963, using modern industrial techniques to create a one-piece injection moulded seat on a tubular steel base. It became the best-selling chair in the world and viewed as a British Design Classic in 2008, even making it onto a postage stamp. Cherrill explains: “This was really the first time that Hille invested heavily in a non-contract product. This was really very risky, but luckily it paid off as it went on to be marketed in over 40 countries around the world and is still in production today.”
Hille Furniture: patrons of Modernist architecture
Cherrill joined the family business in 1961 following her architectural training, studying I should add alongside Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins, and continued to help run Hille Furniture until it was sold in 1983. Hille commissioned Modernist architect Ernô Goldfinger to design offices and a factory in Watford in 1961, and architect Helen Challen to design a small modernist metal factory in Haverhill. Salaman Hille’s daughter and granddaughters had taken the company into a new era.
Hille Furniture: Changing the consumer experience
Hille set up their own showrooms in the 1950s, where architects and designers could buy direct. No other furniture manufacturer had done this; it was a whole new experience for consumers. Robin Day was a key part of the company’s new look, designing everything from letterheads and logos, to brochures and graphics. Cherrill says: “Robin oversaw all the graphics at the beginning. Even when we got bigger and employed graphic designers, we still sought his approval on everything.”
Cherrill’s husband Ian explains: “At that time furniture retailers in the UK sold what the public wanted and they never showed them anything else. There is one statistic that always resonates with me: in America a young family would buy three lots of furniture over the course of their lifetime. In this country, it was more like one and a half. People were proud of the stuff they inherited from their parents and grandparents.”
“The 1960s were particularly exciting because they saw the spreading of good design. You have to appreciate that if you wanted modern in those days, it was mainly quite costly, being principally in Heal’s, Liberty’s, and maybe a bit in Harrod’s – you get the idea. Then of course come the 1960s and Terence Conran, who decided it ought to be made more affordable, brought it to the young up-and–comings by way of Habitat.”
Hille Furniture: looking to the future
Hille was always on the look out for new talent, Cherrill recounts: “I set up a scholarship in which we took on students to make their products in our factory, where our people would help develop them. In the early 1960s I went round all the degree shows and ended up choosing four students from the RCA, one of which was Roger Dean, who designed the Sea Urchin chair. This remains one of my favourite pieces of furniture. It was just a round ball – the segments were glued together and then upholstered, so that when you sat on it, it compressed to your shape. Then it slowly went back to its position.”
Among those supported by Hille were Peter Murdoch, Ray Wilkes and Fred Scott. Fred Scott went on to design the Supporto office chair in 1979, which was one of only two Hille chairs to go into production without a major contract behind it – a testament to their faith in his design.
When Hille was sold in 1983, the licences for its products were purchased by different manufacturers. Hille, as it now stands, continues to produce Day chairs and also manufactures ergonomic, stylish, and sustainable seating by new designers.
For a look inside the stunning Modernist home built by Cherrill Scheer of Hille, see ‘Scheer Delight: A Bespoke Home from 1968’, MidCentury issue 02.
For more information on Hille, pioneers of Modernist furniture in Britain, see ‘Hille: From Reproduction to Reinvention’, MidCentury issue 02.