Ercol is a great British furniture company on the brink of a revival. Henrietta Thompson finds this is one manufacturer that can still ‘make ‘em like they used to’, but, despite support from contemporary designers, will it succeed?
Ercol, in case you didn’t know already, is one of the great British furniture manufacturers of the 20th century. Vintage Ercol Love Seats fetch very good prices in the Margaret Howell fashion flagship store on London’s Wigmore Street, but otherwise this is a furniture maker that has been largely forgotten by the design cognoscienti.
Until now, hopefully. With a cult following of the classic designs emerging, and a recently launched range designed by Matthew Hilton, Ercol may well be on the brink of a major revival. Ercol is, in fact, still producing many of its original designs from the 1940s and 1950s. It is doing so with the same methods, in the same part of Britain and to the same exacting standards as it always did. Which is a little surprising – especially when Margaret Howell benefits from a 300 per cent mark-up on the factory prices in her store. Evenn more surprising is that this is possible when the stuff is changing hands on Ebay frequently for next to nothing. But few are aware of what’s happening, which is odd, and leaves the company in a dangerous position.
Time was when every other home in the UK would house an Ercol item or two. The firm dates back to 1920, when it was established in
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, as Furniture Industries by Lucian Ercolani. Highly successful, but dogged by copycats, in 1944 Ercol was contracted by the the Board of Trade – forerunner of the Department of Trade & Industry – to produce 100 000 low-cost Windsor chairs, and the commission drove Ercolani to develop a technique that would see his company hold on to its market steadfastly for decades to come.
The Windsor chair was a bentwood chair with a high, arched back. Ercol perfected an art of steam-bending English elm in large quantities in order to fulfil the order, and in doing so saw off its competitors. Now able to make a chair every 20 seconds, Ercol’s mass-produced Utility furniture found a ready market in the UK after World War II. Ercolani and his successors perfected the art of taming, steaming and crafting wood into contemporary and aspirational furniture. The philosophy continues to this day under his grandson Edward Tadros, now chairman of what has always essentially been a family-run business.
Today, Ercol persists in its mission to remain at the forefront of technology, design innovation and time-honoured craftsmanship. Its latest collections reflect both the heritage of Ercol and the desire to develop designs well into the 21st century. The Ercol factory certainly still maintains its ability to produce contemporary classics. This factory is, as testimony to the company’s long-standing culture of investing in design, stunning. Now in Princes Risborough, only a few miles from its original base in High Wycombe, Ercol is one of the few remaining furniture manufacturers in what was once the chair-making capital of the UK. High Wycombe in the mid-20th century was to the UK what Udine still is to Italy
The premises were designed five years ago by Horden Cherry Lee, and are daylight-filled and elegant in a way you don’t expect of a factory. I can highly recommend a visit. The shop floor smells deliciously of steaming wood and machinery (think of having a sauna in a toolshed) and the workforce of 120 is, as Tadros explains, still ‘pretty indigenous’. With skills passed down over decades, these craftsmen can bend wood with incredible speed and mesmerising deftness.
However, I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to say that Ercol has found itself a little lost of late. It’s as if it got in with the wrong crowd, and lost something of itself in its efforts to fit in. Intriguingly, new Russell Pinch and Robin Day prototypes have sat upstairs in the Ercol offices for a couple of years, gathering dust. They are beautiful examples of good utilitarian design – so why can’t we buy them? It seems that, for Ercol, refocusing its efforts on design is going to be a big challenge.
Howell knows what goes down well in this industry. It is partly due to her championship of the company over the past five years that Ercol has now put the original designs back into production. The market is clearly there, so what’s so difficult? Over the past few decades, the mass-produced furniture market has changed dramatically. Habitat, Heals and Ikea are doing their own thing – very well, at very good prices – and then there are DFS, MFI and the likes of Furniture Village, where Ercol has found its most effective distribution.
The aesthetic and pricing structure demanded by these retailers has meant that Ercol’s furniture has lacked the right credentials in contemporary design circles for a long time. And those who really v alue the design and manufacturing expertise that Ercol has to offer have not – as a vast and shameless generalisation – been shopping in Sofas-R-Us. To put it another way, producing what Ercol is so clearly capable of on a mass scale has not been in its best interests.
The problem for Ercol is that the designer boutique counts towards only a very tiny proportion of the company’s international sales –which are conversely really quite considerable. It’s not that the masses won’t buy good design, but there isn’t a retailer who is willing to provide it in the way, and on the scale, that Ercol understands. But, without the benefits of a DFS-sized budget for advertising, or the will to cut corners to achieve an Ikea-level pricing strategy, Ercol has had to consider its options.
‘One particular weapon left in our armoury is design,’ says Tadros. Encouragingly, Tadros does not need to do much work in getting big names on board to mount a design offensive. The reverse, in fact – they often come to him. The Ercol factory, with its mix of design heritage, machining capability and craftsmanship, is a magnet to contemporary furniture designers. Hilton even goes so far as to say, ‘The Ercol factory is fabulous. Really one of the best I have ever seen and I have seen quite some.’
It’s also more sustainable than most, as Ercol runs a tight ship. ‘Being environmentally considerate happens naturally here,’ explains Tadros. ‘It’s not a forced policy, but wastage and expense tend to go hand in hand.’ The factory building itself has won awards for its Green credentials, too – its heating and hot water are generated from wood waste, while the company avoids solvent-based stains and lacquers, instead preferring more environmentally friendly, water-based products.
Besides the new Hilton prototypes, Ercol is currently taking three other ranges to market. Tortona, designed by James Ryan, Verona by Richard Entwhistle and Assisi by Rebecca Oates. All are very wellmade, well-designed, contemporary items of furniture. All adhere to the manufacturer’s age-old values of fitness for purpose, pleasure in use, attention to detail and aesthetics.
When it comes to the latter, the Ercol look is distinctive – despite the variety of creative talents behind each range – and consistently across the decades. Ercol furniture has a certain smoothness that is only possible through sanding solid wood. ‘You’re not going to get that edge on a veneer,’ explains Tadros. ‘I suppose there’s also something very distinctive about the way the edges and slopes lead into one another – and of course, the attention to detail on the handles and joinery.’
While the new ranges are all these things, they are very definitely being marketed towards the retailers that will be stocking them. But, for this, they might not be so out of place in the small, independent retailers of ‘design-with-a-capital-D’, such as SCP, Liberty or TwentyTwentyOne.
The reissued Ercol Originals sit most comfortably in these stores, on the other hand, as will Hilton’s range, most likely. But Tadros isn’t completely sure yet whether they will end up there, because the numbers don’t really add up. He’s not completely sure what will happen to the Robin Day prototypes either – but the will is there, and from the enthusiasm with which Tadros talks about design, it is hard to imagine that he won’t find a way. ‘The fund of design is terrific,’ says Tadros. ‘The trick is marketing it and finding retailers. We are definitely experiencing a shift in the perception people have of our brand, but what we need to do is tip this huge interest in us as an entity into the commercial realm – and that’s not easy.’
An Ercol elm Love Seat might even be preferable over an Eames lounger, even if price wasn’t a factor. For anyone who appreciates the older designs of Ercol’s post-war years, this article may not be welcome. It’s not through good publicity that the pieces are still available, at affordable prices, on auction websites. But after a visit to the factory, it is clear that Ercol needs as many people spreading the word as it can get – PR is going to be very important to this company in the coming years. We have a design mine for the masses on our doorstep, and we’re in danger of seeing it disappear.
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