Popular Revolution

When G-Plan was launched in the 1950s, its contemporary design and accessible distribution changed the way furniture was bought in Britain. Basil Hyman and Steven Braggs chart its history and ask why companies like this no longer exist.

In 1953 a High Wycombe-based company, trading by the name of E Gomme, launched a range of modern furniture. It was known as G-Plan. In the years that followed, it became widely acknowledged to have heralded a golden age of furniture design that we haven’t seen the likes of since.

Essentially, G-Plan was responsible for turning the tables on them retailers. At a time when there was considerable resistance to sellingm furniture by brand – retailers preferred to keep designers and manufacturers anonymous and marketed furniture as if it was their own – G-Plan revolutionised the business. An independent and aspirational brand, it broke out of the usual sales patterns. As other
manufacturers soon followed suit, Britain saw a crucial shift in power.

Stepping back a decade, the privations of World War II – the introduction of rationing and the shortage of timber, as well as widespread bomb damage – had created a need for basic furniture. This led to the Government setting up the Utility scheme in 1943, which would remain in place until 1952. Under the scheme, a team of Government-approved designers created plain and stark furniture ranges that were based on serviceability and functionality. The public did not take to the austere Utility designs, however, which could not have been more different from the heavy and elaborate furniture styles before World War II. Throughout the period of the scheme, there was an intense debate among all concerned as to what furniture should look like once it came to an end, with many designers lobbying for a reform in design and arguing in favour of more modern, uncluttered pieces in the spirit of Utility. This paved the way for the so-called ‘contemporary’ style.

Donald Gomme was responsible for design at E Gomme, the firm that had been founded by his grandfather. His idea, radical at the time, was to produce a range of modern furniture that would be suitable forn the whole house. Branded G-Plan, it changed the public’s idea of
furniture and was based on a pioneering mix-and-match concept that did away with the traditional notion of buying furniture in suites, which now seemed dated.

The launch was timely, capturing the demand for contemporary furniture and setting a new standard for the mass market. People could get into G-Plan at whatever level they could afford, starting off with a coffee table and adding armchairs and settees later, as their
budget allowed, confident in the knowledge that the ranges would remain the same. The first range was known as Brandon. Finished in the light oak that was a popular choice in the early 1950s, its design was simple and understated, with the splayed legs that were typical
of the contemporary look.

From the beginning, the G-Plan brand was advertised very intensively, both in the press and in cinemas. In an industry that had hidden the manufacturers’ names up to now, this was an entirely new way of doing things. The advertising explained the G-Plan concept and
hinted at an improved lifestyle through the furniture. Later, elegant and sumptuous room settings, which the G-Plan salesmen themselves would set up for display, would also promote the brand. This was not common practice, and was further evidence of how the
retailers’ power was being eroded. The public responded, and nonbranded furniture came to be seen as inferior in comparison. A rival company, Stag, brought out its C range in 1953. Stark and modern, it was innovative in the extreme and would have a powerful influence on the design of mass-market furniture throughout the decade. Other manufacturers, including Ercol, Nathan, Golden Key Furniture, Austinsuite, Parker-Knoll and Limelight also produced their own modern ranges under their own names.

G-Plan was perfectly suited to the bright, almost lurid wallpaper and upholstery colours that were favoured in the earlier 1950s. As the decade wore on and austerity gave way to prosperity, the contemporary style evolved into a more glamorous look which called for darker wood finishes, complemented by brass fittings. Theconsumer-driven lifestyle – which the G-Plan advertising helped to promote so successfully – led to products such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, record players and, particularly, televisions
being regarded as necessities rather than luxuries. As the 1950s gave way to the ‘swinging 1960s’, the furniture industry was in good shape, with the manufacturers firmly at the helm. They had proved that well-designed, mass-market furniture could sell, and that brand advertising was an effective tool in the process. The recommended retail price the ads carried reduced the retailers’ margins, further eroding their control. Taste underwent further changes, with Scandinavian-inspired furniture gaining popularity. Teak became the wood of choice and would remain so for many years to come, although manufacturers experimented with alternatives, particularly white melamine. Fitted furniture was introduced, as were louvred doors.

The golden age of branded furniture began to wane in the late 1960s, following the credit squeeze that was enforced in the wake of the devaluation of the pound. The economic climate changed overnight. The credit squeeze made hire-purchase terms more difficult
for the customer, and hire-purchase plans were, at this time, still the only way for many people to afford furniture. A subtle change in shopping habits also occurred towards the end of the decade, with the advent of discount stores run along supermarket lines, such as MFI and Queensway, which were able to bulk-buy furniture from abroad and operate with minimal overheads. Often the furniture would be sold in kit form, for self-assembly by the customer. These stores took the industry in the direction in which it still continues today.

The economic climate in the 1970s led to further problems. The oil crisis of 1973, the effects of which would reverberate throughout the rest of the decade, led to higher raw material and transport costs. A three-day week was imposed in the wake of the miners’ strike, in an attempt to save fuel, and the loss of production that ensued hit many manufacturers hard. Recession, rising prices and rampant inflation, together with increasing imports, sounded the death knell for mass-market furniture.

Today, much as we were prior to G-Plan, we have reverted to a retail-driven market in spite of our greater awareness of design. The trend for branded, mass-market furniture came in response to a particular set of economic and sociological factors that were in play during the 1950s and 1960s. The brands have enjoyed a revival, however, and with the current trend for ‘design classics’, Utility chic and 1950s retro, many items are now highly collectable. Some London boutiques have removed older antiques in favour of this furniture, so the retail revolution sparked by the launch of G-Plan continues to bear fruit – but only just. The retailers are back in power. Is it time for a new revolution?

The G-Plan Revolution – A Celebration of British Popular Mass-Market Furniture, by Basil Hyman and Steven Braggs, is published by Booth- Clibborn Editions

To view the digital edition of Interiors click here

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  • Christine Sullivan (Nee Embley) November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I was Basil Hyman’s PA in the early 70’s and was intersted to learn he’s still “in to furniture”. Bravo! it all looks great.

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