Revival of the fittest

Companies frequently draw on their heritage and revisit archive designs.But as Claire Dowdy discovers, old doesn’t have to mean old-fashioned

Long-standing British luxury brands are all at it, it seems. Tailor Henry Poole & Co boasts the Churchill Suit, a replica of the outfit it made for Winston Churchill in 1936, though in a lighter, more modern fabric. Cole & Son’s latest wallpapers are reworkings from its archive, and set to launch at Tent London, during the London Design Festival, on 18 September. Waterford Crystal’s Lismore collection, meanwhile, is inspired by designs by Miroslav Havel in 1952.

Plundering the back catalogue is nothing new for luxury brands, as Guy Salter, deputy chairman of Walpole (a not-for-profit organisation set up to promote the British luxury industry), points out. ‘It’s been going on for as long as luxury has been around,’ he says. ‘Immediately after World War II, in the 1950s, they were recreating the glamour and excitement of pre-war fashion. And since the 1960s, we’ve been going through a long series of reinterpretations of the past.’

Certainly the Brits are not the only ones at it, and furniture is a particularly rich vein to mine. Vitra is a past master, having in recent years reissued Isamu Noguchi’s Freeform sofa and ottoman, Jean Prouvé’s Standard chair, Josef Albers’ nesting tables, the Wiggle stool by Frank Gehry, Sori Yanagi’s Elephant stool and Charles and Ray Eames’ Plywood Elephant toy. The benefits of such nostalgic delving are obvious for brands with something in their past worth shouting about, even for a relative newcomer to the game like Cole & Son, which started resurrecting 1950s designs just five years ago.

‘Heritage is undoubtedly one of luxury’s strongest qualities. We looked at our traditions of design and craftsmanship and brought them into the 21st century without impairing the integrity of the brand,’ says Cole & Son managing director Anthony Evans.

Its Contemporary 1 Collection is drawn from the 1950s, when its then design director Douglas Robertson asked up-and-coming artists and tutors from the Royal College of Art to produce designs which would define the post-war period. Hence Rajapur, designed by Una Lindsay, and Michael Clarke’s Orchid.

And indeed it’s not just something that the top end of the market can exploit. ‘I’m often trying to persuade clients including Marks & Spencer to make the most of their archives,’ says Howard Saunders, joint founder of retail consultancy Echochamber. ‘They could create their own museums, making them fantastic consumer spaces, with stuff to do and archive pieces to buy.’

Bathroom company Twyford, founded in 1849, is one such mid-market business. ‘Our designers are always looking at our archives for inspiration for our new collections, because an old idea reworked can bring a fresh perspective,’ says marketing director Anna Townley. She cites the Art Deco-inspired Clarice, which is one of the company’s best sellers.

But there are pitfalls to looking backwards for luxury brands. ‘The risks are that your brand becomes so reverential to your past, it acts like an anchor and can stop you going forward,’ says Salter. ‘This is a danger on a brand level and on a product level.’

One of the brands that was guilty of this at the turn of the century was Dunhill, which seemed to be weighed down by a sort of heavy, rather passé masculinity.

But brands that get it right can use it as a differentiator from the luxury wannabes – those newer businesses that aspire to be premium but nevertheless rush out myriad new ranges every season.

Or, as author and commentator Hari Kunzru put it in a recent article on luxury in The Guardian, ‘Luxury is slipping downmarket, as branding techniques and diffuse promises of lifestyle become ever more pervasive.’ In this respect, heritage can be a genuinely established brand’s trump card, a true mark of luxury.

However, Salter disputes this, claiming that, ‘The thing that separates the wannabes from the real guys isn’t heritage, but a sense of value and integrity, and beautifully designed products of exceptional quality.’

Nor do brands want to appear lazy or cheap, simply by reintroducing past triumphs. After all, it must be more cost effective to rework an existing design than to commission something new.

In fact, most luxury brands do a bit of both. Wedgwood’s William Morris-inspired Golden Bird dinner service sits alongside creations from Jasper Conran and Kelly Hoppen.

And just because a design is old, it doesn’t mean it’s old-fashioned. Cole & Son decides which papers to reissue on the basis of analysing current trends – in fashion, graphics, film, street culture, interior and product design – and intuition, says creative director Karen Beauchamp. ‘Chosen on this basis, a reissued product can capture the zeitgeist so successfully that people often don’t realise they are looking at an archive design,’ she adds.

Back to the Future

• Cole & Son’s latest wallpapers are reworkings from its archive

• Waterford Crystal’s Lismore collection is inspired by designs by Miroslav Havel in 1952

• Tailor Henry Poole & Co now boasts the Churchill Suit, a replica of the outfit it made for Winston Churchill in 1936

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