More than half a century after the 1951 Festival of Britain, post-war British design is in fashion again. The modest, functional, lightweight forms of the Fifties and Sixties look as contemporary today as they did at the height of Modernism, and the classic brands are back.
Manufactured with the intention of being affordable as well as beautiful, there are still plenty of vintage pieces to buy at reasonable prices. For under £500, you can pick up designs by great British makers such as G-Plan, Ercol, Stag, Hille and Archie Shine, which are not only timelessly stylish, but also highly collectable.
In 1920, Florentine-born designer Lucian Ercolani established Ercol in High Wycombe, the Buckinghamshire town that had been the heart of the British furniture industry during the 19th century. Ercolani based his range on classic designs, but lightened the heavy traditional forms with pale timbers and slender tapered legs.
Ercol was renowned for its innovative techniques, as well as the top-notch quality of its solid beech and elm products, and perfected the art of steam-bending wood into graceful curves. The firm was also renowned for ‘taming’ elm, which had a tendency to warp, devising a method of kiln-drying the timber with steam. Though pricier than some of its mass-market competitors, who used veneers rather than solid timber, Ercol’s designs have the same modest lines and unostentatious feel that distinguishes the best post-war design.
Ercol exhibited at the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition at the V&A, in 1946, and at the Festival of Britain in 1951. The firm’s most familiar pieces are the ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Stacking’ chairs, ‘Plank’ dining table, ‘Love Seat’ bench and ‘Trio’, a nest of three small pebble-shaped tables.
Vintage examples are currently being restored and sold by designer Margaret Howell, in collaboration with Ercol. If you’re buying vintage, the 1958 ‘Butterfly’ chair is the design to go for, a comfortable dining chair, with elm seat and back, and beech legs (vintage version costs around £250; the reissued model from ercol.com costs £395).
Pieces by Merrow Associates are the next big thing in vintage furniture, and prices are soaring: in 2007, a Merrow rosewood dining table with chromed steel legs sold at Christie‘s for over £5,000, when several years before it would have realised just £1,000. Not as famous a brand as G-Plan or Ercol, this small Surrey firm is nevertheless presently the decorator’s favourite vintage label.
Founded by designer Richard Young (who studied under Danish designer Ole Wanscher) and
engineers Percy Wyatt and Peter Weeks in 1965, the firm turned out highly finished sideboards, cabinets and tables that sold in stores such as Harrods and Heal‘s. Their favoured materials – rosewood, steel and glass – made for luxurious, glossy finishes, and furniture was produced in small batches of 50 pieces.
Vera da Silva of Da Silva Interiors, London says the quality is incomparable: ‘Even the screws are chromed, and they fit perfectly – they are just lovely pieces of engineering.’ Merrow’s iconic 1970s coffee table has a rosewood base with solid chrome and glass top: examples cost £1,800-£2,000 at Da Silva. Orange & Brown stocks a round Merrow dining table, in rosewood, at £1,150.
In the early 1960s, Robert Heritage was responsible for designing the teak and rosewood home furnishings that the East London firm Archie Shine sold mainly through Heal‘s. (Later, in 1968, Heritage would become famous for the GR 69 range of furniture for Gordon Russell and an iconic chair for the QE2.) Archie Shine’s high quality furnishings were aimed at the affluent middle classes, and, in style, struck a course between the stark, minimalist look of the early 1950s, and the heavy masculine chrome and glass style of the late 1960s.
Designs were low key but warm, with plain silhouettes and subtle details, such as copper feather inlay panels or decorative grooves on drawers.
The Archie Shine pieces that attract collectors’ eyes nowadays are the simple tables and consoles. Still relatively inexpensive for the quality they offer, Archie Shine furnishings are tipped to rise in value once the brand is better known. Orange & Brown has a solid rosewood oval dining table (£1,777) with six rosewood chairs (£1,777).
Lee Russell, co-proprietor, says: ‘The set is hard to find because although it was commercially produced, the quantities were limited. Archie Shine is an example of British furniture that is just as good in quality and design as the Scandinavian pieces of the period. It’s only a matter of time before prices rise.’
E Gomme, founded in High Wycombe in 1898, had been making traditional furniture for over half a century when, in 1953, it launched G-Plan and revolutionised the way post-war Britons furnished their homes. Donald Gomme, head of design until 1958, created a range of furniture for the whole house. A menu of ‘interchangeable’ pieces allowed householders to cherry-pick the furnishings they fancied, while the consistent style gave a coordinated look to their home.
In another groundbreaking move, routine now but revolutionary then, showrooms displayed the furniture in room settings. The brand quickly became a status symbol, and the G-Plan red swing ticket and gold-embossed stamp became marks of good taste. G-Plan’s first offering was the Brandon range, introduced in 1953. By the mid-1950s, a more luxurious style was in demand and Gomme produced furnishings in darker woods with black legs and Oriental-inspired shapes.
When Donald Gomme left the firm in 1958, its fortunes waned. The company then hired Ib Kofod Larsen, a Danish designer. Larsen╒s teak range, G-Plan Danish, a commercial hit that was produced well into the 1970s, is highly sought-after by G-Plan enthusiasts. Since it sold so well and was produced in volume, it is relatively inexpensive still. A G-Plan Danish chest of drawers costs around £450 from Orange & Brown.
Hille was a British furniture manufacturer, founded in 1906, that had specialised in heavy, traditional furniture but, post-war, wanted to modernise its output. Hiring Robin Day as designer in 1949 was a masterstroke that led to a stream of simple, affordable but technically innovative tables, chairs, desks and storage units. Designs to look out for are his 1950 ‘Hillestak Stacking’ chair, the 1952 ‘Reclining’ chair and the 1953 ‘Qstak’.
The Hille/Robin Day partnership was prolific – a total of over 150 designs in 44 years – and marked by the development of low cost and high volume furnishings, some of which, for instance the 1963 ‘Polyprop Stacking’ chair, have never been out of production. Though Day approached his job as practical problem solving, his pared-down solutions were also beautiful and inspired many other designers, such as Donald Gomme.
Pippa Kahn of Fears & Kahn has a Robin Day sofa and bench (designed in 1959), covered in ‘Causeway’ fabric designed by his wife, Lucienne Day, for Heal‘s in 1967. The rare ‘Form Group’ ensemble was manufactured in the late Sixties and has a teak frame, black veneered wood seat back and black metal legs and costs £2,600. ‘It’s very interesting to find something that combines the talents of the husband and wife team. It’s really a collector’s piece,’ says Pippa.
By the time post-war rationing ended in 1952, buyers were eager for new and stylish furnishings, and manufacturers were looking for designers with the talent to create inspiring products. Architects Sylvia and John Reid were employed by The Stag Cabinet Company of Nottingham during the 1950s and 1960s to design the firm’s modern, machine-made, mass-market ranges of bedroom and dining room furniture.
Despite being produced in volume, Stag’s veneered wood sideboards and sofas, tables and chests were of robust quality as well as being affordable to younger buyers, who appreciated their innovative style. Best-loved by fans of Fifties furniture today is the ‘C’ range, a stark, functional bedroom suite, featuring simple box-shaped units with recessed handles in light oak or darker walnut. Launched in 1953, the ‘C’ range was a commercial hit at the time, and highly influential for other designers.
Mark Parrish, a dealer in 20th-century design, says that he has noticed Stag becoming more popular with his clients recently. ‘There’s a real interest in John and Sylvia Reid as a design couple. People are after the simplest bedroom furniture in oak or walnut – the ‘C’ range turns up quite regularly and, after a bit of restoration, it looks great.’ Parrish sells ‘C’ range chests of drawers, made in the 1950s and 1960s, at around £300 in oak and about £380 in walnut.
Another 21st-century favourite is the Reids’ teak dining suite, launched in 1960 as the ‘S’ range. The low sideboard, set on satin polished steel legs, and the oval dining table are highly sought-after, as excellent examples of Stag’s spare, utilitarian, but timeless, style. These were relatively luxurious pieces, considerably pricier than the ‘C’ range, and fewer can be found today. An ‘S’ range sideboard, with original legs and handles, costs £800-£1,500, from Mark Parrish.
FIND OUT MORE
Alfies Antique Market 020 7723 6066
C20C 07779 759319
Da Silva Interiors 07958 519157
Fears and Kahn 0115 981 8501
Margaret Howell 020 7009 9006
Mark Parrish 07957 300848
Orange & Brown 07968 218029
Sarah Potter 020 7627 0570
Twentytwentyone 020 7837 1900
Frederick Parker Collection of Chairs 020 7320 1827
The V&A Museum 020 7942 2000
Geffrye Museum 020 7739 9893
Austerity to Affluence: British Art and Design 1945-1962 by Annamarie Stapleton, Richard Chamberlain, Geoffrey Rayner, et al (Merrell Publishers Ltd)
The G-Plan Revolution: A Celebration of British Popular Furniture of the 1950s and 1960s by Basil Hyman and Steven Braggs (Booth-Clibborn Editions)
retrowow.co.uk is an online resource about post-war design
merrowassociates.com and ercol.com for information about the firms