My love of industrial design goes back a long way. The first time I fell for it I was about 17 and I was working for a stained glass window restorer. The guys there made industrial metal windows for the glass and they worked away on fantastic welding stools. I thought they were cool; I loved their honesty and functionality and longed for one. That was the first time I got into great industrial design.
What I like most about good industrial design today is the clean simplicity of the pieces. Their pure, solid design, made to do one job really well without any additional ornamentation or frills. These were pieces made by hand, in tough environments, with a real understanding of the job they needed to do for 10 to 12 hours a day. The result is strong pieces of furniture made from sturdy materials that have stood the test of time. Some great designers started out making industrial pieces; Kaiser Idell, for example, was the man for me. He designed lighting, seating, wall panels and benches out of the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and his pieces shone as being beautifully crafted. I also like to look for pieces from around the English Industrial Revolution and north-eastern European designs produced around the time of the Second World War. I admire 19th-century English industrial design, but it’s hard to find these days as, during the 1950s and 1960s, it was deemed worthless and binned.
When I first started dealing in industrial furniture and lighting in the 1980s, very few dealers wanted this look, but I realised these designs were worth good money. Some of the traditional antiques dealers used to heckle at fairs: ‘If you can’t sell it, you can always weigh it in!’ But by the 1990s, industrial design was in demand.
Today, you can use industrial furniture and lighting in domestic settings with almost any style. In recent years, the high street has been flooded with new imitations, but the quality of the originals isn’t there. The latter were made to do a specific job, not be mass-produced on a budget, and it shows. Give me an original metal factory light that’s got real weight to it, has just the right balance of proportions and is coated with lovely thick enamel, any day. The good stuff, as with most antiques, will increase in value and the best examples come to the fore. When a style comes into fashion, the market gets flooded by objects of varying quality. When it settles and fashion moves on, a core of enthusiasts still seek out the best objects from the period. Style and pure design, rather than fashion, always wins out.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
What defines an industrial piece? It might have been made for a factory, but equally as valid are pieces from office blocks, community halls, blocks of flats, public buildings, libraries or police stations. The key is their industrial format.
Material matters Everyone assumes that industrial pieces are always made from metal, but in fact they’re not. Chairs, benches and pigeonholes are more likely to be made out of wood. Each object will have been made out of the best material around at the time for the particular job in hand.
What to look for Shelving, tables, cupboards, chairs (including artist’s chairs) and, of course, lighting.
The makers to seek out Louis Kalff, Kaiser Idell, Holophane, Evertaut, Simplex, Pieff and Gecoray among others.
Think before you buy Be realistic about the size and weight of a piece and how that will translate into your home. Always get lighting restored by professionals. Industrial use often entails chemicals. Make sure it’s clean but never remove paint or patina. It’s only original once.