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January 18, 2022 10 min read
In Celebration of: Ercol
This month marks the 102nd. anniversary of Ercol Furniture and to celebrate we are delving into the company's history. From humble Italian origins to one of British design's greatest success stories, it all began with just one man.
In the Beginning, There Was a Young Italian
And his name was Luciano Randolfo Ercolani. With an interesting birth date of 8th May 1888, Lucian (as he was known before his team began calling him ‘the old man’) was born in Sant’Angelo in Vado, Italy. In the late 1890s, his family (including his brothers Victor, Mimo and William) moved to the London East End with help from the Salvation Army, with whom his father found work as a carpenter.
Ercolani likely gained woodworking skills from his father before embarking on a furniture design course at Shoreditch Technical Institute in 1906 and going on to become an integral part of the thriving furniture industry in High Wycombe. Following his initial move to the market town to work for Frederick Parker furniture makers (later known as Parker-Knoll) in 1910, he went on to work with another furniture great from the 20th Century.
E. Gomme Ltd. was also based in High Wycombe, founded in 1898 and famous for its G-Plan brand. Making the acquaintance of Ted Gomme, whilst teaching a night class, was to lead to a lifelong friendship with the Gomme family and a meeting of minds. Ercolani worked at E. Gomme until 1920 when he decided to go into business for himself. The family centred company he founded in 1920 would still be successful a century later.
Ercolani's Furniture Industries Ltd. was incorporated on 26th January 1920 and a copy of the original legal document is still available online at Companies House. It wouldn’t be until 1928 that the recognisable lion logo and the Ercol name was used and much later still, on 30th January 1984, that the Furniture Industries Ltd. name was formally changed to Ercol Furniture Ltd.
During the 1920s and into the 1930s, the firm grew and mainly produced heavily carved, traditional dark oak furniture. Influenced by historical styles, such as Jacobean, Ercolani tried to balance what was popular at the time with his personal design philosophy. He was driven by the need to create the kind of quality furniture that had been the privilege of the wealthy classes and make it accessible to all. This ideology was reinforced by a holiday to New York in 1923 when he happened upon a display of Shaker furniture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A religious group, Shakers believed in purity of form and created simple but beautifully hand crafted furniture and household objects without unnecessary adornment. Ercolani admired the combination of functionality and elegance of the Shaker style but wasn’t confident that British buyers would embrace such pared down style at that time.
A restored Shaker Village nr Harrodsburg, USA. Credit: Carl Wycoff Wiki Commons
Launched in 1937, the Old Colonial range was Ercolani’s answer to slow sales during the Great Depression years following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The initial release does not seem to be a radical departure from his previous work. Inspired by romantic notions of the Elizabethan era and the Pilgrim Fathers settling in New England, Old Colonial was marketed as an affordable alternative to authentic antique furniture. There was even a touch of ‘distressing’ to give it a worn in appearance.
The designs, which needed to be a turnaround commercial success, managed to tap into a particular 1930’s nostalgic trend that harked back to Olde England for inspiration. If you look today, you will still find houses from this period with mock Tudor facades.
AndersBrowne archive: 1950's Ercol Old Colonial Windsor chair model 375
The original Old Colonial range only consisted of four pieces but due to its immediate success many more items were added, including upholstered chairs and settees, book cases, cabinets and bedroom sets. In the 1950s, Old Colonial was sold alongside the ‘contemporary’ Windsor range and over the years would undergo a few aesthetic changes, including some crossovers with Windsor. Although Old Colonial took a back seat to the modern styling of the Windsor during the 1950s and 1960s, it would once again be back in vogue during the 1970s when, yet again, nostalgia became a commodity and the farmhouse kitchen look came into fashion.
AndersBrowne archive: 1960's Ercol Old Colonial Ladderback dining chair model 496
AndersBrowne archive: Ercol Windsor Goldsmith chairs model 369 dark stained for the Old Colonial range in the late 1950s/early1960s
The Second World War Years
It’s a common theme when looking at manufacturers of the 1940s that, unsurprisingly, many altered their production lines to assist the war effort. Ercol, like other businesses, manufactured supplies, including munitions boxes and tent pegs.
Britain’s Utility Furniture Scheme began in 1942 and with it came further restrictions on what furniture manufacturers could produce. Raw materials were scarce but demand for new items was high. Utility furniture had to fall within certain guidelines, including to set designs and materials as produced and advised on by the Utility Furniture Design Panel, of which Gordon Russell was the Chairman. In 1944 Ercolani was offered a contract by The Board of Trade to manufacture 100,000 chairs in the style of Model 4A, a Windsor chair which had appeared in a 1943 Utility catalogue.
The challenge to create the 4A en masse was great.
If you saw, Chairs, the Season 6 episode of the BBC Two programme Inside the Factory, you'll have seen how Ercol makes their version of the Windsor chair today. Traditionally handcrafted, Windsor chairs have been created in Britain for centuries. A simple rural country chair, Windsors had a solid seat, spindle legs (turned on a lathe) and uprights for the back rest. Original versions had ‘combe’ backs but, with the advent of the steam age and steamed bent wood, the backs were often made with a u shaped back frame.
Back in 1944, Ercol would need the best part of a year to be able to set up the required mechanisation to enable such a large order at low cost but Ercolani set the wheels in motion with new processes and bespoke machines.
In 1945 Ercolani became Chairman and his sons, Barry and Lucian B. were appointed joint Managing Directors of Ercol.
Following the war, many of Britain’s industries were suffering economically and of course, many manufacturers had lost good workers. The country was in a depression and the Government was seeking ways to boost Britain’s economy and get industry flowing again. The Council of Industrial Design (CoID), the precursor to the Design Council, had been making plans and the Britain Can Make It exhibition was scheduled for 1946. A significant trade show at the time, the exhibition was hosted at the V&A Museum, London and Ercolani was asked to represent the British Furniture Manufacturers to work with the selectors regarding designs chosen from industry.
The Windsor Range
Having managed to fulfil his contract to mass produce the Model 4A (with six spindle back), the final chair was to inspire many more variations. It was at Britain Can Make It that the Windsor range we know of today was launched. Alongside an update of the 4A, Ercolani managed to secure special dispensation to show two accompanying designs, the 120 sideboard and 121 dining table, both of which fell outside of Utility design regulations.
Unable to produce all three pieces until Utility regulations relaxed, the Windsor dining collection went into production in 1951. The range was to become one of Ercol’s most successful designs and is still in production now.
AndersBrowne archive: 1980's Ercol Windsor chairs model 370 (black and gold label) in beech and elm.
Ercol would be selected again to have a display at the 1951 Festival of Britain, a major exhibition and fair, visited by millions, celebrating the best of British Arts, Film, Design, Architecture, Science and Industry.
Iconic Mid Century Designs
Although Ercol’s designs had become more streamlined, the company never did embrace the harsh angles and synthetics that so many others did at the time and was proud of its use of solid woods.
Once the Utility Scheme ended, furniture manufacturers had free reign to show their individuality. Looking at catalogues from this era, the vast array of styles is remarkable and many were reproductions of antiques or the walnut veneered styles popular in the 1930s. Advertisements from this time show traditional oak options alongside the new ‘contemporary’ ranges, these being slow to catch on. Ercol seems to have found their place somewhere in between. The company was finally able to mass produce machine made furniture of a quality that it hadn’t been able to achieve before – much the same as the Gommes had done with the launch of their G-Plan furniture in 1953.
The 1950s was the decade that launched the innovative Butterfly and Stacking Chair and those other beauties, the Studio Couch and the ‘Pebble’ 354 Nest of Tables
The 354 - Pebble Nest of Tables
The 354 evolved from the original Windsor designs. Ercol had perfected a process with its elm wood tops that would leave a smooth, incredibly tactile finish. The 354, which many now simply refer to as Pebble tables, had solid elm waxed tops with three elegant, splayed beech legs. The organic shaped tops with their satin finish are so distinctive you can recognise them as Ercol from across a room – a catalogue from the time invites us to note the ‘attractive oyster-shaped tops’.
Ercol’s ‘pebble’ nest of tables was first made in the mid 1950s and was so successful it has been in production ever since, making it one of the company’s longest running pieces.
The 401 - Butterfly Chair
Designed by Ercolani, the Butterfly Chair exemplifies the coming together of traditional wood crafts and new technologies. The back and seat were bent plywood veneered in elm and the bentwood spine and legs were solid beech.
The production of such a design would not have been previously possible due to the thickness of the laminated wood but Ercol’s research team created an innovative process to enable the preforming of thicker laminations into exact curved shapes.
A 1956 Ercol catalogue states, ‘This new dining chair is extremely elegant and of great comfort; its strength is immense’.
The 392 - Stacking Chair
Produced in their thousands, following their wide launch in 1957, the Ercol 392 Stacking Chair was designed by Ercolani himself. A smaller variation was the 440, with reinforced back, which launched in 1960 and targeted schools. This was followed by five sizes, the 461, 462, 463, 464 and 465. The fact that they were engineered to stack high without toppling over was a big selling point and the various chairs would go on to frequent schools, commercial and domestic settings throughout the country.
The Stacking Chair is incredibly popular now, particularly with families with little ones. Each one was colour coded with a disc of colour on the back rest and, if you place them side by side, they graduate in height, like a scene from Goldilocks. They’re a beautifully simple chair to look at but very robust and were perfectly made to accommodate the rough and tumble of children – and adults!
AndersBrowne archive: Ercol's red dot stacking chair
The 355 - Studio Couch
One of the most iconic of Ercolani’s creations, the Studio Couch was launched in the summer of 1956. Made from solid elm and beech and featuring steam bent features, the couch was a settee come occasional bed. The design is just so wonderful, it’s one of our all time favourites. As passions for Mid Century furniture have soared so have the prices of originals.
Launched alongside the matching 356 - 358 beds, the Studio Couch had an ellipse shaped solid wood back rest, webbed base frame, splayed spindle legs and bentwood arms encompassing upright spindles. A one piece seat pad graced the webbing and square back cushions were optional. Following the Windsor style, the couch was marketed as an adaptable guest bed (the back wood panel removed easily).
Success Follows Success
During this period, a new Ercol range of furniture was also marketed. The Evergreen, designed by Ercolani, launched in 1957 and has been in production ever since. Throughout the changing seasons of style, the Mid Century designs have endured.
The 1950s and 1960s had been a heyday for Ercol. The company was fairly self-sufficient, using its own elm and beech, grown in its own woods and, processing it with its own machinery, could produce 2000 pieces a day.
Ercolani was awarded an OBE in 1964 for services to British design and manufacturing. He died little more than a decade later in 1976, only a year after his autobiography, A Furniture Maker was published. The Chairmanship was taken over by Lucian B. Ercolani, who retired in 1993. The role still remained in the family though as Edward Tadros (Lucian R’s grandson) stepped into the position.
In the 1970s, fashions for natural themes emerged as a kick back against what many felt was a plastic 1960s. Think of cosy English cottage styles, Laura Ashley smocks, and, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady published in 1977. The nearest equivalent today is the Cottagecoretrend.
AndersBrowne archive: 1970's Ercol Windsor trolley model 458 with elm trays and beech frame. Originally designed in 1961.
AndersBrowne archive: Ercol Minerva coffee table with storage
Ercol farmhouse styles helped to create the lifestyle of this era but the company seems to have lost its way in the Eighties and Nineties, with a mixed output of old fashioned (but not in a good way) styles and ranges.
Dutch Elm disease also had a major effect on manufacturing and Ercol had to look overseas for its materials. It's a sad sign of the times that today, the once home grown elm and oak are imported from the US. Due to market forces, over 50% of Ercol's manufacturing is done in Asia and Italy.
In recent times, Ercol has modernised but hasn’t neglected its heritage. There has been a resurgence in popularity, with more thoughtful designs and synchronicity between ranges. A line entitled Ercol Originals is one of the furniture company's more successful ranges, a throwback to what made Ercol the success it was but manufactured and styled for contemporary homes.
Vintage Ercol furniture is now highly collectable. One way to check the authenticity of original designs, but it isn’t fool proof, is by seeking out the blue Ercol lion stickers that were used from the early 1950s to mid 1970s.
One piece of antique Ercol that you are unlikely to ever be able to buy is now held in the company’s collection. Handmade in 1907 by Luciano Randolpho Ercolani, the musical cabinet, inlaid with Mother of Pearl, was the first piece ever created by the family firm’s founding father. However hard you might try, some vintage designs will always evade you.
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