Ercol are synonymous with British furniture. Several of their designs are categorized as iconic, making Ercol the sort of brand that you’ll have seen, even without knowing exactly who they are. The recent rise of interest in mid-century design has helped brands like Ercol (and eBay resellers) greatly, with people discovering them for the first time or rediscovering a brand that has been intrinsically linked with British design since the 1920’s. With the new book, Ercol: Furniture in the Making, due to release in November, we spoke with writer, curator and design historian Lesley Jackson to find out more about the brand. We also spoke with Margaret Howell about her love for Ercol.
Ercol was the brainchild of Lucian R Ercolani. An Italian immigrant, he moved to the UK when he was ten in 1898. Lucian had three brothers, Mimo, William and Victor, the latter of which also made furniture. In 1906, he found out about the Shoreditch Technical Institute and, encouraged by his father (who had made picture frames for Uffizi Gallery in Florence) joined it. Then, in 1910, he was discovered by Harry Parker. Harry was part of Frederick Parker furniture makers, which would later go on to be Parker-Knoll.
After working with Parker for ten years, Ercolani set up his own factory in 1920, called Furniture industries. They expanded in 1932, when Lucian was offered to takeover chairmakers Walter Skulls Limited. By the late ’30s Ercol also worked for the government, making supplies like 25,000 tent pas a day. In 1944, Ercolani was offered the chance to supply 100,000 chairs of low cost by the Board of Trade. Ercol later appeared in two exhibitions that shaped the perception of the company. The first was the 1946 ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition, created a month after the war had ended to showcase British manufacturing. It was held at the V&A museum and was the first place Ercolani showcased his iconic Windsor range. Ercol also took part in 1951’s Festival of Britain, which was created to promote the nation’s successes and help with post war recovery.
In 2002, Ercol started working with Margaret Howell to reproduce several classic items, including several that were featured in the aforementioned exhibitions. Howell had this to say about Ercol:
“When I was a child my mother’s brother gave her a red upholstered armchair. Amongst the family this was known as the “modern” chair. It had a certain elegance and lightness compared to our other armchairs. Many years later I went into a small shop in Shoreditch selling Scandinavian design. Tucked away at the back of the shop I spotted a round honey coloured coffee table and a triangular backed chair. Both sat well with the surrounding Scandinavian furniture and their Shaker -like simplicity had a strong appeal and, unusually for me, I made an impulse buy.
When I got them home and noted the (now unmistakable) Ercol stamp I made the connection with not only the red armchair, but other pieces of Ercol that I had grown up with. Only now could I appreciate this post war period of Ercol design – their dependability of craftsmanship, the quality and grain of English woods and above all the adaptability of an enduring quiet elegance.”
We spoke with Lesley Jackson, writer of Ercol: Furniture in the making to find out more about Ercol’s history.
Why now for a book about Ercol?
Jackson: A publication on Ercol was long overdue as they are one of the major British furniture companies of the last century. They have always been a much-loved firm, but the recent reissues of some of their classic post-war designs have introduced their work to a new audience.
Why do you think Ercol has been so enduring?
Because their furniture is both well-made and well-designed, so it lasts and doesn’t date.
What stood out about Ercol during the research of this book?
The significance of the Windsor Range – an extensive family of furniture inspired by traditional traditional Windsor chairs.
Were you able to gleam what Lucian Ercolani’s life was like when he first moved to London?
Ercolani came to London in 1898 at the age of 10. His parents were very hard up, so life was very tough for the famlily initially. Ercolani didn’t speak any English so he struggled at school, even though he was very bright.
Was Lucian’s brother Victor an influence on Lucian’s take on furniture?
Not as far as I’m aware, but they were both astute businessmen, so Victor may have influenced Lucian in this way.
Do we know how Harry Parker found out about Lucian’s work?
Not exactly, but Ercolani had studied at Shoreditch Technical College for several years prior to this, so it seems likely that he was recommended by the college as a promising student.
What products was Lucian focusing on when furniture industries opened?
Solid, well-made affordable domestic furniture in period styles.
How did the integration between Furniture industries and Skulls come around?
Skulls was struggling commercially in the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression. Ercolani was initially enlisted to advise the company, but he ended up buying it after the owner died.
How did the partnership affect what was made at the factory?
Ercolani rationalised production at Skulls and made it more efficient so that prices could be reduced. Furniture Industries was already a model of efficiency but the need to be more competitive during the difficult economic climate of the 1930s reinforced this trend.
How did Ercol help the government during the war, was it solely restricted to making the 25,000 tent pegs a day that’s listed on Ercol’s site?
The factory undertook numerous different government contracts during WWII, mainly military related, everything from snow shoes and munitions boxes to wooden pully blocks for hoisting tents.
How did the deal with the Board of trade affect the company overall?
It was the Board of Trade that commissioned Furniture Industries to produce 100,000 Windsor chairs as part of the Utility scheme in 1944. This was a new departure for the company and had a lasting impact as it prompted Ercolani’s post-war Windsor Range.
Was the Windsor collection synonymous with Ercol before they took part in the ‘Britain can make it’ exhibition?
No, this was the first time they were publicly associated with the Windsor Range, although it wasn’t until after the Festival of Britain that it was expanded and became more widely available.
How important is the Windsor collection to Ercol?
The Windsor Range was absolutely vital to the post-war success of Ercol. Its whole identity became tied up with this collection. It was produced in vast quantities. At the peak of production in the 1960s the company was producing a Windsor chair every ten seconds.
In what ways did taking part in British exhibitions help Ercol when it came to cementing their ties to an inherent Englishness?
Britain Can Make It and the Festival of Britain were both important in forging a new identity for Ercol based on a new ‘Contemporary’ interpretation of vernacular English design.
Another iconic Ercol design is the Studio couch, how did this come about?
The Studio Couch was part of the Windsor Range – its armrests / bed ends are made from steam-bent bows with spindles, just like Windsor chairs. The Studio Couch was launched at the same time as a group of beds. It was a dual-purpose space-saving device serving as a settee in the living room but doubling up as a bed for guests.
We’ve noticed that a lot of Ercol’s most popular designs were featured in the 1956 catalogue, was this a pivotal year for Ercol?
The Studio Couch was launched in 1956. The Windsor Range was further expanded over the next couple of years. Many of the most iconic designs date from this period.
The company seemed to become a national treasure during the late ‘50s and 60s, (With Lucian becoming master of the furniture makers guild and awarded an OBE) was this the case?
Ercol was enormously popular and successful during the 1950s and 60s. The Windsor Range appealed to a wide audience and was greatly appreciated by consumers as it looked good, functioned well and was made to last. Ercolani was very proud of what he achieved during this period and his achievements were recognised both publicly (through his OBE in 1964) and within the furniture trade.
Ercol were often at the forefront of technological advances (working with IBM computers in the 60s, introducing CNC machines in 1985) why was this important to the company?
The key to the company’s success has always been its efficiency – harnessing the latest mechanical and technological advances to produce attractive, reliable, beautifully crafted furniture.
Do Ercol still make everything in the UK?
A large proportion of Ercol’s furniture is produced at its new state of the art factory at Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire. In addition, some production is outsourced abroad in response to the highly competitive nature of the global market.
Do you think Ercol’s main focus now is still producing the classic models they’re known for while creating new items that’ll attract new customers?
Yes it’s a balance between capitalising on their heritage and reinforcing their distinctive identity, while developing new models that satisfy the needs and expectations of other consumers.
Ercol: Furniture in the making is available on pre-order from Richard Dennis Publications. The official release date is November 14. Pre-order it here. For those in the USA, the book is available from Amazon.
Lesley Jackson has also written Modern British Furniture: Design Since 1945.
Jason Dike is a london based writer who’s contributed to the likes of Esquire UK and Men’s Health amongst other publications. He has a highly entertaining (his own words), but sporadically updated (our words) website at jasondike.co.uk and you can follow him on twitter at @jasondike.