E is for Ercol
May 29, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As you know, we love a great vintage furniture brand – especially one that continues to prosper. While scrolling through our previous features, a trend emerged. We have spent a lot of time in the last half of the alphabet: Wright, Probber, and Pearsall (to name a few). We felt it was high-time to give the inaugural letters some credit. With that in mind, may we present: E is for Ercol.
Our story begins in the late 19th century. In a tiny village in Italy, Luciano Randolfo Ercolani entered the world. Ten years later, as a young boy, he and his family escaped the poverty-stricken countryside and moved to London. Their journey was aided by the Salvation Army and while young Luciano shirked off his London classes, he continued to play in their brass band in between gigs as a messenger boy. The role as a messenger boy gave him unfettered access to the bustling city and was his entry point to the growing urban economy. All that wandering proved fateful. A poster caught his eye at age 18 and this one advertisement changed the course of his life & the furniture industry itself.
What was this epic announcement? A poster for the Shoreditch Technical Institute. His dad, a prolific cabinetmaker, encouraged his son to follow his heart and enroll. Luciano excelled and soon his academic creations were being featured in local publications. This momentum only intensified by the early 1900s when, joined by his three brothers, they established Cabinet Industries. They experienced modest, but consistent success. This entrepreneurial endeavor caught the attention of one Harry Parker (of famed Parker Knoll lineage – the company who crafted chairs for nobility – and royalty). The union of Parker and Luciano served as his gateway to learning all about high-end design.
During all this time Luciano was constantly creating, learning, and growing as a designer. He even gave back to his community by teaching night classes in design. Like before, Luciano built on his existing connections and used his hard work as rocket fuel. In 1920, he created the company Furniture Industries. This organization formed the foundation of the Ercol brand we know and love today. The factory floor was churning out quality pieces and soon Luciano’s business acumen flexed its muscle with the acquisition of Walter Skulls Limited. This company, known for its high-quality chairs, helped Ercol purposefully expand into a growing market.
Check out archived Ercol catalogs here!
WWII put a swift halt to their manufacturing plans, but the company persevered by making tents and boxes for the war effort. By 1943 the country and the industry looked completely different. Due to the severity of the conflict, Europe was faced with hardship at every turn. The raw materials needed to reconstruct were in short supply. Rather than looking at the situation through the lens of despair, Ercol decided to seek inspiration. The result was the utility furniture scheme. You could think of it as an IKEA-like approach, with the focus on well-made and efficiently-created furniture pieces. These items, while deceptively understated and streamlined, helped Britain recreate the much-missed home environment. On the heels of this effort, Britain launched the “Britain Can Make It” exhibit in 1946. This public display was carefully curated to showcase the best of post-war design. This loud and proud celebration of British ingenuity inspired people across the country. Ercol introduced their Windsor collection at this event and the aesthetic trajectory for Ercol was set.
A few years later, in 1951, Ercol returned to the “Festival of Britain.” By this time the company was woven into the fabric of the British domestic experience and, in the following years, the company’s productivity reached a fever pitch. Growing families clamored for that Scandinavian look and Ercol delivered. Perhaps the most notable design is the Butterfly chair in 1956 that married the structural integrity of the Windsor chair with newly developed laminate wood technology. During the mid-century era it seemed each new Ercol collection was a success. While it may have been tempting to coast on the fame, that’s not the Ercol way. In the early 1960s the firm invested in a trip to Japan as well as an IBM computer. They were constantly innovating, yet never far away from the streamlined visions of the past. In 1977, Ercol was once again featured in a national festival, this time at the Queen’s invitation for the Silver Jubilee Exhibit in Hyde Park.
If you’re looking to collect Ercol, please check out this well-written guide.
From the beginning of the last century, to the present day of this modern age, Ercol’s legacy has never wavered. You see it in the continued devotion to technological innovation (the first CNC was introduced to the company in the 1980s), the passion for quality materials (sourcing their wood from the finest suppliers), appreciation for their artisans (a job at Ercol is a family affair!), and the continued dedication to the community-at-large. The designs from Ercol may be exquisitely fashioned, but they remain accessible (and enjoyable). Ercol’s well-rounded legacy and tradition of sustainable design (which I define more fully as well-made pieces crafted by appreciated employees) is an inspiration in today’s world of faceless manufacturing. Tell me, dear reader, what are some of the vintage brands you appreciate?