Ercol chairs may well be familiar to people who lived through the period of emerging wealth in Britain during the 1960s, particularly if they’d shopped for furniture at, say, Heal’s. The range (of which that pictured was among the earliest) was, however, begun in the austerity years of the second world war.
Ercol was then based in the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe, a traditional home of the UK chair trade thanks to having the beechwood Chilterns on its doorstep.
The company’s founder Lucian Ercolani — his father had made picture frames for the Uffizi gallery in Florence — came to England in 1898. He worked for some years with the Gommes company, later known for the mid-century G Plan furniture range.
Ercolani had gone his own way in 1920 and established Ercol as a leading manufacturer by the time of the second world war. Much of its capacity was adapted to the war effort, with such products as tent pegs and ammunition boxes.
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The company joined the government’s Utility Furniture Scheme. This aimed to make items with the optimum use of labour — with so many workers away at war — and strategic materials (Whitehall had no idea how much timber the country had as the war began and had to quickly organise a tree census).
Before the scheme, British furniture had come in for strong criticism from some designers. It was too complicated, dark and heavy, they complained, with the industry stuck in the belief that customers were unimpressed by anything “light on French polish”.
Ercol’s chairs emerged from a time of constrained construction into an era of simpler and lighter Modernist design, increasingly popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
For what became its classic range, Ercol took the standard Windsor chair design, familiar to the High Wycombe area for 300 years. The legs and back are attached into the seat, unlike the conventional chair back, which runs from the ground to the top of the chair.
Ercol took beech, relatively easy to bend, for the legs and back of the chair. It used elm, strong and with an attractive grain, for the base. (Both have since given way to ash.)
The company, now based in Princes Risborough, Bucks, still makes Windsors with recommended retail prices in the £350-£950 range. Sellers of vintage Ercols might expect to make more.
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