Shortages brought about by the second world war led the UK government to take over the direction of the national furniture industry for about a decade from the early 1940s.

The so-called Utility furniture scheme fitted into the overall programme of wartime rationing of many goods. Imports were severely restricted and self-sufficiency became an objective, as far as was possible, with timber defined as a strategic resource.

The government controlled everything in the furniture industry, from the regulation of wood supplies to the management of what pieces of furniture people were able to buy, where they could buy them and at what price.

The scheme used vouchers — such as the buying permit pictured — which were divided into units. People might receive up to 30 units’ worth of vouchers; six would be needed for them to acquire a fireside chair, for instance, eight a sideboard.

‘Lloyd Loom’ woven-fibre chair made by W Lusty and Sons, Bromley-by-Bow, London, under the Utility scheme
‘Lloyd Loom’ woven-fibre chair made by W Lusty and Sons, Bromley-by-Bow, London, under the Utility scheme

The vouchers were only issued to people considered to be in greatest need, such as households that had lost their furniture because of the bombing, or newly-wed couples setting up home for the first time. Many people simply made do with what they had.

A committee led by designer Gordon Russell, who had been influenced by the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, set a limited number of designs, with emphasis on the simple and modern. Some prewar furniture had come in for criticism on grounds that its “shoddiness was often disguised by decoration”.

Furniture production was reorganised to shift some output away from traditional centres of the industry — such as east London and High Wycombe in the south of the country. The effort was to involve manufacturers across the whole of the UK.

Pieces had to be produced in factories as near as possible to where they would be sold. As the scheme’s vouchers stipulated, customers could only use them at a shop within 15 miles of where the furniture was to be delivered. Not least, this was to economise on petrol, which was among the commodities most strictly rationed.

The Utility furniture scheme continued into the period of grim economic austerity after the war — 1948 was one of the toughest years for rationing — and did not end until 1952. People had tired of wartime controls and, particularly under the Conservative government, voted to office in 1951 following six years of Labour party rule, the country was returning to a more free-market economy.

Some expert opinion had it that working-class consumers were especially bored with functional furniture and wanted to get back to the “highly polished and elaborate stuff”.

Give it a few years, though, and the increased prosperity of the 1960s brought the arrival of Terence Conran and Habitat, with more than a passing nod to furniture styles emphasising the simple and modern.

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