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Meet the Makers: Ercol

It takes a lot for a design to be considered a real original. In the case of the Originals Collection by Ercol, it requires steam bending, automation, innovation, traditional joinery techniques and hand-crafted finishing. And a storied history.

Italian furniture designer Lucien Ercolani established his furniture company in England in 1920. The acquisition of another furniture maker in 1936 was the start Ercol needed to grow and develop some of their best-loved designs. We’re going to take a closer look at that journey, and how Ercol has incorporated their past foundations to propel them into the future.

Wooden Pegs and Windsor Chairs

In 1939, the British government hired Ercol to make 25,000 tents pegs (every day), munitions boxes, and other supplies during the early days of WWII. While these items took time away from their furniture production, Ercol still managed to develop a way to mass produce solid, steam bent timber. This innovation proved vital to the execution of their forthcoming furniture designs.

Another vital factor turned out to be, ironically enough, the shortage of raw materials during and after the war. This meant that furniture designers needed to be creative to meet the substantial demand for well-made and designed furniture at affordable prices.

Ercol’s original jig for steam bending wood

In 1944, the government approached Ercol again with a contract to make 100,000 chairs–for just 50 pence per unit. Ercol accepted the challenge with the condition that they be given time to set up special machines that would allow them to mass produce the chairs quickly and economically. The end result was their highly recognizable Windsor Chair–with a steam bent back bow–made for the required 50 pence each.

From One Chair, Many Others

A Windsor-style chair is defined simply as a chair with the legs and back attached to the seat. Traditional wedge and tenon joinery holds everything together without metal connectors. This basic design provided ample room for creative designers like Lucian Ercolani to improvise. And so he did. By incorporating Windsor design elements, Ercol was able to create many other modern chairs with different looks.

One of Ercol’s most recognizable pieces, the Stacking Chair was created in 1957 to be lightweight and durable by combining the Windsor wedge joint with a molded seat. Another innovation came along with the introduction of the Butterfly Chair in 1958. Up to that time, shapes could only be achieved using extremely thin layers of laminated wood. After much research, Ercolani developed a technique that allowed for curved shapes using thicker layers. The resulting Butterfly Chair married the wedge joint with a thick, curvy laminated wood seat and back.

Many other variations followed. And the rest, they say, is history.

How They’re Made

Factory workers sanding and assembling furniture pieces. Image courtesy of Ercol Furniture Ltd.

So, what exactly goes into the making of an Ercol chair?

It starts with individual parts. Timber from sawmills in Italy gets machined and sanded down to create 100s of parts for stock. Steam bent parts are steamed for an hour in the bending shop, bent around a mold by hand or machine, and then put into a 160 degree oven for 24-48 hours before a final machining to make them smooth.

Steam bent wood chair frames. Image courtesy of Ercol Furniture Ltd.

Each individual chair is made by hand. To put one together, the necessary parts are distributed to the chair shop (one of three product shops, along with the table and cabinet shops). The underframe is knocked together, the seat is put on the frame, and the wedges are knocked into the connection to make the wedge and tenon joint. These joints are sanded down to make a flush surface before the back bow and the lists are put into the seat as well. Again, a wedge is used underneath the bow to hold the parts in.

The assembled chair goes straight into the finishing shop, in which six different people go over it by hand. Several coats of paint/stain/lacquer alternate with hand sanding (scuffing) and heat curing to create a durable, scratch-resistant finish.

Into the Future with Modular Furniture

The new VON furniture collection (coming in 2018)

Today, Ercol relies on its foundation of innovation and skilled craftsmanship to move the company and their designs forward. Their upcoming VON Collection is a modular collection designed to bring timber frames and a new take on traditional upholstered furniture to the contract market.

“The VON collection was the next step for Ercol’s innovation. Working with Atlason Studios, we wanted to design a wood frame upholstery collection that would fit throughout the residential, contract and hospitality markets (home, work and play),” says Henry Tadros, fourth generation Ercolani family member. “Something that was warm and natural but didn’t compromise the functionality expected in a contract setting; Hlynur and his team achieved this with grace.”

Basically, VON is a modern and fresh collection, which points to the company’s focus on the future. But there’s no mistaking its lineage, as it showcases the workmanship and smooth, distinctive lines for which Ercol is so well known.

Coming Full Circle

Wide shot of new Chiltern Hills factory. Image courtesy of Ercol Furniture Ltd.

Since 1920, Ercol founder Lucien Ercolani’s goal was to create well designed furniture with skilled craftsmen in a good working environment. From the early days in their factory in High Wycombe to their latest state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly factory in Chiltern Hills, Ercol remains a family-owned business. Generations of skilled artisans work side-by-side to create classic mid-century designs and innovative new styles.

Tadros sums up the Ercol legacy best:

“Nearly 100 years after my great grandfather founded Ercol, I get to wake up everyday and think how I can further his designs and legacy around the world. It’s truly an amazing honor and opportunity to be able to continue and grow his design legacy, building out an identity in the 21st century that is forward-thinking and innovative, but in which you can still see our inherent Ercol DNA.”

The Originals Collection is, of course, just part of the company’s continually growing catalogue. Check out the craftsmanship of all of Ercol’s modern furniture designs here.

Nicole Tatem

Nicole Tatem

Nicole is the Sr. Site Merchandiser for Accessories, Kids, and Textiles at YLiving. She is obsessed with great design in all forms with a special love for jewelry, wine bottle labels, and tableware. When she’s not exploring the many museums and art galleries of the Bay Area, Nicole spends time looking for and visiting obscure and unusual destinations (locally and abroad) while practicing her photography skills.

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