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Richard Jones Furniture

‘The Gathering’ 2009- of the Designer Makers Organisation of the United Kingdom-Part 1

by Richard Jones 2009


The Venue and Programme

The Gathering took place on June 27, 2009 at Ercol’s factory and headquarters in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire. The principal organiser and driver behind The Gathering was James Ryan of the Edward Barnsley Workshop. He received sterling help from a number of other people: Joseph Walsh was instrumental for ensuring Brian Kennedy’s participation, Tony Portus liaised with Tony Coll at the eleventh hour thus enabling us to hear his contribution, and Simon Pirie made the suggestion to invite Metropolitan Works represented by Matthew Lewis. Finally, Andrew Varah chaired the event admirably and introduced us to the various speakers and activities. The Gathering was attended by approximately fifty DMOU members from around the UK and was a chance for us to meet, exchange views, and listen to and question guest speakers. Subjects aired at the meeting and the guest speakers were:

  • Conference opening: the venue and ercol- Edward Tadros
  • Effective curating of exhibitions- Brian Kennedy
  • Photographing furniture- Nick Carter
  • Branding- Paul Martin
  •  Metropolitan Works: a London located prototyping, development service and business support facility for a range of artists and designers—Matthew Lewis
  • CNC equipment use in a small furniture business- Barnaby Scott
  • Public Relations- Tony Coll

This was the second gathering of its type, with the first held in 2008. All the attendees were members of the Designer Makers Organisation of the United Kingdom (DMOU)- see a brief description of DMOU at the end of this page.

ercol- Edward Tadros  (ercol)gath36-600-web.jpg

DMOU members arrived at the ercol venue and registered followed by light refreshments. Proceedings got underway when we were introduced to Edward Tadros, Chairman and Managing Director of ercol. We were treated to a short history of the company and its founding in High Wycombe by Mr Tadros’s grandfather Lucian Ercolani in 1920. The company has always been design led Mr Tadros informed us and this was a natural result of his grandfather’s background asgath34-600px-web.jpg a designer. At the time of the ercol’s inception High Wycombe was the centre of the British furniture industry, and the Chilterns with its plentiful beech dominated woodlands in which High Wycombe is set, has a long history of traditional Windsor chair making including chair bodging and wood-bending.
 
Lucian Ercolani built on these traditions and developed wood steam bending techniques for use on an industrial scale. The evidence of this is still apparent in the ercol factory where a large corner of the building is devoted to steam bending various wooden parts for a range of ercol’s furniture. This particular interest in wood bending did not stop ercol producing cabinet furniture, tables and chairs etc, we were informed, and the company included upholstered furniture in its range. To this day ercol still produces this mix of furniture for sale; this is unusual for most large furniture companies produce either a cabinet and frame range of furniture or specialise in producing only upholstered furniture such as sofas, chairs, etc.gath1-600px-web.jpg

Ercol’s furniture production in High Wycombe grew over the decades and the buildings it used were added to and supplemented by others on their various sites until it was decided that the facilities in the town were no longer manageable or conducive to efficient production. The company relocated its entire operation to a new facility in Princes Risborough built on the old Building Research Establishment site. The new building with its showroom, administrative offices, design suite and production facility opened in 2002. There were environmental considerations taken into account during the design phase of the building, and ercol are proud of such initiatives as heating the building and providing hot water using their own wood waste. Further, ercol have invested heavily in CNC equipment and this is very evident if you tour the factory as we later did. The benefits of CNC from ercol’s point of view is the ability to create parts quickly, very accurately, economically and repeatably days, weeks, or even months apart using information and communication technology (ICT) and digital storage media. Similarly, new designs are quickly realised on CNC equipment through use of the self same ICT, eg, AutoCAD.

Mr Tadros went on to describe the sourcing of timbers such as ash and elm from North America, the seasoning or drying of it, and the pre-machining of much of this material prior to its shipping to the ercol factory. This has replaced the local and European sourcing of materials and ercol no longer has a mill to convert logs nor facilities to dry wood.
Ercol’s products primarily sell through a network of 250 independent UK retailers, although some sales take place through their own Princes Risborough showroom. There are very few sales overseas Mr Tadros informed us.
Asked for a summary of ercol’s design philosophy by a member of the audience, Mr Tadros replied the company “tends to be quite conservative.” In large part, he went on to explain, this is a response to the market and the retailers they supply, both of whom tend to be “conservative”. Yet he continued by saying that as far as ercol is concerned, “Everything has to be designed. Unless it’s designed we can’t make it.” Mr Tadros remarked that dark coloured furniture is much less popular now than it was “two or three decades ago.” This is a trend that I think all furniture designers and makers would agree with.
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I think most attendees at The Gathering would agree that ercol’s designs are quite conservative, yet I find there is a quiet dignity in their range of furniture with overtones of British traditions and country style furniture. I also sense some Scandinavian influence in some of the furniture items I looked over in the showroom. Whatever ones judgment of the aesthetic content of ercol’s furniture it is obvious the company sets great store in technical sophistication and excellence, efficiency, accuracy and attention to detail in the production of its furniture from initial market research, through design, to planning and production, and on to finished products and their delivery to customers.

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Following the welcome and introduction by Mr Tadros attendees broke into three groups and we enjoyed a conducted tour around the various sections of the factory and a short demonstration of some of the wood steam bending techniques that create parts incorporated into various of the company’s furniture range. I was impressed with the specialised jigs incorporating steel U channels, angle iron and chains used to initially bend the continuous compound curved backrest of the Windsor influenced Evergreen chair. Another item that caught my eye as being of particular interest was the 1950s built hydraulic wood bending machine used to bend several square profiled sticks at once into U shaped bends ready for subsequent further shaping and profiling.

Below. Steamers in ercol’s bending room.gath13-600px-web.jpg

Freshly bent green wood in a bending rig.
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A stack of bent wooden parts cooling in their bending formers.
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Bent parts after removal from the articulated bending former.

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ercol's Wood Bending Machine

The following three photographs show ercol's woodbending machine in use.It forms hoop backs for Windsor style chairs. Built in the 1950’s, more than fifty years later it continues to operate as originally intended. After steaming, six square section wood parts are bent together as one unit using this machine. After the bend is completed the parts are removed from the bender and stacked up in a holding or cooling form that allows them time to fully cool and set rigidly to the new shape.  The cooling forms appear in the left foreground of each of the photographs below.
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The ercol timber store mostly containing received and catalogued pre-machined parts.
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A view of ercol's open plan production area.
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One of several CNC machines that work almost continuously during normal working hours.
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DMOU is a restricted membership organisation of primarily UK based professional furniture designers and makers. Gaining membership of DMOU is through personal application or through proposal by an existing member followed by the application or proposal being put to all the other members of the group for approval or rejection.

The best description of the aims and objectives of DMOU are in the organisation’s own words which I have slightly paraphrased from the text at  the DMOU website.

“DMOU is not a society, or an association, or a guild. There is no-one in charge, no committee, and no-one pays any subscriptions.

All there is in fact is a membership knitted together by an email forum and a website. The membership consists of a large body of excellent designer-makers of furniture from all over the UK, including the top names in the field. Every member has been invited by other members, who consider that those they invite meet the following criteria:“
That they be:
  • professional
  • designer makers (not just one or the other)
  • concentrating on furniture or very similar discipline
  • working on a small scall
  • working to very high standards

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2009 Richard Jones