Ercol Windsor furniture united modern methods, 50s and 60s contemporary style and an age-old design, the Windsor Chair. It was one of the best selling brands of the 60s and has a strong following today, both for new and for secondhand Ercol furniture. Yet it only came about by chance.
In 1944, a representative of the Board of Trade offered Lucien Ercolani, the owner of Ercol, a contract to supply 100,000 chairs of a low cost design. Eroclani said he was interested, but that it would take twelve months to set up special machines to produce the chairs quickly at low cost. The cost was only 10s 6d per chair.
Ercolani thought the beautiful simplicity of the Windsor Chair, itself an evolution from the most basic piece of furniture - the three-legged stool, would be ideal to fulfil the contract. The Windsor Chair has a seat with four legs stuck into the bottom of the base and several bent wooden rods made up the back. There are various different styles. It originated in the High Wycombe area in the seventeenth century.
The other important element of the Ercol success story was the wood, English Elm. Before the War, furniture makers shunned elm. It was difficult to dry satisfactorily and was apt to warp and bend, not an ideal choice for furniture. Ercolani chose elm as an expedient. He discovered a quantity of elm that had been stored under cover, but outside, for five years. He reasoned that it had sufficient opportunity to dry. When he took procession of the timber, he found that only the top few layers had dried. He discovered, with help from the Forest Products Research Laboratory, that kiln-drying elm with steam circulating around the planks seasoned the timber well enough for use. Thus, English Elm became the favourite wood for Ercol production.
After the War, Ercolani still had a liking for the Windsor Chair. He continued to develop the design, looking for a modern way to produce it. Although there was little opportunity to market new designs, in 1946 the Britain 'Can Make it Exhibition' gave him a chance to show the design to a wider audience. Ercolani was to represent the furniture trade at the Exhibition, but a disappointing reaction from other High Wycombe-based businesses encouraged him to submit his own design under an assumed name. To the basic chair, he added other complementary items.
The Exhibition was a huge success and Ercolani displayed similar designs at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Eventually this furniture, based on the Windsor Chair, formed the basis of the Ercol Windsor range, which included a refectory table, sideboards, settees, easy chairs and a chaise lounge.
Ercol furniture was unique in style. It had a light, modern appearance, despite its traditional origins. It was modern in terms of timber, since elm was essentially a new material, and was modern in terms of production. It looked just right with beautifully elegant proportions. The light coloured wood and natural splay and taper of the legs of the Windsor Chair made it look contemporary.
By Steven Braggs
More on Ercol
Read our buyers guide to secondhand Ercol furniture.
There is also a Wikipedia article - Ercol on Wikipedia
Ercol designs from the fifties are still available today, see Ercol Originals.
Your comments on Ercol furniture
"my grandparents have the exact same dining table and chairs as the picture above. they have just recently moved into a new modern apartment and they took the table and chairs with them, they have had them for over 50 years know and they look brand new! i have to say they look pretty great in the new apartment!" Frances Keenan
"I he Sideboard or dresser has two cupboards and two drawers. The top has a little 'trench" where you can place your plates. I bought it from an antique shop 25 years ago. All it tells me is the stamp that says 'This is an Ercol Product' I will try and take some pictures of it. Would you have any idea of this suite?" Cally Boyd
"I have an Ercol sideboard with three cupboard doors - two to a double cupboard with adjustable shelf and one single cupboard with a cutlery drawer in the top. It has two drawers underneath it. Can you tell me how much it is worth - I purchased it in New Zealand from an English friend approx 1973." Jill McGill
"I have just purchased a Grasmere bookcase, and was wondering when it was made? If anyone knows, I would be interested. Thanks." sheila weller
"Thanks for this article. We're still making the Windsor chair and the 382 'Plank' table shown in the photograph today. The sideboards, part of our Windsor range, have had a few facelifts over the decades but are still one of our most popular ranges." ercol