The institutional furniture produced in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s is truly something to be proud of! The surviving quantities emerging on the vintage furniture scene are testament to the quality of both material and manufacturing processes, not forgetting the classic forms created by mostly anonymous designers.
Functionality and design
Techniques such as steam bending, and materials such as plywood and cast aluminium pioneered in the pre-war years and were embraced by companies such as the Educational Supply Association (ESA), Practical Equipment Ltd (PEL) and Meredew Furniture.
The vintage industrial furniture designs reflected the Modernist look long associated with the Bauhaus movement. The new manufacturing methods and technologies allowed these bold shapes and lines to be mass produced, taking Modernism from Haute Couture to Prêt à Porter.
The ‘line’ is a term often used in reference to Modernist and Mid-Century furniture. A bentwood and ply stacking chair, whilst looking functional from the front, will come alive when viewed from the side with the sweep of the bentwood legs and the curve of the bent ply seat.
A home staple
Those who were in school between the 1950s and 1970s will be very familiar with ESA furniture. The company employed one of the only designers known by name in this field; James Leonard. His cast aluminium framed desks and chairs were produced in their tens of thousands. Desks had solid hardwood tops, chairs had bent plywood seats and backs. Steam bent beech was also used in the 1960s.
PEL furniture is ubiquitous with tubular steel, again a favourite material of the Bauhaus. This company will forever be associated with its classic stacking chair: a slender curved tubular steel frame produced with several varieties of seats and backs. The most common of these is bent ply with the slung canvas version a close second. The more desirable incarnations include the slatted oak version and, perhaps rarest of all, Bakelite slats.
Meredew might be the exception here in that they originally made furniture for the domestic market. After the Second World War, the company took on its first in-house designer. Alphons Loebenstein revolutionised the company; turning what had been a very traditional collection more akin to the Victorian period into a wealth of ‘contemporary’ clean lined furniture that typified the post war look. Once again, manufacturing techniques and developments in materials made the step to producing furniture for schools and institutions an easy one.
Meredew furniture was specified for Haggerston School in Hackney in 1965 by its architect Erno Goldfinger. Some of this original furniture is still in use at the school today, over 50 years later. Over the last couple of years a number of the cabinets have made their way onto the Mid Century show scene and have been snapped up by admirers.
Vintage institutional furniture is a great investment in terms of the quality of its manufacture and materials and its fantastic Modernist designs. Perhaps its biggest draw though is the sense of familiarity we all have with these pieces. Most of us, at some point, have sat on or have owned a piece of furniture made by one of these companies.
In a fast changing and increasingly disposable world it is always heartening to see these robust and timeless survivors enduring.
Do you remember having this furniture at home? Have you inherited or bought any nowadays? Leave us a comment!