Ercol Puts a Modern Spin on Classic Chair Design with its Century-Old Roots


May 12, 2020

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Walking down the halls of the Ercol furniture factory, less than an hour’s train journey from London in the small town of Princes Risborough, I get the sense that many of the people here are like family. The names of Ercol employees of more than 20, 30, and even 40 years fill a large board honoring their time with the company, and much of today’s team fondly recalls hearing stories from their parents and grandparents about how they once built furniture for Ercol, too.

That’s the story of Ercol’s own fourth-generation leader and Director of International Business Henry Tadros—who continues the legacy of his great-grandfather, founder Lucian Ercolani. Henry started working at Ercol, known for its natural wood furniture and classic designs, on the factory floor before working through every department in the business—a personal “requirement” he set for himself when he started almost a decade ago. “I needed to understand all of it, the craftsmanship and the workers and how they viewed our furniture,” Henry says.

On any given day, it’s not unthinkable to catch Henry in the shop hammering a leg to a chair or hand-sanding a steam-bent bow. He can’t stop talking about his passion for the craft—the feel of the wood as he works to achieve the smoothest finish, just as his great-grandfather did 100 years ago. He even continues to work alongside his father Edward, the company’s chairman who has worked at Ercol for 47 years.

On a sunny day in the UK (they do exist!), the 160,000-square-foot facility is flooded with light thanks to its large windows and skylight. The smell of walnut fills the air. Even a busy workday in the factory is made more relaxing with views of nature and wildlife just outside. “You can see the trees and animals. It’s a very warm, comfortable family environment to work in,” Henry says.

The original 1940s lathe machine, still in use in late 2019, sits near the newest CNC machine on the market today—a blend of past and future. It’s a scene much like the company’s latest creation, the Reprise Chair, which debuted in April 2020. From its large steam-bent arch and carefully machined spindles to its mix of upholstery and hardwood, the chair captures Ercol’s manufacturing capabilities while giving an appreciative nod to the craft. “This chair tells the story of our company,” says Ben Gaffney, vice president of Ercol Americas and global design development. “It feels like a modern piece, but it’s tipping its hat to Lucian.”

Designed by Copenhagen-based Norm Architects, the Reprise Chair has a minimalistic design with Scandinavian simplicity. It conforms with the Ercol DNA of being well-crafted, comfortable, simple, functional, and beautiful, and its name calls back to its pattern and repetition. The smooth, flowing arch of its backrest creates a natural rhythm, a repeated “passage” like the reprise of a song.

The only one of his three siblings to go into the family business, Henry decided he would step into a leadership role only if he “had a purpose.” And so it began—his quest to expand the business beyond the UK and begin designing furniture for the future without forgetting where the company began. It was a task not taken lightly—some of Lucian’s original designs continue to be among the most sought after today. The classic steam-bent arch, a cornerstone of the company and a process mastered by Lucian in the 1940s, is still a best seller that hooks customers. “It’s instant nostalgia,” Ben says.

But it’s what you don’t see that makes the Reprise Chair progressive. “Aesthetically it feels like it’s calling on the past. It’s a funny product to push as an example of how we are moving forward, but so much of what we do today is put into that chair. It’s the perfect marriage of technology meets traditional craftsmanship,” Ben says.

Much of what makes it the chair of future generations is the research that went into the design process. “We have spent so much energy trying to be the experts in residential meets soft contract. We know that the office environment is being filled with residential-type pieces. We wanted this chair to feel like you are at home without it being a place where employees are going to nest, snuggle up, and fall asleep. It is really about function and how it can fit a human in all these different environments.”

Similar to how Lucian’s designs are still loved today, the Ercol family hopes the Reprise Chair will be a timeless piece that’s passed down through generations. “We are a modern brand as well as a mid-century brand,” Henry says. “We have all this history, but we want to be working into the future. It’s a very unique position to have.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Sixtysix with the headline “Making the Reprise Chair.” Subscribe today.

Produced by Studio Sixtysix
Words by Colleen DeHart
Photos by Peter Guenzel

Studio Sixtysix is the in-house creative agency to Sixtysix magazine. Studio Sixtysix stories are conceived, produced, and edited by Studio Sixtysix.