High on Heal’s

The quintessentially British store Heal’s used to set the agenda for design. As its 200th anniversary approaches, can it regain its reputation, asks Lucia van der Post.

September 05 2009
Lucia van der Post

If you’re under about 60, it won’t be easy to grasp exactly what it was that Heal’s in its heyday stood for. As Sir Hugh Casson, the well-known architect of the 1950s and 1960s, once put it, “Heal’s was a symbol rather than a shop.” It was many a famous designer’s first conscious connection with the world of design. Sir Terence Conran, for instance, remembers that “birthday and Christmas presents always came from Heal’s. I’ve still got a child’s wooden table and chairs from Heal’s – it’s beautifully made furniture.” Israeli photographer Nadav Kander, a current golden boy of photography who shot a 2003 advertising campaign for the store, remembers that his “grandfather used to go on an annual trip to England and very often following him back by ship would be a piece of Heal’s furniture. He had a beautiful 1930s Heal’s oak wardrobe that I used to hide in to play with his old cameras as a child.”

To those interested in modern democratic design who wanted something other than reverential antiques, for many years there was quite simply nowhere else to go. But it’s no secret that in more recent times Heal’s lost its way. All around it whizzier, more contemporary stores such as The Conran Shop, Aram Store, Aria, Purves & Purves and SCP were grabbing the limelight. Less entrenched in the rather puritanical aesthetics of the early Modernist movement, they were offering a more lyrical, light-hearted and wittier form of contemporary aesthetics that chimed with the changing tastes of the nation. Heal’s, by contrast, was – frankly – dull.

In 2001 it was bought by Wittington Investments (part-owned by the British branch of the Weston family) and when Andrea Warden, its current CEO, was asked to head it up in 2004, she found it to be a store where “time had stood still”. While fashion had arrived in the world of interior design and home furnishings, at Heal’s it seemed as if fashion as a concept hadn’t been invented. “It needed rattling in every corner,” says Warden, whose experience included a stint running the homeware side of Designers at Debenhams.

Her brief was to make it once again the place for contemporary furnishings. In its prime Heal’s had been not merely a seller of other people’s wares, it had manufactured its own pieces, commissioned new products and set the design agenda. That, she decided, had to be her strategy too. “After all,” she says, “there’s no point in playing safe – people either want a bargain or something that they love to bits. It’s the safe and the comfortable that isn’t selling.” She began talking to the Royal College of Art, looking for young designers to create new pieces for what she decided to call the Heal’s Discovers range – pieces that would belong exclusively to Heal’s and embody something of its spirit which would be sold alongside the other bought-in pieces. It immediately injected new excitement into the store. John Reeves’ Louis range of tables, beds, mirrors and cabinetry turned out to be something of an industry sensation (and much copied), while Kay+Stemmer’s Flow collection of fine cabinetry were also very good sellers.

Right now, Warden is generating more excitement with new additions that have just hit the shopfloor called Sensational – some specially commissioned, as with the vibrant cobalt blue console tables by John Reeves and flocked accessories in bright blue or shocking pink by Johnny Egg, and others bought in, such as Marcel Wanders’ brilliant blue stone stool for Kartell.

On top of that, next year sees the 200th anniversary of the store’s founding, which is clearly something worth celebrating. After all, when John Harris Heal founded Heal’s in 1810, King George III was busy going insane, Napoleon was divorcing Josephine, Jane Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility and Beethoven was busy composing. Heal’s flourished because it had a knack of coming up with innovative products before its customers had fully realised they needed them. Take the mattress. When Heal’s opened up shop, many people were still sleeping on straw palliasses. Heal’s decided to offer the growing numbers of the bourgeoisie truly comfortable bedding, with fine feather mattresses encased in ticking. Later on it gave them the four-poster beds for which it became so renowned.

And then there was the matter of room sets. Long before anybody had dreamed up the term “lifestyle”, way back in the late 19th century, John Harris Heal Junior realised that he would sell more furniture if he showed it in room sets, making it easy for customers to put a whole look together. He also understood the popular appeal of Dickens’ penny novels and so started advertising in the monthly episodes of novels such as The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House.

But it was under Ambrose Heal, who started producing furniture to his own design at the turn of the last century, that Heal’s really started to make its mark. His designs were a radical change from the vulgar excesses so beloved by many of the prosperous bourgeoisie. He produced furniture of great simplicity, so much so that initially it was dubbed “prison furniture”. But later Ambrose went on to bridge the gap between the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and mass production, showing that you could make fine furniture by combining handcraft skills with industrial processes. This meant that he could offer pieces with much the same sensibility as fine craftsmen’s work but at much more affordable prices.

All through the Ambrose Heal days (from 1913 until 1953) the store went on innovating. He introduced an art gallery to the store – the Mansard Gallery, which was the White Cube of its day, selling the work of artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani. He commissioned Marcel Breuer to design a room set, while in 1933 Mies van der Rohe came up with a now iconic steel chair which sold for £2 9s 6d. In the recession of the 1930s he launched a range which was marketed as “Economy with a difference”, bringing in Bauhaus-inspired tubular furniture because metal was cheaper than wood.

After the war, Clive Latimer and Robin Day’s designs were acclaimed around the world when they won the Low Cost Furniture Competition held by New York’s Moma. The 1950s saw the move towards open-plan living and the need for more flexible furniture, which Heal’s was quick to provide.

All these splendid achievements provide good reasons to celebrate, which is why for the 200th anniversary Warden decided to follow the Ambrose Heal mantra – when in doubt, innovate. Whether he was dealing with a war, a recession or an anniversary, Ambrose looked to design to push things forward (for which he was duly knighted in 1933). Warden therefore looked for a group of designers to whom Heal’s was something of a magic name. Designers who would “give me something that I really love. Something that gets the excitement of our history but that is fresh and thrilling”. She wanted new, utterly modern pieces that were inspired by the spirit of Heal’s and decided to call it the 2010 ReDiscovers project. She also wanted British designers (Heal’s being a quintessentially British store) with proper credentials as furniture designers.

So Warden turned to people such as Tom Dixon who, when he was Habitat’s creative director, used to go into the Heal’s building almost every day. “Heal’s heritage is written all over that building,” he says. “I liked the idea of working with a furniture store that didn’t just buy in other people’s designs but had grown up from a manufacturing base. I think it’s important that it gets back to commissioning, where its roots lie.”

Dixon looked back to the era when Scandi-style was the buzz word in design circles and, drawing on the Scandinavian love of natural wood and craftsmanship, has come up with a chirpily vibrant dining table called Slab – a single piece of solid oak lacquered in a bright fluorescent orange to give it a contemporary feel (£2,350). To go with it there is a low coffee table in similar vein (£295).

For Kay+Stemmer, Heal’s also resonated. Sarah Kay remembers her grandmother, who had a gown shop near Heal’s, using the name as a reference point for quality, while for Andrea Stemmer, who is German but trained at John Makepeace’s Parnham College in Dorset, the chance to work with a company that was steeped in the Arts and Crafts movement was too good to miss. They’ve created a charming, curving sofa as a complementary piece to their cabinet furniture. It’s upholstered in bright orange or tomato red woven bouclé fabric (from £2,495), has a gentle, organic shape and is the sort of piece that is both sophisticated and yet easy to use. It looks informal and inviting, and yet is of the highest quality.

Johnny Egg – most famous, perhaps, for his flocked chandelier and his twisted bedside cabinet (which one design commentator described as the furniture equivalent of Roland Mouret’s Galaxy dress) – has come up with an offbeat dressing table (£1,495), and stool (£395) in shiny black lacquer with touches of vibrant pink flocking. Taking inspiration from Ambrose Heal’s Fine Feathers suite, it’s a modern take on dressing-table glamour. “Ambrose Heal rewarded his customers' patience with small touches that could be enjoyed for years to come,” says Egg. “I just hope that people will still be enjoying the finer details I’ve incorporated into my design for as long.”

Wales & Wales (Rod and Alison Wales) has come up with a series of storage pieces, rigorously simple, which it calls Slice Storage (from £495 for the two-drawer side table), inspired by Christopher Heal’s 1950s collection of flexible unit furniture. It’s designed to move from living room to bedroom and is made in American black walnut with stretcher rails and burnt-orange lacquer accents.

John Jenkins, the design manager at Heal’s, looked to reinterpret the classic four-poster, the emblem that best sums up Heal’s roots and history. Jenkins’ bicentenary offering is a pared-down version made in American black walnut with an upholstered headboard and simple (optional) drapes (from £1,995 plus fabric). With it goes a handmade mattress covered in ticking (£4,500).

Finally, Warden asked the daughter of the great silversmith Robert Welch if Heal’s could reproduce the Hobart candlestick, which it first showed and sold in 1967, for its ReDiscovers collection. It is a handsome cast-iron candlestick, Welch’s first sortie into that material, which he went on to use for a whole family of different pieces. The Hobart is one of the most accessible, in price terms, of the bicentenary pieces; painted in black, white or red for £35 in the small size, £50 in the large. Knitted cushions inspired by 1940s Heal’s prints by young Royal College of Art graduate Donna Wilson (from £40) will also be at the cheaper end of the scale.

These then are the first products that celebrate the company’s long history and standing in the world of design. They will all be launched this month to coincide with the London Design Festival and 100% Design. In February, there will come the output of another six designers – among them some gloriously decorative fabrics, wallpapers and rugs from Osborne & Little, bedlinen by Barbara Brown in fabulously Op Art-influenced designs and John Reeves and John Jenkins will be turning their minds to outdoor furniture. And yet further down the line, in September 2010, four more designers will be embarking on the fascinating exercise of harnessing the Heal’s heritage to utterly contemporary wares.

This is a project that could run and run.

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