Moving with the times is a 21st-century imperative. Globalisation, Brexit, the development of new technologies, materials and processes all demand fresh approaches. For heritage furniture and homewares brands – particularly the 20th century’s innovators – there’s an additional challenge: to find a new relevance that reflects changing lifestyles while adhering to core values. And here, new technology and astute collaborations with contemporary designers can prove invaluable, resulting in both reinvigorated archival products and compelling new designs.
Take Elkington & Co, a silverware manufacturer founded in 1824 (originally in Birmingham, now Sheffield-based) that created cutlery for the Titanic and received royal warrants from Queen Victoria through to King George VI. The company’s experimentation with gilding techniques led to the patenting of a way to fuse two metal surfaces using electric current. By 1840 Elkington’s electroplated silverware was democratising design; those pieces shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition won a Gold Medal for Excellence of Manufacture.
Matching Elkington’s technical innovation was creative input from leading designers of the day, including Augustus Pugin and Christopher Dresser. Fast-forward to the 21st century and we find E&Co (as it is now known) collaborating with London-based designer Christopher Jenner on chic, contemporary collections of sterling silver and silver-plated tableware that combine traditional silversmithing techniques with new processes such as CAD (computer-aided design) software, 3D printing and modelling, and CNC (computer numerical control) laser cutting.
Jenner is no stranger to working with heritage brands. Having studied fine art and design in his native South Africa, he set up his London studio in 2010, focusing on projects whose craft traditions convey a sense of narrative, such as luggage for Globe‑Trotter, classic bathroom furniture for Drummonds and retail environments for Diptyque, Penhaligon’s and Kusmi Tea.
The Epicurean collection for E&Co aims to “deliver form and functionality with equal efficiency while giving the designs an emotional value”, says Jenner. Following an initial 2016 collaboration, a dozen new pieces launched this autumn at London Design Festival, showcasing Jenner’s ability to combine CAD processes with traditional craftsmanship. Double Shot (£350), a silver-plated whisky beaker, fuses the double wall of two spun forms into a graceful, contemporary silhouette; the ovoid-shaped, silver-plated Ritual teapot (£4,500) features oak details on its handle and lid; and the traditional lost-wax method gives the Fold silver-plated salad servers (£600) their organic form, while the silver-plated Kinetic Monolith candelabra (£2,200) unites a hand-turned monolith with four CNC-created movable arms. The devil is in the small, practical details: an integral hook on the new ice bucket (silver, £3,000; silver plate, £800) to carry tongs (silver, £550; silver plate, £295) and a non‑slip, rubber plinth for the silver-plated Cream jug (£800). “Technological developments can move a traditional craft forward, drawing on its heritage while transcending previous limitations to create something completely fresh and new,” says Jenner. His plans for a debut E&Co homeware collaboration – possibly lighting – and further tableware are in discussion.
The reinvigoration of a heritage brand using modern technology is taken further by 26-year-old Sam Reich, who has resurrected Tibor, his grandfather’s textile company. Budapest-born Tibor Reich was a key player in postwar British textiles, having arrived in England in 1936 to study at Leeds University before setting up his business in 1945. A love of nature, folk art and modernism permeated his colourful woven and printed fabrics, while technical experimentation led to the creation of deep, rich textures.
Tibor initially supplied couture houses such as Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell before diversification into upholstery, including customised ranges for Ercol and G-Plan. In its heyday the firm’s distinctive designs graced numerous embassies, the royal yacht Britannia, Lotus cars and Concorde. Like many British textile producers, however, Tibor was derailed by competitively priced imports and the company closed in the 1970s – although Reich senior, who died in 1996, never sold the company name, nor his archive of 30,000 designs. Now, a selection of fabrics – some recoloured for contemporary tastes – are available again, while bespoke commissions are enthusiastically undertaken.
“My grandfather railed against a conventional approach to pattern design, constantly experimenting with techniques and pushing boundaries in terms of colour, composition and texture,” says Reich. “Now we can take advantage of technical developments he didn’t have in his day. We use the latest CAD software to create patterns for both jacquard and dobby weaving, so we’re able to visualise the design before experimenting with the yarn on hand looms. The manipulation of patterns on Adobe Photoshop would have been Tibor’s dream, as he was always looking for ways to visualise designs before experimenting on looms. And in manufacturing we use the latest drawing-in techniques when preparing the loom for weaving. Back in the 1950s it would take a day or two to tie each warp thread to the loom. Now it can be done in a few hours on specialised machines.”
Exemplifying this approach is Raw Coral (£234 per m), a dramatic, textured print created by twisting bespoke, cotton-bouclé yarn with metallic Lurex and screenprinting the pattern on woven cloth. This eye‑catching design, reintroduced in 2016, will launch this autumn as a new, sheer cotton textile (£186 per m) in terracotta, taupe, gold, grey, butter or duck‑egg blue. Four new wallpaper designs (£90 per m) inspired by Tibor Reich’s sketches and further archival fabrics (from £165 per m) are also part of the 2017 collection.
“The original designs used very bright, often primary, colours, so we’re broadening this palette,” says Reich. Tibor’s in-house designers are also working with creative consultants Maryse Boxer and David Bentheim to reinvigorate archival patterns such as the bestselling Cymbeline (£234 per m; cushion, £350), giving it a more geometric appearance. Top interior designers including Peter Marino, Kelly Wearstler and Hubert Zandberg clearly admire the results, incorporating them into schemes for clients, as does Soho House, which commissioned Tibor fabrics for its new White City venue.
“I’m neurotic about quality,” says Reich. “Every yarn is designed from scratch – not bought off-the-shelf – and I’m aiming to up the luxury by sourcing extra-soft, white Falklands wool.” Twisting, dyeing, spinning and weaving all take place in Britain, with up to eight different factories – including the last “fancy” yarn-spinner and the country’s final “twister” – involved in creating a single fabric. Yet, says Reich, “this is not an archive revival project. We’ve reissued original designs because they’re classics – not because they’re ‘retro’. Our heritage is critical but we also want to do new things. We welcome input from external textile designers and are in talks about collaborations with fashion and interior designers. It’s a case of looking back to move forward.”
Also taking a broad view is Marianne Goebl, managing director of Artek, the Finnish company co-founded by architect Alvar Aalto in 1935 and acquired by Vitra in 2013. “Moving forward can be challenging, but having the collection’s building blocks in place means we can evolve at a healthy, unpressurised pace,” she says. Of Artek’s latest products, she points out that “seemingly simple designs demand very precise production processes; we have had to find unconventional ways of using technology such as CNC machining, drilling and bending processes, laser cutting, aluminium extrusion and materials employed in the automotive and aerospace industries.”
“Artek is as relevant now as in 1935,” says Lee F Mindel of New York-based architecture firm SheltonMindel. “We’re committed to integrating architecture and the interior; Artek’s products enable that to happen and are a key part of our vocabulary.”
Artek’s core values – investing in material research, developing systems and standards and fostering sustainable design – chime with contemporary attitudes, but, says Goebl “it’s important to find new voices to carry these values forward”. While furniture, lighting and accessories designed by the Nordic “greats” – Aalto, Ilmari Tapiovaara, Tapio Wirkkala, Eero Aarnio and Yrjö Kukkapuro – remain popular, Artek also collaborates with leading contemporary designers, including Shigeru Ban, Hella Jongerius, Konstantin Grcic, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and, most recently, Daniel Rybakken.
Oslo- and Gothenburg-based Rybakken is best known for creating subtle lighting designs that replicate natural daylight, but, says Goebl, “Daniel shares Artek’s fundamental interest in bringing together the realms of art and technology; he focuses on technical solutions with a poetic result.” Having spotted this synergy, Goebl gave Rybakken his first-ever furniture commission and the Kiila storage and seating collection was unveiled at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair earlier this year. As well as a bench (from €474), there is a coat stand (from €378) and coat rack (from €540) that may look delicately slender, yet their tripod structure and wedge-shaped joint (Kiila means “wedge” in Finnish) ensure they are robust.
CNC machine-drilled, solid ashwood legs are fitted to the laser-cut, powder-coated metal joints, and secured with injection-moulded metal pins that double as hanging pegs so all aspects of construction deliberately remain visible. “The construction is on display; nothing is hidden from the user,” says Rybakken. “There is a very apparent logic to the Kiila series that references Aalto’s designs. These are products designed within the parameters of industrial manufacture; they are intended to be part of a system that can be repeated.” His approach echoes that of France’s Bouroullec brothers, whose Kaari furniture uses a system of steel supports inspired by Aalto’s designs but cut, drilled, bent and machined by CNC processes. Initial pieces in the 2015 collection were joined last year by an elegant dining table (from £1,270), side table (from £707) and shelf with laptop surface (from £1,259).
This year, the Bouroullecs’ debut textile for Artek launched at Maison&Objet Paris. Textiles have always been integral to Artek; under Aino Aalto’s artistic direction, patterns like the still-popular Zebra (stool, £170) were introduced, and Rivi (meaning “line” in Finnish) reinvigorates this tradition. Based on a hand-drawn pattern of parallel lines flecked by tiny diagonal strokes, the design is available as fabric (from £23 per m) or as accessories, including cushion covers (from £26), a tote bag (£26) and screenprinted trays (from £22). “It’s beauty for everyday use – a very Nordic concept,” says Goebl.
Meanwhile, the fresh palette used by Dutch designer Hella Jongerius to recolour upholstery on Aalto’s birch Armchair 400 (from £3,280), designed in 1936, and 1933’s 401 (from £1,802) has generated a sales uplift of 15 per cent since launching in 2014. Next year a further collaboration with Jongerius on technical aspects of upholstery webbing for chairs 611 (1929) and 406 (1939) and chaise longue 43 (1937) will be introduced.
Plans for new lighting designs are in the pipeline and Goebl is currently working with three contemporary designers on furniture and smaller objects heralded by this year’s launch of Rybakken’s 124° series of laser-cut, wall-mounted and free-standing mirrors (£286). The mirror-polished sheet-steel designs are mounted on aluminium extrusions with two faces placed 124 degrees apart, so that their unexpected, dual-aspect reflections play with perspective in an intriguing way. It’s just the kind of forward-thinking concept that can give a technically innovative heritage brand its competitive edge.