Ercol Factory Visit
Posted on July 12 2017
Tour the Ercol factory and discover how they make their beautiful designs.
When I first starting writing about interiors and furniture design, it appeared to be the big secret that brands would shy away from sharing how their furniture was made. It was not a sell and businesses wanted to focus on the beautiful finished designs and their high levels of perfection. As time has gone on, attitudes have changed and people want to see the design story, they want to know that materials are sustainably sourced and constructed to the highest level. This development and design story is now what sells a product as people become proud of their design choices and want to share their stories with those around them.
Earlier in the year, I was invited to discover Ercol's design story with a visit to their factory, workshops and showroom at their head quarters in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire.
As a massive design enthusiast, I often find the concept development and construction process a fascinating part of the design so, to be invited to the factory to explore the production process and experience how Ercol's beautiful furniture designs come to life, is a pleasure that I am unable to put into words. As with any workshop or factory tour, it started with the compulsory and ultra glamorous high visibility jackets and top of the range protection goggles. Once in the factory, it was revealed how new technologies and facilities on site have helped to develop designs, continuing to evolve the brand in its impressive history. Machines and people, working alongside one another, one allowing for precise detail to be maintained and the other ensuring the highest quality is set as standard.
What I have always found fascinating about many of Ercol's furniture collections is the use of curved wood. Imagining that they had been produced from large chunks of wood, slowly whittled down until the perfect curve is revealed, I was reassured this is not the case. Not only would the process be damaging to the environment, it would be very costly and extremely wasteful. It was fascinating to experience just how these curves are created and just how many variations there actually are. Whilst some designs require pieces of wood to be joined and then carved to produce a seamless finish, others have actually been bent by hand or machine.
Steaming the wood in the large chambers seen above, each piece is removed by hand and has a limited time to be bent correctly before it hardens. Using metal braces, the wood is knocked into place via strategic points that mean it will bend in the correct way without splintering. A two man job, once both sides have been secured and clamped together, the frame is left to cool down and dry before it can maintain its new shape by itself. The other demonstration that we witnessed was the use of a machine power, where a thicker block of wood, destined to be the back of a chair, was slotted into the machine before the force of it manipulated its shape as if it was a bendy plastic ruler. Seeing a material stronger than yourself cower under the pressure of another was really a sight to see.
Whilst in the showroom, I noticed a classic design, something that is often referred to as a love seat. This timeless piece had been coloured to a very intriguing effect giving it the appearance of a soft gradient. The next part of the tour gave us an insight into how it was created, and it is all done by hand. Perched on a turntable to allow for easy movement, a coat of paint is sprayed evenly in lines onto the wood. For this particular piece (above) the gradient effect was created by spraying fewer layers and then missing out the tops and bottom of the seat. Once the painting is complete, designs can then be sprayed with a lacquer, a protective layer that hardens to add a smooth shine.
With the incredible joinery and wonderful materials used, you may be surprised to discover just how most of it is secured together as very few screws are used. In the final stop for our workshop tour, it was time to witness just how a chair is constructed and joined together. With a natural material such as wood, there is much more give than a plastic or a metal. This allows it to be manipulated in different ways and one of my favourites is in the form of pegs. As seen in the video above, the craftsman can be seen hammering in a thin wooden peg into a join which expands the surrounding wood, giving it nowhere to move. The excess of the peg is cut off and then sanded, completing the seal and adding, even more character to the finished designs. This joinery is often left exposed as a sign of quality and is my favourite part of the Ercol designs.
I would like to thank the team at Ercol for such an insightful visit, sharing with us a side to the brand that I hope that many more will be able to see. This understanding of the design and the skill that it takes during the construction process demonstrates just how impressive the brand is and why, almost one hundred years later, Ercol still manages to lead the industry. For information on the brand and their collection of designs, visit the official Ercol website via the link.