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'Better Furniture For Better Times'

Ambrose Heal and the Heal's Style

June 4th -  June 30th 2003

"Partout le calme, la simplicité …"

To paraphrase the catalogue from the Paris Exhibition of 1900 when describing the award winning designs of Ambrose Heal for the Heal and Son stand at that exhibition - "Everywhere it is pure simplicity and calmness…"

The quotation is probably the best place to start when trying to summarise the work of this great British furniture designer and innovator.

To his contemporaries Ambrose Heal faithfully adhered to the ideas of Ruskin and Morris. The Architectural Review commented of the designs for the Paris stand 'it almost goes without saying that the materials have been carefully selected, and the work … is a triumph of craftsmanship'.

Did the author known that, after spending an apprenticeship with Messrs Plucknett of Warwick, Ambrose Heal had obtained a post with a mass production manufacturer in London 'but left before lunch, disgusted with the level of workmanship and design' ?

Another contemporary magazine, when speaking of his Fine Feathers/Ruskin bedroom suite designs stated, 'the room, then, that Mr Ambrose Heal has conceived is a tribute to the memory of the author of 'An Earthly Paradise…'

Gleeson White, the author of the influential Studio Magazine was so taken by Heal's designs and the craftsmanship that he wrote an assessment of the work which he allowed Heal & Son to publish. White, speaking of the same suite, praised 'the heart-shaped device, an inlay of pewter upon a blue ground … and the inlaid peacocks of the supports to the mirror'. Adding 'to be simple in decoration is always to be in good taste, and as a rule to fulfil the intended purpose more satisfactorily'.

Yet these designs, as good as any produced by the Arts & Crafts Movement of the time and with their fidelity to the ideas of Morris, are arguably not Heal's most important contribution to British furniture design.

This lies in making it possible to 'have nothing in your house except what you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful' an obtainable reality to a wider number of people than ever before.

Jeremy Cooper has stated "Heal was instrumental in passing the Morris legacy on into Twentieth century manufactured design" and Dan Klein has noted 'the simple oak furniture produced … must have come somewhere near to William Morris's ideal of honest craftsmanship at reasonable prices…'

Nicolaus Pevsner writing in Pioneers of Modern Design argues that 'even more importantly historically than such exhibition pieces of Heals was their production for the ordinary market' adding 'Living amongst such objects, we breathe a fresher air’. And this cannot be said too often - the evidence that Heal understood Morris's and the ideas of the Arts & Crafts Movement better than most is compelling. It is worth quoting the much-respected British furniture designer Gordon Russell at some length:

'He was perhaps the only man in the retail furniture trade of that time who had any real interest in and knowledge of design and, like most pioneers, he was sniped at from all quarters. By many craftsmen he was distrusted because he was in charge of an efficient business. By most businessmen he was regarded as a long-haired chap with odd notions. But he stuck to his guns. His outlook was not just a fashion of the moment, it was a deeply-felt way of life with him and affected everything he did. And his sincerity gained him a … devoted clientele … Today (1964) … it is difficult to realise what a revolution Heal pioneered'.

Even after the slaughter of the First World War had abated (Heal's eldest son had been killed in Belgium) Heal continued in his mission to produce 'good citizens furniture', forging a link between the craftsman and the use of machine that few others achieved.

Between the wars the success of Heal's furniture was due to the work of an exceptional, though small team of designers and makers headed by Ambrose Heal himself: J F Johnson, a furniture designer, was head of the cabinet department, the cabinet making factory was run by C V Adams who had been Ashbee's foreman at the Guild of Handicraft and the ‘brilliant draughtsman’ Arthur Greenwood.

Working closely together they set out to not only produce good soundly constructed furniture but also to show it to a wider and wider audience, regularly holding exhibitions at the Mansard Gallery in the Tottenham Court Road shop and producing elegant advertising catalogues which they distributed extensively.

It has been estimated that by the time that the 'Better Furniture for Better Times' range was launched in 1934 the mailing list was close to 35,000 people. A number of exhibits from this range are included in this exhibition and originate from a private collection of a Heals’ employee of the period.

Their work 'helped to change the whole conception of furnishing by releasing contemporary taste from the tyranny of "period styles", and providing an agreeable alternative to an exclusive reliance on antiques, genuine or spurious' - 'Tis a great shame that this option has largely disappeared for the vast majority once again!


"Good progressive furniture ... living amongst such objects, we breathe a fresher air".

Nicholas Pevsner

To view the illustrated catalogue and with a full list of exhibits follow this link 

Illustrated catalogue £5 plus p&p from 

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