Title: Design management
Pages: 42 - 47
Author: Corin Hughes - Stanton
Text: Design management
A shop with high standards
by Corin Hughes - Stanton
Heal and Son Ltd is one of the two organisations - the other is the London Transport Board, reported in DESIGN 197/36-47 - which recently were awarded Royal Society of Arts Presidential Medals for Design Management in the category for "long pioneering in the field". Corin Hughes-Stanton reports on the growth of Heal's from its early beginnings to its present wide ranging activities.
In consumer design, the retailer and the store buyer are the most important links in the production and distribution chain. Ultimately, it is they who decide from which products the public may choose so to a large extent they decide what the public likes. To a considerable degree it has been the shop buyers, as a group conservative, who have thwarted the efforts of progressive manufacturers and an increasingly discriminating body of shoppers.
Of course, there are many shops which have a fine record, even shops which have been specially established to sell modern designs. But most are of the small boutique type, and none have such a consistent design policy as Heal's. The significant thing about Heal's is not just that it is a Mecca for those who want to buy modern design, but that it has grown into a large retail and wholesale organisation without lowering its standards. This is a remarkable achievement in a country reputed to be Philistine. Its buyers have proved that there is a large market for quality goods and attractive design, and the number of other shops which are now following its lead is a measure of Heal's success.
A consistent contribution
Heal's contribution to cosign has been consistent and important. Indeed, it has often been only after Heal's has shown that new designs will sell that others have followed. Often it is only because Heal's has decided to sell new designs that manufacturers have gained the confidence to put them into their normal ranges. If Heal's contribution to the evolution of modern design has not been unique, it has been central and often crucial.
Heal's is half way up Tottenham Court Road - one of London's largest and least attractive shopping streets. It has no other retail branches, although it now has an interest in Dunns of Bromley. Both a retail and a manufacturing organisation, it has remained a family firm since it was started in 1810, when John Harris Heal came to London from Devon to set up in business as a feather dresser. When he died his business was continued by his widow, Fanny. The firm was then taken over by their son, the second John Harris Heal. A reputation for high quality bedding was established, but no attempt was made to broaden the scope of the business.
However, from then on Heal's grew and expanded under his sons, Harris and Ambrose, and his son-in-law, Alfred Brewer. But the first of the two most important events in the history of Heal's came in 1893 when Ambrose Heal junior entered the family business. It was he who decided to lead the company's reaction against over-ornate designs and to help pioneer simplicity in furniture.
Apprenticed as a cabinet maker, he designed extremely beautiful, simple wooden furniture (see page 45). Although he was a founder member of the Design and Industries Association, he was also a member of the Arts and Crafts Society and the Art Workers Guild. His designs, and the furniture sold in his shop, were direct heirs to the William Morris tradition rather than the beginning of the modern movement. But at the same time, unlike many of his colleagues in the craft movement, he did not regard the machine as the root of all evil.
As Sir Gordon Russell has pointed out, "He was perhaps the only man in the retail 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 business men he was regarded as a long haired chap with odd notions.... Today, when it has become possible to get well designed furniture in many shops, it is difficult to realise what a revolution Heal pioneered".
His furniture was basically simple, but charmingly and almost waywardly decorated with inlaid panels, painted surfaces and delicate beading. Although it looked back for its inspiration, it was not mediaeval in feeling. Even more important than the special exhibition pieces were Heal's production designs for the ordinary market. The first catalogue of Heal's plain oak furniture appeared in 1898, and established an entirely new idea of what furniture design could mean. The significance of Ambrose Heal's work was that, because his furniture was produced on a commercial basis, it could be obtained far more readily than the chairs made by Gimson or the individually designed furniture and fittings by Voysey.
Heal's 'fourth shop' of 1854
Ambrose Heal junior, from a photograph taken in 1893
Ambrose Heal's policy toward design continues to the present day. Between the two world wars Heal's, the retail shop, continued to stock products, especially furniture, which had more allegiance to the ideas of William Morris than to the Bauhaus. Even so, in 1936 Heal's commissioned seven then relatively unknown architects including Maxwell Fry, Marcel Breuer and Jack Howe - to design furniture.
In 1941 Heal's Wholesale and Export was formed. This branch of the firm, which is discussed later, was to have considerable importance in the story of British design because Heal Fabrics Ltd developed out of it.
But from the point of view of the shop, the second important event in Heal's history was the ending of the post-war Utility controls. While only Utility furniture was being manufactured, Heal's was forced to supplement it with antique furniture. But in 1949, when the Utility scheme was amended to allow freedom of design in furniture, Heal's found that most of the designs being produced by manufacturers were unacceptable. It decided to design and produce its own Utility furniture. To keep within the specific Utility price range, Heal's was forced to produce in quantities far larger than most retailers would consider wise. The result was that Heal's became not only a major furniture retailer, but a furniture producer. Consequently, Heal's was one of the first firms to sell well designed furniture at reasonable prices after the war. Any idea of being exclusive pioneers could no longer be entertained.
Design policy today The design policy of Heal's is not a formal thing: there is no design panel and no superimposed design policy. Good design is a basic tenet of the company's policy, and therefore it is something which is automatically self imposed from the chairman, Anthony Heal, down to all the retail department buyers. The basic design policy is the responsibility of the design director, Christopher Heal, who is also responsible for the drawing office or design studios. But it is almost more a watching brief than an every day system of instructions and commands from above. In a sense this accounts for both the shop's lack of cogency (the varying design standards between departments) and the natural growth of good design at Heal's - it is not a static, stylistic thing.
Speaking at the Royal Society of Arts last month the chairman, Anthony Heal, outlined the way in which the company controls its design policy. He said, "We make it the personal responsibility of our design director. It is his job to keep a critical eye on all the merchandise we make or sell. We do not favour committees where the exercise of taste or aesthetic judgement is concerned.... Second, we appoint as buyers and managers people whom we have trained and whom we feel to be sympathetic to our design tradition. . . . We often initiate new designs of our own in a wide range of products and from many different industries. This entails securing the co-operation of manufacturers (in cases where we cannot make the goods in our own workshops) and taking responsibility for selling the product.... We encourage all our buyers and managers to get around, to visit The Design Centre and exhibitions in London and trade fairs, shops and factories abroad. We cultivate the idea that Europe is our oyster and personal contact with our suppliers, both in the United Kingdom and abroad, is a vital part of our job".
Christopher Heal points out that a retail store's design policy should only be a guiding line. The original policy of Sir Ambrose Heal was expressed in clear cut, elementary terms - simplicity and workability - but since then it is natural that there has been some change since then.
A more catholic view "The revolutionary, manifesto period is over", Christopher Heal says. "Now we take a more catholic view of design, appreciating many different types of design simply because there are so many sorts of good modern designs to choose from.
Three pieces of furniture designed by Ambrose Heal junior: left, a folding dresser in elm, designed about 1914; above rig kit, the "chassis" bed in stove enamelled oval, section steel tube, designed about 1930: and right, a sideboard in
n unpolished oak, designed in 1906.
"In the 1920s there were only two types of modern design Gordon Russell and Marcel Breuer. Today there are many types or styles worth supporting: the Heal manner (or craft tradition), International, and of course Danish. We are no longer in a revolutionary period as we were in the 1900s. Instead, we are spreading design."
Besides influencing manufacturers, Heal's also influences people who do not necessarily go into the shop. When feature editors of magazines and national newspapers want modern products for their illustrations, Heal's is always willing to lend goods from any of their departments. Nicki Wright, in the press office, has built up a high speed loan service, and Heal's standard of modern design has become the visual standard of most of the leading feature pages of the popular press.
The drawing office or design studio is headed by John Carter, who has designed, for instance, the booking hall of the French Railways House in Piccadilly. This division of Heal's - independent of the shop - is responsible for furniture and interiors. It works mainly for Heal's Contracts, but it also designs exclusive new furniture ranges for the shop. This is because Heal's likes to control major items, to influence design direction and to meet special needs as well as solve fundamental problems. However, much of the furniture sold in the shop is made by firms which are in effect the design studio's competitors.
The retail shop
The bedding department is still a major part of Heal's. Once self contained units, most nineteenth century furniture shops had bedding departments, but now Heal's is one of the very few which still continue to make their own beds. Besides making and stocking off-the-peg beds, it has a world wide reputation for its tailor made, quality beds, which enjoy a considerable export trade.
The Heal's retail shop (under the control of Leonard Thorpe, the merchandise director) has 21 departments divided into three main groups-furniture, soft furnishings and domestic equipment. The buyers are given full authority to use their own judgement in selecting their stock, and many of them travel widely to find the best products being manufactured.
The products on sale can be divided into three kinds. First, those which are designed and made by subsidiary groups of Heal's, such as some of the furniture, beds and fabrics. Second, those products commissioned by Heal's or made exclusively for it: for example, Fredun Shapur's wooden rattles in the toy department, Bob Welch's set of silver jugs and teapots designed last year, the children's nursery furniture by llmari Tapiovaara, and the specially commissioned furniture from designers like Clive Latimer, John and Sylvia Reid, Nigel Walters, Robert Heritage and Martin Grierson. Third, products made and distributed by other manufacturers which can also be found in other leading stores.
Top left, Anthony Heal; top right, Christopher Heal. Above, two items commissioned for Heal's: left, two dolls, Timothy and Tessa, designed by Annette Shelley; right, high back armchair designed by Martin Grierson.
Top, coarse linen tablecloth by William Ewart and Son of Belfast from Heal's linen department. Robert Welch's sterling silver teapot and coffee pot, above, are another example of the distinguished British designs so often commissioned by Heal's.
Although there are no hard and fast rules, Heal's tends to buy from other manufacturers when it can obtain the standard it demands, and to manufacture its own products when this is not possible. By this judgement, it has always had to design its own furniture, although it has always been able to obtain the bulk of its stock from other manufacturers. At a time when it could not find furnishing fabrics of the quality it required, it had to start manufacturing its own printed fabrics because there was nothing satisfactory being produced. In contrast, the lighting department now buys all its stock from outside, although there was a time after the war when it commissioned designers of its own choice.
Three retail departments
All the departments of the retail shop carry a wide range of modern designs, not just simple, functional objects but also pretty, fashion conscious things too. However, during the last few years three departments in particular furniture, linen and toys - have developed along new lines and have helped to perpetuate Heal's design reputation.
. Gilbert Rabjohn is in charge of the cabinet group and of CONT/ex. He says that, unlike a boutique, Heal's is trying to
Gilbert Rabjohn is in charge of the cabinet group and of CONT/ex. He says that, unlike a boutique, Heal's is trying to offer honest, modern furniture to a very wide range of people. Therefore his department cannot take a too limited attitude to furniture. Although Heal's willingly sells what may be called International Modern, its main bias is still toward the William Morris, artist/craftsman tradition. CONT/ex is a more recently developed department selling only Continental designed and made furniture, such as the Cado wall units or the Kurva chairs designed by Yngve Ekstrom (see page 46). Having proved a success, it is now selling this furniture to other British retailers.
The linen department buyer is Timothy Solloway. Young, discriminating and determined, he has made it a centre of good quality designs, where you can buy not only well established products like the Shelley Textile Tumble Twist bath mats, but also brand new ranges of round table cloths, the prettiest tartan type mohair rugs and the jolliest of printed drying-up cloths. He works closely with manufacturers - many of whom like to get his opinion of a new range before approaching other retailers-as well as with designers whom he often asks to prepare special colour ranges.
Higher standards from the States
Mr Solloway is disappointed that many of his towels and face flannels are made in the United States. But he says that he cannot get the standard of design that he wants from British manufacturers. He claims that, while the Americans are good producers, they are not good exporters: if you want their best designs, you have to go over there and hunt them out. He made his first visit to America last year and found it "well worth while, interesting and commercially successful." He thinks that, if American firms ever begin to take the export of this sort of consumer goods seriously, British manufacturers and designers could have a rough time.
Until a few years ago there were virtually only two kinds of toys bad toys and serious, educational toys. It is almost solely due to the toy department at Heal's that this has all been changed. The new, more imaginative approach to toys has mainly been the result of the work of Mark Ransom, and then of Richard Garnett Harper, his successor as Heal's toy buyer; and of designers closely associated with Heal's like Kristin Baybars and John Gould.
Kristin Baybars, who started her career in the toy department at Heal's, made her first toy, the famous Humpty Dumpty. This is now being made by Minnie King. Now Kristin Baybars 'Ostrobogulous toys - the even more famous owl, the bird, the hedgehog and the goose (all made in Tom Worthington's fabrics) - have established her as our leading creative toy designer. Safe, amusing and splendidly coloured, they are not, like the past generation of well designed toys, clinically educational or self consciously 'good design'.
The toys made by Tiger Toys, Isobel Redondo, Annette Shelley or Joy and Malcolm Wilcox are helping to satisfy a market created by Kristin Baybars. Heal's also stocks pretty wooden and metal stocking fillers from Japan, West Germany and Russia. Mr Garnett Harper is not dogmatic about toys having to serve some kind of educational purpose, as long as they are safe to use and well made in good materials.
If the architecture of the Heal's building is decidedly poor, the window displays and special exhibitions are outstanding. Charles Feeney is the display manager and Judi Atkinson the exhibition designer. The main criticism that can be made of Heal's is that in some departments the display of actual products is not always the most convenient possible from the point of view of the customer. And while there are always new things on display to delight one, there are also things on show which owe nothing to a good design policy. But then Heal's is a great shop and not a specialist boutique.
Besides having an interest in Dunns of Bromley, Heal and Son Ltd has five subsidiary companies - George Coulter Ltd. builders and decorators, J. L. Green and Vardy Ltd. architectural joiners and cabinet makers, Carpet Layers Ltd and (the most important of all from the point of view of modern design) Heal's Contracts Ltd and Heal Fabrics Ltd. the latter with its own subsidiary, Heal Textil GmbH, Stuttgart.
Heal's Contracts was formed in 1944 to cope with Heal's production of war equipment. But it only really started to devote itself to furnishing contracts in 1946. The director is Ronald White, and the company not only designs interiors and tailor made furniture but works with architects when called in on special jobs. Some of its work includes the Council Chamber of the TUC headquarters, the boardroom and directors' offices of Castrol House, the executive suite on the top of the Vickers Building, and the recent Council Chamber at Ebbw Vale. It has also fitted out and furnished the interiors of many ships, including the Northern Star and parts of the Empress of Canada and Canberra with Sir Hugh Casson and John Wright; at the moment it is working on the interior of the Kungsholm, which is being built by John Brown in Glasgow for the Swedish America Line.
The CONT/ex department sells Continental furniture such as Yngve Ekstrom's Kurva chairs, made in Sweden with laminated frame and teak armrests.
Top, Ebbw Vale Council Chamber at Ebbw Vale, designed by Heal's Contracts. Above, this display was part of a special exhibition of designs by Robert Welch.
Tom Worthington, director, Heal Fabrics Ltd
Lucienne Day's printed linen, Calyx, was produced by Heal Fabrics in 1951, and was possibly the first modern British textile design.
Doreen Dyall's cotton satins Serenity, left, and Tranquillity, the latter of which won a California State Fair gold medal.
Three years ago Heal's Contracts opened a branch in Birmingham Already it is an assured success, and among its work has been the Ceylon Tea Centre there and the new ballroom suite for the Warwickshire County Cricket Club.
A textile revolution
If Heal's furniture produced a furniture revolution at the turn of the century, Heal's printed furnishing fabrics have had an equally revolutionary affect on textiles in the middle of the century. This is entirely the doing of Tom Worthington, the most brilliant and dynamic impresario/converter in the business. He has discovered and made more textile designers than anyone else, and although all his fabrics carry the designers' names, each collection is a comprehensive, recognisable unit clearly stamped 'created by Tom Worthington.'
We now accept the designs from Heal Fabrics as a normal annual occurence. Names like Colleen Fan, Howard Carter, Barbara Brown and Doreen Dyall are household names. But when Heal Fabrics started there were no comparable textiles on the market, and with only one or two exceptions the rest of the textile industry thought Tom Worthington raving mad. Fortunately, the rest of the textile industry has been proved wrong.
Heal Fabrics grew out of Heal's Wholesale and Export Ltd. which was established in 1941 to export all Heal's merchandise. In 1948, Tom Worthington took over the direction of the company, and concentrated on contemporary textiles. At first, production was restricted by the Utility controls. However, in 1951 he produced Calyx, designed by Lucienne Day. The first textile design in the modern idiom, it virtually changed the whole concept of textile design throughout the world. In 1953, when the Utility controls were finally lifted, he started to produce printed designs which swept the country. Today- succeeding in his object of producing modern, well designed fabrics at moderate prices - he produces 30 designs a year. He now sells not only to Heal and Son (which also sells his competitors' designs) but also to retail stores through out the country. He has built up a growing export trade and last year he established his first overseas company, Heal Textil of Stuttgart.
Tom Worthington rarely commissions designs. Instead, he sees about 11,000 designs each year end buys about 70 of them. These are put into production in March and launched in November. The key to the success of the collections is not just Tom Worthington's discerning eye, but his strict and knowledgeable control of the printing and his authoritative specification of all the colourways.