Ambrose HealFurniture Designer (1872-1959)
AMBROSE HEAL made three influential contributions to design. He was a notably successful retailer and manufacturer, working through a family business; he helped to move popular taste in Britain in the direction of modernism; and he conducted research into aspects of historic British design and trade.
The firm of Heal & Son, of Tottenham Court Road, London, was set up in 1810 by John Harris Heal. The business of the firm was at first with mattresses and beds, branching out into bedroom furniture, and, in the later 19th century, into other furniture. J.H. Heal was succeeded by his son (with the same name) and grandson, Ambrose. Ambrose junior was clearly destined to carry on the firm. After schooling at Marlborough, he did not proceed to higher education but spent two years learning the trade of cabinet-making at the firm of Plucknett in Warwick, followed by a shorter spell at Graham and Biddle of Oxford Street, London, were he would have encountered conventional taste in furniture.
Ambrose, however, had individual taste and talent as a designer, and won his spurs in the progressive sector of the English design world. Furniture designed by him and made by the family firm – a cottager’s chest, a mahogany wardrobe, an oak bureau – was shown in 1899 at the sixth exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. He became a member of the Society in 1906, and regularly contributed to its exhibitions thereafter. He exhibited also at the International Exhibitions at Paris 1900 and Glasgow 1901. He joined the Art Workers’ Guild in 1910. As heir apparent to the firm, he was able to sell items designed by him through the shop, although the salesmen, finding that his work sat uncomfortably with the elaborate, historicising pieces which made up the rest of the stock, described his work as “prison furniture”. When C.R. Ashbee moved his Guild of Handicraft from London to Chipping Camden in 1902, Ambrose Heal was able to recruit some of Ashbee’s craftsmen, who did not wish to leave London, into the Heal & Son workshops.
He issued a kind of manifesto in 1900: an essay titled A note on simplicity of design in furniture for bedrooms with special reference to some recently produced: by Messrs. Heal and Son by Gleeson White, influential editor of the Studio magazine (the principle mouthpiece for progressive design in Britain). It defined Heal’s aesthetic, describing his furniture as “typical of the simplicity which provides comfort and comeliness as well as cleanliness”. Taking a swipe at Art Nouveau furniture, as “grotesque shapes … violently extravagant in their novelty”, White praised Heal’s furniture for its “beauty … due to well-chosen material, admirable proportion, harmonious design, and rigid economy of ornament”. This booklet, published by the firm, was an elegant piece of Arts and Crafts typography with illustrations by C.H.B. Quennell. Ambrose Heal’s sensitivity to graphic design, first evident here, was manifested in all the catalogues and advertisements issued henceforth by the firm.
Heal became managing director in 1907 and chairman in 1913. In running the firm, he was adept at keeping a balance between products that reflected conventional taste and the more advanced designs that pleased him. Alongside his own designs, the firm continued for many years to sell furniture in revived historic styles, and had a department that dealt in antique furniture.
The Arts and Crafts tradition, in which Heal had first situated himself, was in decline by 1915, and Heal was one of a group of founder members of the Design and Industries Association (DIA). This was an attempt (inspired by the Deutscher Werkbund, whose exhibition in 1914 Heal and others had attended) to temper the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement to machine production.
An important step in establishing a fresh image for the firm came with its new building, opened in 1916. The conventional Italianate warehouse (designed by J. M. Lockyer) which had stood at 196 Tottenham Court Road since 1854 was replaced by a store designed by Cecil Brewer, who was a cousin of Heal, an important influence upon his design philosophy, and an ally in his progressive schemes. Brewer’s influence would doubtless have continued but for his early death in 1918. His building (still surviving) was in a modestly modern style, with decorative plaques symbolizing the various products which the shop sold. It included, on the top floor, an exhibition space, the Mansard Gallery.
The inter-war years saw Heal’s influence at its height. He greatly expanded the range of products sold in the shop, which now had departments, not only of beds and bedding, but also of general furniture (including nursery, kitchen and garden furniture), upholstery, furnishing fabrics, carpets, china, glass, metal wares, and electrical lights and fittings. At first, the aesthetic remained the same. Heal told the DIA, as it “emerge[d] from the welter of war”, that “there is a demand for plain, straightforward, stoutly made, properly planned and thoroughly useful furniture; and the shopman must be brought to see that we will no longer be satisfied with a style if that style does not conform first and foremost with our ideas of fitness for use” (DIA Journal, April 1918). The firm regularly issued a catalogue titled Reasonable Furniture – “reasonable” not only in price, but in terms of its convenience, durability, good proportion and pleasant outline. A manifesto/catalogue of 1930, A Matter of Taste in Furniture, announced that Heal’s stood aside from the “feverish search for new ‘stunts’”, but sought to achieve “modernity without self-consciousness or affectation, being rooted in a still older tradition – the typically English tradition of sound craftsmanship, fitness for purpose and the apt use of fine material”.
Difficult economic conditions, however, meant that Ambrose Heal had to move on from his ideals, and adopt other new stylistic influences. A trip to Sweden in 1923 brought Scandinavian modernism into the shop: this fitted well. More surprising was the adoption of Art Deco, which had hit the design world in the Paris International Exhibition 1925 (at which Heal exhibited). In a series of “Modern Tendencies” exhibitions in the early ’30s, Heal’s now introduced pieces in chromium-plated tubular steel and bent plywood. These changes may have been inspired at first by Heal’s team – fellow director and DIA stalwart Hamilton Smith, and designers J.F. Johnson and Arthur Greenwood – but Heal himself soon adopted the new idiom enthusiastically. When such pieces were shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935, the modernist guru Herbert Read condemned them. In the past, he said, Heal’s “has perhaps done as much as any single manufacturer in the country to improve and retail furniture of simple deign and excellent workmanship. Recently, however, it has become more modish and Mayfairish, always at the sacrifice of logical design” (Architectural Review, February 1935). But Heal’s was not always serious, especially in the exhibitions mounted in its Mansard Gallery under Prudence Maufe. Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani made a brief appearance in 1919; otherwise there were fun exhibitions on interior décor themes such as “ White and Off-White” (1933) and “Greens of the Earth” (1934). Heal & Son successfully weathered the Depression.
During the Second World War, the firm’s efforts were diverted to war work. It soon regained momentum after the War, but Ambrose, who had kept a very tight hold on all aspects of the business, stood down from the chairmanship in 1953, and was succeeded by his son Anthony. The firm enjoyed vigorous expansion in the 1960s, but ran into difficulties in the 1970s, and in 1983 was taken over by Terence Conran, whose Habitat stores had outstripped Heal’s in the market for economical furniture and household wares. The Heal’s name remains as an “up-market” adjunct of Habitat. The firm’s archive was preserved, and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Archive of Art and Design.
Heal indulged an antiquarian collector’s instinct in gathering information about historic London trades. This bore fruit in a series of books: London tradesmen’s cards of the XVIII century: an account of their origin and use (1925), which was based on his own collection, now in the British Museum; The English writing-masters and their copy-books, 1570-1800: a biographical dictionary & a bibliography (1931); The London goldsmiths: a record of the names and addresses of their shop signs and trade cards (1935); The signboards of old London shops: a record of the shop signs employed by the London tradesmen during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries (1947); and, with R.W. Symonds, The London furniture makers from the Restoration to the Victorian era, 1660-1840 (1953).
Heal’s obituary in the Times hailed him, extravagantly, as “perhaps one of the great artists and craftsmen of his time”. A more measured assessment, by Alan Crawford, is that Heal “made a marketable commodity out of his own tastes and convictions, as did Terence Conran later…”.
1893 Joins family firm, Heal and Son, Tottenham Court Road, London.
1900 Exhibits at the Paris International Exhibition.
1905 Heal’s becomes a limited company with Ambrose as managing director.
1913 Becomes chairman of firm on death of his father.
1913 Exhibits at the Paris International Exhibition.
1914 Design and Industries Association founded, with Heal as a founding member.
1925 Exhibits at the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts.
1933 Knighted for his services in improving design standards.
1934 Exhibits at Contemporary Industrial Design exhibition at Dorland Hall, London.
1935 Exhibits at the British Art in Industry exhibition at the Royal Academy.
1936 His son Anthony becomes managing director of the firm.
1937 Exhibits at the Paris International Exhibition.
1939 Elected to the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry (RDI).
1953 Resigns as chairman of the firm.
1954 Awarded the Albert Gold Medal for services to design by the Royal Society of Arts.
Alan Crawford, article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Susanna Goodden, At the Sign of the Fourposter: a History of Heal’s, London: Lund Humphries, 1984.
Tim Benton, “Up and Down at Heal’s: 1929-35”, Architectural Review, vol.163, 1978, pp.109-16.
A booklet to commemorate the centenary exhibition of the life and work of Sir Ambrose Heal, September 1972, London: Heal’s, 1972.
Gleeson White, A note on simplicity of design in furniture for bedrooms with special reference to some recently produced: by Messrs. Heal and Son, London: Heal’s, 1898.
Fiona MacCarthy, British Design Since 1880: A Visual History, London: Lund Humphries, 1982.
Jeremy Cooper, Victorian & Edwardian Furniture & Interiors, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, chapter 9.
Annette Carruthers and Mary Greensted, Good Citizen’s Furniture: The Arts and Crafts Collections at Cheltenham, Cheltenham: Museum and Art Gallery with Lund Humphries, 1994.
Catalogues of exhibitions at the Millinery Works gallery, London:
“Better Furniture for Better Times”: Ambrose Heal and the Heal’s Style, 2003.
Ambrose Heal: pioneering Arts & Crafts design and fine craftsmanship, .
The archives of Heal and Son, which include designs and sketchbooks of Ambrose Heal, personal information about him, and details of the centenary exhibition devoted to him in 1972, are in the Archive of Art and Design in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Coca-Cola BarberOsgerby Basso & Brooke &made Alvar Aalto Tomás Alonso Aluminium Anglepoise Pascal Anson Ron Arad Archigram Art and Craft Movement Assa Ashuach Solange Azagury - Partridge Shin + Tomoko Azumi Maarten Baas Georg Baldele Jonathan Barnbrook Luis Barragán Saul Bass Mathias Bengtsson Sebastian Bergne Tim Berners-Lee Flaminio Bertoni Jurgen Bey Biba Derek Birdsall Manolo Blahnik Leopold + Rudolf Blaschka Andrew Blauvelt Penguin Books Irma Boom Tord Boontje Ronan + Erwan Bouroullec Marcel Breuer Daniel Brown Robert Brownjohn Isambard Kingdom Brunel R. Buckminster Fuller Sam Buxton Fernando + Humberto Campana Matthew Carter Achille Castiglioni Hussein Chalayan David Chipperfield Wells Coates Paul Cocksedge Luigi Colani Joe Colombo Committee Concorde Terence Conran Hilary Cottam matali crasset Michael Cross + Julie Mathias Wim Crouwel Joshua Davis Robin + Lucienne Day Christian Dior Tom Dixon Doshi Levien Christopher Dresser Droog Charles + Ray Eames Ergonomics Luis Eslava Established and Sons Industrial Facility Alan Fletcher Norman Foster FUEL Future Systems John Galliano Abram Games Giles Gilbert Scott Ernö Goldfinger Kenneth Grange Graphic Thought Facility Eileen Gray Konstantin Grcic The Guardian Martí Guixé Zaha Hadid Stuart Haygarth Ambrose Heal Thomas Heatherwick Simon Heijdens Jamie Hewlett James Irvine Alec Issigonis Jonathan Ive Arne Jacobsen Jaguar James Jarvis Nadine Jarvis Experimental Jetset Craig Johnston Hella Jongerius Louis Kahn Kerr Noble Jock Kinneir + Margaret Calvert Onkar Singh Kular Max Lamb Julia Lohmann Christian Louboutin Ross Lovegrove Berthold Lubetkin M/M Finn Magee Enzo Mari Peter Marigold Michael Marriott The MARS Group Aston Martin J. Mays Müller+Hess Edward McKnight Kauffer Alexander McQueen Matthias Megyeri David Mellor Memphis Mevis en Van Deursen Reginald Mitchell Maureen Mooren + Daniel van der Velden Eelko Moorer Jasper Morrison Jean Muir Khashayar Naimanan Yugo Nakamura Marc Newson Isamu Noguchi norm Chris O'Shea Foreign Office Architects Verner Panton James Paterson Phyllis Pearsall Charlotte Perriand Frank Pick Amit Pitaru Plywood Gio Ponti Cedric Price Jean Prouvé Ernest Race Dieter Rams Charles Rennie Mackintosh Rockstar Games Richard Rogers Stefan Sagmeister Peter Saville Jerszy Seymour Percy Shaw Hiroko Shiratori Tim Simpson Cameron Sinclair Paul Smith Alison + Peter Smithson Ettore Sottsass Constance Spry Superstudio Ed Swan Richard Sweeney Timorous Beasties London Transport Philip Treacy Jop van Bennekom Sarah van Gameren Viable Vivienne Westwood Matthew Williamson Robert Wilson Ben Wilson Philip Worthington Frank Lloyd Wright Michael Young