Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #12

The Hille furniture company was established in 1906 in London by Salamon Hille, a Russian emigrant, to renovate and reproduce 18th century furniture. By the 1930’s the company had already an international reputation, supplying products all over the world. Then in 1948, the MoMa in New York held the “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design” where British designers Robin Day and Clive Latimer won a 1st prize with a plywood storage system they designed together, this called Hille´s attention. Hille was eager to modernize and its owners decided to engage Robin Day in 1949 to design and produce their low-priced furniture that could be manufactured on a large scale; in the years to follow Day became Hille´s head designer. Well known furniture pieces designed by Robin Day for Hille include the “Hillestak” (1950), a chair with a beech wood frame, seat & back of laminated wood with walnut veneer, and a simple armchair for the Royal Festival Hall in  London in 1951. Whereas pre-war furniture was solid and ponderous, Day’s designs were pared down and seemed to float above the ground, as with his 1952 “Reclining Chair”. After 5 years of collaboration with Hille, Robin had been instrumental in transforming the company from a small cabinet making firm into a producer of innovative and modern furniture; Hille became Herman Miller´s partner in the UK. An interesting coincidence: Robin Day and his wife Lucienne where Britain’s most celebrated post-war designer couple and they have often been compared to their US contemporaries, Charles and Ray Eames.

In 1962-63 Robin Day designed for Hille “Polyprop”, a stackable chair inspired by the Charles and Ray Eames “Plastic Shell” chairs. Polypropylene had been invented in 1954 and by the end of that decade Shell Chemicals produced the material in various formulations. Day realized that  polypropylene would be perfect for a low cost mass produced chair. Manufactured by the injection blow molding process, the plastic was inexpensive, light, and very durable. Moreover, the plastic could be stained in all colors. With this chair Robin Day hit on a very reasonably priced chair, so successful that it has been a long-term bestseller. Durable, stylish and cheap, it was bought in bulk by airports, canteens, hospitals and  restaurants. To put the success of Day’s polyprop chair designs into context: an estimate of 500,000 units a year are currently being sold. A worldwide hit, produced in the millions, which of course, has also spawned innumerable copies. Robin went on to create a whole ‘Polyprop’ family – the 1967 Polypropylene Armchair, the 1971 Series Eschool chairs and the 1972 indoor/outdoor Polo Chair.

Robin Day had the highest profile of all of Hille´s designers, but their scholarship scheme (set up in 1967) and their willingness to work with designers to offer prototyping and small production runs brought other dividends. One of which was the collaboration with Fred Scott, known for his “Supporto Office Chair” designed for Hille. The company´s focus on affordable innovative designs continues as we can see with the new SE Ergonomic Chair, a project with designers Richard Snell and David Rowe, Birmingham City University, Hille and BKF Plastics. The posture theory behind the chair was the result of 2 years of research. From launching the first polypropylene education chair range in 1971, Hille has used its experience to develop further affordable ranges to compliment any classroom environment. Designers that have worked for Hille include Robin Day, Fred Scott, Richard Snell and David Rowe.

Robin Day and his textile designer wife Lucienne transformed British design after World War II by pioneering a new modern idiom. He experimented with new materials in inexpensive furniture for manufacturers like Hille and she revitalized textile design with vibrant patterns. Whereas the Eames designed as a team, the Days mostly worked independently in separate fields. When Hille commissioned Robin to design their low-priced furniture for a large scale production, he changed the company´s future and for sure, he will be best remembered for his polypropylene molded stacking chairs which have sold around 50 million units since the launch of the “Polyside” chair in 1963 – the ultimate mass produced chair.

…to be continued in part # 13

© Karin Goyer and Don S. Shoemaker Furniture, 2010-2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karin Goyer and Don S. Shoemaker Furniture with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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