This leading London firm has had a distinguished history in furniture manufacture and retailing that developed steadily since its establishment as a furniture store by John Harris in 1810. It has subsequently been widely recognized as a retailer of quality furniture, furnishings, and domestic equipment and was for many years in the 20th century attractive to an affluent clientele with an interest in well‐designed goods. In many ways the company's history mirrors many aspects of that of British design reform, with strong influences from the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Design and Industries Association (of which Ambrose Heal was a founding member) and a growing awareness of Scandinavian design. After the Second World War it also established a reputation for innovative textile design with commissions from many leading designers. In 1983 the store was taken over by Terence Conran's Storehouse group, going public in 1997. In the early 21st century it maintains a reputation for retailing quality design, although vastly increased competition in this sector has been reflected in the gradual diminution of its profile from the 1980s onwards. The firm was first located in Tottenham Court Road in 1811 and, by the middle of the 19th century, had begun to move from its original focus on beds to include bedroom furniture. By the 1880s its activities had expanded to include a new department for sitting room furniture. In 1893 Ambrose Heal joined the family business and for the next 60 years played an important role in building the reputation of the firm as a leading London retailer of good quality design. In the years before the First World War he helped promote an arts and crafts ethos in many of the products sold by the company and was himself bound up in such ideals in his own designs, some of which were seen at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. The company's image was promoted through catalogues, often with essays by leading figures such as Gleeson White, editor of the periodical the Studio, and well‐designed publicity material. In 1913 Cecil Brewer (like Ambrose Heal, a founder member of the DIA in 1915) and A. Dunbar Smith designed a new building for the company in Tottenham Court Road. It included the Mansard Gallery (open from 1917 with Prudence Maufe), an important vehicle for bringing together art and design as key elements of the company's public profile. After the First World War the outlook of the DIA and Ambrose Heal's friendship with Gordon Russell led to a growing interest in good modern furniture design, further consolidated by the contributions of Arthur Greenwood and J. F. Johnson to the design team. The slump of the early 1930s also led to the company placing increased emphasis on more economic ranges, a number of which were shown as room settings in the Mansard Gallery. The more progressive aspects of Modernism were catered for in the chromium‐plated tubular steel furniture manufactured by the likes of PEL and Thonet. Designs by Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer for Isokon were also marketed. Heal's pottery and glass department, under the management of Harry Trethowan, also acknowledged modern trends overseas, particularly Swedish glass manufactured by Orrefors. After the Second World War one of the key successes was the development of Heal's Fabrics, under the direction of Tom Worthington and Prudence Maufe. Many young and emerging designers were commissioned to produce designs, including Lucienne Day, whose Calyx design of 1951 won a prize at the 1951 Milan Triennale, and an international reputation was gained for excellence and innovation in textile design that continued to develop in the 1960s. In the same period furniture design still remained a strong core of the Heal's profile with investment in Clive Latimer's Plymet (plywood and metal) furniture and backing for his and Robin Day's prize‐winning involvement in the Low‐Cost Furniture Competition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1948. Many of Heal's designs were seen at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and provided a platform for the company's continued success in the decades following the end of the Second World War until the 1970s. After the retirement of Ambrose Heal in 1953 the company continued to expand and develop its profile in the domestic, contract, and export markets until the oil crisis, alongside growing competition, began to cause problems and despite a number of strategic attempts to counter this, such as the Classics design show of 1981, the writing was on the wall for a philosophy that sought to promote the somewhat dated notion of ‘Good Design’ (just as was the case at the Design Council) at a time when the design climate had been enriched by the challenges of Pop, Postmodernism, and Punk. In 1983 the company was sold to Terence Conran's Storehouse Company for £4.8 million but, despite considerable investment of money, energy, and talent the company never fully regained the status that it had held in earlier decades as the leading retailer of well‐designed products for the home.
Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.