North Watford History Group

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Hille furniture company

Hille Business Centre (124–132a St Albans Road) map
1952–1983

The Hille furniture company was started in the East End of London by Salamon Hille, a Russian emigrant, in 1906. [1] Originally a restorer of furniture, the initial output were reproductions of classic styles. Salamon's daughter, Ray, subsequently joined; she worked with the company to produce furniture to original designs. In 1932, Salamon retired and Ray took over the reigns of the business, continuing to produce spectacular designs in the contemporary style, and becoming a classic designer of the 20th century. Her husband, Mossey, assisted her with sales and administration. Pieces designed by Ray, and produced by her company, continue to attract interest from purchasers at specialist dealers and auctions, despite changes in fashion.

The second world war brought tragedy for the Ray Hille: Her father, Salamon, died in August 1940, and this was followed by bomb damage to the family home, factory and stores. In 1945 the business moved to Lea Bridge Road, Leytonstone, and then to a new factory in Hainault in 1950. Despite winning the contract for furnishing the Royal Festival Hall, post-war shortages of the basic production materials, and a reduced market for highly-crafted expensive furniture, led to financial difficulties, causing the sale of the Hailnault premises, and the next move, to Watford. [2]

The company recovered, and under Ray Hille's leadership, Hille soon became one of the British companies at the cutting edge of both new design and production methods, although the reproduction pieces continued to be manufactured, primarily for the export market. The company continued to be family-run, with Ray Hille and her son-in-law, Leslie Julius, as joint chairmen, and her daughter, Rosamind Julius, as sales director. It was Leslie Julius, in 1949, who made contact with designer Robin Day, who along with Clive Latimer, had won first prize in the storage section of the International Competition For Low-Cost Furniture, organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art, that year. [3] Robin Day, at that time, was a freelance designer, who was at the beginning of his chosen career path, his progress having been delayed by the war. He joined Hille, but remained a freelance designer, and continued to work with the company for many years, becoming a design consultant.

Day's potential must have been evident to Leslie Julius, and it was the foresight and support for this talented designer, with his use of innovative materials, that propelled the company's profile. The production of lightweight inexpensive well-built furniture found a ready market in the post-war years and beyond. From the beginning of Day's relationship with Hille emerged the Hillstack chair, in 1950, a design classic, featuring a simple beech wood frame and bent plywood seat.

It was during this forward-looking period of the early 1950s, that the Hille company purchased the Wells Brewery site on St Albans Road. The purchase, from Benskins Brewery in October 1952, included the Wells Brewery site and some vacated cottages. Soon afterwards a single story concrete frame factory was built on unused land along the north boundary behind the terraced houses in Brixton road. This building remains in use today.

It was later, in 1959, that the cottages along St Albans Road were demolished to make room for the construction of Hille House. The modernity of Ernö Goldfinger's building must certainly have fitted well with the impression that the company wanted to create for its headquarters and showroom.

Cherrill Scheer, another of Ray Hille's daughters, joined in 1961, and progressed the company's interest in modern design and the development of new products.

At the rear of the site, a two storey factory was constructed in 1962. This has car parking at ground level, under the first floor of the building. It is believed that this is one of the last elevated factory buildings to constructed in the United Kingdom. This building, also designed by Ernö Goldfinger, is similar to the front office (Hille House). As needs and usage of the building changed, it has been modified with a new pitched roof, cladding on the front elevation, and a reconstructed entrance permitting better access to the first and second floors.

The biggest seller, in terms of volumes, for the Hille company is another of Robin Day's designs. Introduced in 1963, the Polychair and its variants, have probably been used by everybody in schools or other public buildings, with very few considering that it is a design classic. With their strong tubular steel frame, and the light, flexible, heat-resistant and hard-wearing polypropylene seat, these chairs have numerous advantages over alternative materials, and successfully last for well over ten years, shrugging off the abuse they receive, in the environments where they end up being placed. It is estimated that 14 million of these stackable chairs have been sold worldwide; production still continues today under licence, at a rate of around 500,000 per year.

While Robin Day had the highest profile of the well-known Hille designers, and his work continues to be sold today, the contributions of Frederick Scott, who joined the company in 1969 shouldn't be overlooked. It was Scott who continued to experiment with novel materials and specialised in adjustable office furniture, leading to the successful Supporto office chair range. Scott's study of ergonomics, led to him and Hille becoming involved in the development of design improvements to wheelchairs for the disabled. [4] [5] Roger Dean, another designer who worked with Hille, is considered by some being the father of the bean bag. While his design for the Sea Urchin chair allows it to mould to the form of the person being carried, the construction is of foam sections, so quite different to the fluid nature of the polystyrene beads within a cloth bag. It was the Sea Urchin design that introduced him to Hille, and led to the commission to furnish the interior of the newly-expanded Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, in London. [6] [7] Roger Dean is now best known for his landscape artwork, which has featured on the album covers of progressive rock bands, such as Yes, and more recently on software and videogame packaging. [8] [9]

Aspects of furniture design, naming and sale that would be recognisable to shoppers in IKEA today had been covered by Hille in the 1960s: Design magazine contains an article that features the Kompas 1 occasional table, designed by Alan Turville of Hille. This circular table has its base and top made from resin-bonded bagasse; these are separated by a chromed or enamelled tubular steel stem. The three components are supplied in a carton, intended to allow the item to be carried away by the customer, for assembly at home. [10] Bagasse is the name given to the material remaining from sugar cane, once the sugar has been extracted; it is now being used as a biodegradable alternative to expanded polystyrene for food packaging.

The Hille Group operated as a family-run business until October 1983, when the furniture company, Hille International Ltd., was sold, but the site was retained by S. Hille & Co. (Holdings) Ltd., and the management of this company was passed to Ian Scheer, Ray Hille's son-in-law.

Map


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Map showing locations of:
Hille House marker Hille House
Old Post Office marker The Old Post Office
Wells Brewery marker Wells Lion Brewery building
Hille factory marker Hille factory building

Credits

Research: Jill Waterson and Glen; North Watford History Group.
Author: Glen; North Watford History Group.
Thanks to Ian Scheer of S. Hille & Co. for his insight into the development of Hille Business Centre. [11]

References

  1. Byars, Mel & Riley, Terence; The Design Encyclopedia: Museum of Modern Art, page 325; ISBN 087070012X.
  2. Hille - 75 years of British furniture, a talk by Cherrill Scheer (21 Nov 1985); Watford and District Industrial History Society, Journal No. 15, 1989
  3. Robin & Lucienne Day biography; The Design Museum website
  4. Smyth, Andrew; Obituary: Fred Scott; The Independent, 8 Feb 2001; website
  5. Owen, Kenneth; Scott's Honour; Design, Oct 1974, pages 74-79
  6. Duckett, Margaret; New Furniture: The Domestic Market; Design, Feb 1969, pages 44-55
  7. Sparks, Ryan; Close To The Edge interview with Roger Dean; Classic Rock Revisited, Feb 2008;
  8. Roger Dean's entry in Wikipedia website
  9. Roger Dean's website
  10. Editorial; Occassional Table; Design, May 1968, page 32
  11. Scheer, Ian; The history of Wells Brewery site from 1902 ; 2 Sep 2008

[Added by Glen: 10:48pm 14 Sep 2008]
[Updated by Glen: 09:22am 18 Nov 2008]
[Updated by Glen: 1:38am 6 Jan 2009]
[Updated by Glen: 5:09pm 29 Mar 2009]
[Updated by Glen: 11:20pm 13 Apr 2009]

This page was last updated on 18 May 2009.