It’s not hard to see the effect the Bauhaus continues to have on contemporary design. Just take a look at the tubular style furniture within our showrooms. Yet the link between the influential German design school and Heal’s goes far beyond that of recent memory.
Founded in 1919, the Bauhaus spearheaded a wave of experimental design that swept across northern Europe throughout the following decade. In contrast, British interiors of the time were very much stuck in the Edwardian or, at worst, stuffy Victorian era with a conservative preference for darkly coloured rooms and highly decorative furnishings.
Never afraid of ruffling a few feathers, one man was determined to import this new ‘international style’ into the nation’s homes. Through a series of exhibitions entitled ‘Modern Tendencies’, held within the stores Mansard Gallery, Ambrose Heal set about showcasing what was for many visitors their first taste of modernist tubular furniture.
While there may have been hostility from some quarters, upon visiting the exhibition The Spectator magazine (25 September, 1931) declared that it would ‘like to send there all those who gibe at the modern idiom and let them see how far from the operating theatre even steel furniture can be when used with proper discrimination.’
With each exhibition the spirit of innovation became more emboldened. In the midst of the Great Depression, Ambrose continued to champion the economy and efficiency of industrially styled furniture, investing in a nationwide promotional campaign ‘Heal’s Economy Furniture for 1932 and All That’ followed by ‘Economy with a Difference at Heal’s 1933’.
Alongside the work of in-house designer-makers Johnson, Greenwood and Shepherd, these glossy catalogues displayed a new line of chrome-plated furnishings from legendary Bauhaus designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. A former head of the school, his tubular steel MR 10 chair perfectly encapsulates the elegant balance of form and function Modernist furniture strove to achieve.
Despite the fact that the Bauhaus had been forced to shut its doors in 1933, the floodgates had well and truly been opened, and by 1936 an exhibition entitled ‘Contemporary Furniture by Seven Architects’ featured the work of another former Bauhaus professor Marcel Breuer.
Having fled to London to escape the oppressive climate of Nazi Germany, Breuer began designing for progressive British manufacturer Isokon – whose head of design also happened to be the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius – with a number of these iconic pieces such as his Long Chair sold at Heal’s.
The rising political tensions of the time saw a number of talented designers flee Europe for America, with the outbreak of war putting any notion of design for anything other than service of one’s country on hold. Yet, the extraordinary work of the Bauhaus has continued to influence the following generations of designers, not least the furniture and homewares on display at Heal’s.
Just think, if it wasn’t for the ground-breaking work of messrs Breuer, Gropius and Van Der Rohe, would we have the designs of modern day pioneers Tom Dixon, Matthew Hilton and Philippe Starck? We think not!
So here’s to Ambrose Heal for introducing revolutionary design to a whole generation of British homes – long may his and the Bauhaus’ legacy continue.