Design is powerful. It creates objects, lights rooms, shelters lives and moves souls. It fascinates, inspires and begs to be looked at more closely. It acts both as a mirror of the times and in direct opposition to them. But design is also fickle; what’s de rigueur one minute is passé the next. So what constitutes iconic design? What separates passing fads from timeless classics?
To Edward Tadros of the British furniture company Ercol, iconic design satisfies a very specific set of requirements. “Designs that are honest, well made, easy to produce and respect the materials used will consistently appeal to people across different countries and times,” Tadros says. And he should know. Tadros is the grandson of Lucian Ercolani, founder of Ercol and designer of the iconic Stacking Chair (also known as the English School Chair). Though the company was started in 1920, the Stacking Chair is what put Ercol on the map when it was introduced in 1956. At that time, in post WWII-era United Kingdom, the number of schools skyrocketed, creating a sudden demand for suitable furniture. Ercolani responded with a chair that was not only lightweight and durable, but could also be stacked vertically with incredible stability. The design caught on and was produced throughout the ’50s, ’60s and into the ’70s. Today, the Stacking Chair continues to be a bestseller, as well as a celebrated part of the fashion and art world—as seen in the shops of British fashion designer Margaret Howell, as part of Wallpaper magazine’s striking “Chair Arch” installation and in restaurants and cafés around the world.
The Stacking Chair addresses another important aspect of iconic design: a seemingly simplistic form. Though unembellished, there is much more to this chair than first meets the eye. Every joint, angle and bend was carefully calculated and considered to create something that is both pleasing to look at and comfortable to use. A twist on the classic Windsor, the vernacular chair of the English countryside, the Ercol Stacking Chair takes its cues from the past but reworks them with a contemporary eye. “The definition of a Windsor chair is that the legs and the back are attached to the seat, as opposed to most chairs where the back leg is one piece from the floor to the top,” explains Tadros. This is achieved through the use of a wedge-and-tenon joint, a style inherited from the craftsmen of the small villages in Buckinghamshire. With wedge-and-tenon, the end of the leg is tapered and stuck into the seat, where a wedge is inserted into a cut in the leg. This creates a remarkably strong joint. The method is used for every joint in the Stacking Chair, resulting in an aesthetically gratifying sense of horizontal symmetry, as both the shape and the angle of the legs are mirrored in the back of the chair.
The steam-bent beech chair back is also a product of a traditional practice, made modern. Where craftsmen once bent each back individually, Ercolani designed a process that allowed for steam-bending on a mass scale, producing consistent and uniformly curved backs. Along with a gently molded elm seat, the back makes for a sturdy, comfortable chair that allows the user to focus on the task—or relaxation—at hand. But it’s not just the shape of each element that Ercolani considered; he thoughtfully selected the materials as well. “We use elm on the seat and beech on the framework of the chair,” Tadros notes. “Elm is traditionally used because it has a very wild or very patterned grain, so that when the leg is inserted the seat timber does not split, while a straight grained timber might. Beech is used in the framework because its straight grain gives it exceptional strength.”
What the Ercol Stacking Chair proves is that the best, most iconic designs don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Rather, they tweak, modify and innovate until they arrive at something that presents a time-honored concept in a novel light. While the Stacking Chair is, at heart, a reimagining of the Windsor chair, it has undoubtedly been touched by other design movements as well: its unadorned, function-based scheme is inimitably Shaker, while its clean lines and graceful curvature feel distinctly Scandinavian. Where Lucian Ercolani’s brilliance continues to shine is his ability to tweak what was already working in response to a need that no one knew existed—and to do so better than anyone else could. That, after all, may be the most elemental marker of truly iconic design.