Thursday, 22 September 2016

Utility Furniture.

During the Second World War it had become apparent, as early as 1941, that the German U-Boats patrolling the Atlantic were sinking so much of Britain's essential materials that it was difficult to supply the country.
 Even before the war, Britain was never self sufficient in its need for raw materials, such as timber and had a severe lack of indigenous timber suitable for furniture making.
Yet there was still increased demand for new furniture due to the losses caused by bombing and to the continuing establishment of new households after marriage. 
And of course increased war production.

The Utility Furniture Advisory Committee was set up in 1942, drawing on considerable expertise.

Gordon Russell, Ernest Clench, Herman Lebus and John Gloag were brought in because of their experience, to assure that these scarce available resources were used in a sensible way.

Rationing of new furniture was restricted to newly-weds and people who had been bombed out, under the "Domestic Furniture (Control of Manufacture and Supply (No 2)) Order 1942" which became operative from 1 November 1942.

The aim was to ensure the production of strong well-designed furniture making the most efficient use of the recsource of timber available.

The Committee were reconstituted as the Utility Design 

Panel in 1943 with Gordon Russell as Chairman.

The furniture, made during the war, featured a 'CC' 


The symbol was designed by Reginald Shipp. 

The motif is known as two cheeses. 

Along with the two cheeses there should also be 


indicating the year so CC41 stands for 'Controlled 

Commodity 1941'.

It appeared on all sorts of items, furniture, linen, 

clothes and many other domestic items.

The Committee produced a number of approved 

designs, many were published in the Utility Furniture 

Catalogue of 1943.  

Post War

After the second world war the Board of Trade 

took control of furniture production.

They regulated the industry and set out to control manufacture, by law, controlling the use and movement of all materials
Strict specifications were laid down and the Utility Furniture scheme was used to assist production. Or so it was claimed.
Licenses were issued and quite a lot of these were given to companies already in the manufacture of aircraft, and other war supplies.
These companies, it was thought, were able to make furniture in a form of construction that could make light furniture with the use of plywood.
The control of design through meticulous attention to production encompassing good design was laid down through a technical framework.

1945 saw the Directorate of Furniture production transformed.

This became the headquarters of the British Furniture Industry.
Five different sections were divided into the design section.
  1. The Technical section.
  2. A planning section.
  3. A licensing section.
  4. A material issue section.
  5. The design section.

The Utility stamp was brought in as the abolition of priority cases gave way to the needs of the entire community.
This administration of material was used to control the entire manufacturing process until 1948 when this was revoked and a licence was granted to enable the Utility marks to be used generally.
This in theory stopped the government control. 
But in practice raw materials were still given in precedence to those producing for the Utility scheme.
Gradually they would be able to place the mark on their own designs.
The categorisation of articles had to continue and goods sold under a appropriate maximun price.
In 1946, in conjunction with the important exhibition of post-war design, "Britain Can Make It", three new furniture ranges were unveiled (Cotswold, Chiltern and Cockaigne) intended to carry forward the best of their design ethos into the postwar period.

As the names suggests it was a style that was 

looking back to the past more in line with Arts 

and Crafts.

The general public had less money to spend so it became a buyers market. Slowly the furniture industry would return to a normal community.
The theory was that, if efficient companies were chosen to manufacture from the start there may have been less waste. 
But it was thought that this would have been market manipulation and stifle the fledgling industry.

It is hard to envisage today that it was a offence punishable by imprisonment for any company to make a single stick of furniture. This constriction continued for three or four years after the war.
Many with licenses were not the best of manufacturers.
And the old boy network surely came into play.
Buying of timber was forbidden, by law. There was a rationing of timber, and it was also an offence to consume pre-war stock. That's was if it was not requesitioned.
The government control in effect created a black market.
During the war there were only 137 licensed furniture manufacturers in 1943.
This rose to 450 in 1945 out of a total of 4000 companies. 
The remainder were treated as if they did not exist.
A license was required for the manufacture of a coffee table, and this may be given, provided the timber content did not exceed a fraction of a cubic foot. And all calculations were laid down.
Off cuts and stubs had to come from elsewhere as companies could not use their own. 
To make things worse the license could be refused to obtain these off cuts
Purchase tax rose from 33% to over 66% rendering the tables and other pieces virtually unsaleable.
Even if you were lucky enough to pull all the right strings and get it made you would have to be extremely lucky to sell the damn things.
As an example David Joel released from the Navy wanted to get going. His factory had been let for the production of aeroplanes and then sold to a cosmetics company but he had some land at the back of his old workshops that he acquired.
He then had a factory without labour. Then he acquired machinery and was given a list by the Board of Trade of what was needed. These amounted to Fancy goods and Domestic equipment in reality, Ironing boards, rolling pins, blinds, cards and trays.
When a lady from the government turned up he struck up a relationship with her.
She had been a milliner near his Knightsbridge showroom. “neighbourly feelings prevailed and I got my Timber” he was quoted as saying.
It's not what you know of course.
Stafford Cripps had set up a working party in 1945 for the furniture trade. They had constructed bodies for the nationalization but when the government imposed a purchase tax it killed it stone dead.

War kept its grip for a long time after cestation and it was said a malaise crept in.

To make things worse the national stock pile of timber was piled in the open air but still existed in huge quantities in 1951 but the deteriation due to the lack of care led to most of it being worthless.
The mositure content was left uncontrolled while bureaucracy took place and those in the scheme did alright but numerous craftsmen had to change trade through no fault of their own.
This would add another factor to the industry getting back on its feet.
Up until as late as 1948 the supply of Utility furniture was restricted to priority cases.
The intended 'setting free of design' came about but it still took three months of bureaucracy to be able to apply for a license to be able to apply the utility mark.

There was a market for reproduction style furniture and the Utility scheme seemed hardly worth its bulk through design.

The task of creating ingenious design hardly seemed worth it for many companies struggling enough and wanting to, just get on with honest work of giving the public what they wanted. 
There was a black market with carvings added making the design more appropriate and easier for the public to accept.

The cost of shipping and crating was prohibitive to its manufacture.
Still the Development council was engaged in performance tests. 
Chairs had to pass breaking tests along with others. It was all very well to design wear tests but if the timber used was not the right moisture content then it seems pointless.
A chair could withstand any test at manufacture but if it is not properly seasoned it may well fall to pieces in a couple of weeks. The quality it seems had been taken away from the people who understood the task in hand, the craftsmen.

Scandinavian design was held in regard and was possibly a major influence on the post war design. Though it now seems apparent that design was indeed led by cost and the Scandinavian style was not as thick and heavy as the Arts and Crafts inheritance that was prevalent before war broke out.

The scheme was officially closed in 1952, the same year that furniture rationing ceased.

Heals produced Utility furniture as did Gordon Russell.

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