We take a closer look at the story of the company known as the home of modern and contemporary designer furniture. The story of Heal’s can really be told through the story of one man, Ambrose Heal. His great grandfather John Harris Heal founded Heal’s in 1810. It was a family business with premises on Tottenham Court Road that made and sold beds.
Ambrose Heal was born in 1872 and studied at Marlborough College and Slade School of Art before completing a two-year apprenticeship as a cabinet maker, and spending six months at Graham and Biddle of Oxford Street. He was 21 when he joined the family business, working in the bedding factory.
In just a few years he was designing his own furniture. Initially described by staff as “prison furniture” and roundly rejected, his work gained favour with the Arts and Crafts movement and started to sell.
Despite reservations about his son’s creative direction, Abrose Heal Senior made him a partner in 1898, and gave him a workshop to develop his ideas. He was able to take the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement and apply it to commercial production methods, making simple and well-designed furniture available to a broader audience. His designs particularly appealed to the inhabitants of the new Garden Cities and Suburbs, giving them a real alternative to the “Queen Anne” and “Old English” styles prevalent at the time.
Ambrose succeeded his father as chairman of Heal’s in 1913. He is described as “a designer with an adventurous imagination and an inspired shopkeeper.” As well as adding ceramics, glassware and textiles to the shop’s range, he also established an art gallery showcasing top artists of the time.
By 1917, he had commissioned Cecil Brewer to redevelop the flagship store, and the iconic building now on Tottenham Court Road was receiving critical acclaim in architecture circles for groundbreaking shop design.
He believed in promoting young talent, and often used unproven designers, giving them exposure and Heal’s the creative edge it needed to be well prepared for the revolution in taste and manufacturing methods that took place in Britain in the 1950s.
He loved typography and used artists to design posters and brochures, which further elevated the Heal’s brand.
Ambrose Heal’s contribution to the furniture trade, the art of shopkeeping and to industrial design were recognised in 1933, when he was knighted for raising standards of design, in 1939 when he was appointed a royal designer for industry, and again in 1954 by the Royal Society of Arts who awarded him the Albert Gold Medal for services to Industrial Design.
By the time he retired in 1953, he had sealed Heal’s fate as an iconic design brand.
He died on 15th November 1959 aged 87, just one year before Heal’s 150th anniversary, and was described in his Times obituary as ‘one of the great artists and craftsmen of his time’.
Top five facts about Heals:
- Heal’s adverts have appeared in seven Charles Dickens novels.
- Works of art by Picasso have been exhibited in Heal’s Tottenham Court Road flagship store.
- Heal’s still invests in young talent through its “Heal’s Discovers” programme.
- Heal’s was owned by Terrance Conran, of Habitat fame, from 1984 until 1990, when it was bought back by its management team.
- Heal’s has three shops in London: in Tottenham Court Road, Kensington and Kingston; and a further three shops in Brighton, Guildford and Batley, West Yorkshire.
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Katie Treggiden, Guest Editor
View all posts by Katie Treggiden, Guest Editor