Ambrose Heal was a successful retailer and manufacturer who helped moved popular taste in Britain in the direction of modernism in the first half of the 20th century. The firm of Heal & Son, of Tottenham Court Road, London, was set up in 1810 by John Harris Heal.
The business of the firm was at first, mattresses and beds, branching out into bedroom and other furniture later in the 19th century. J.H. Heal was succeeded by his son (with the same name) and grandson, Ambrose. Ambrose was clearly destined to carry on the firm. After schooling at Marlborough, he did not proceed to higher education but spent two years learning the trade of cabinet-making at Plucknett in Warwick, followed by a short spell at Graham and Biddle of Oxford Street, London, were he would have encountered conventional taste in furniture.
Ambrose, however, had individual taste and talent as a designer. Furniture designed by him and made by the family firm – a cottager’s chest, a mahogany wardrobe, an oak bureau – was shown in 1899 at the sixth exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. He became a member of the Society in 1906, and regularly contributed to its exhibitions. He exhibited at the International Exhibitions at Paris 1900 and Glasgow 1901 and joined the Art Workers’ Guild in 1910. As heir apparent to the firm, he was able to sell items designed by him through the shop, although the salesmen, finding that his work sat uncomfortably with the elaborate pieces which made up the rest of the stock, described his work as “prison furniture”.
The furniture Ambrose designed was simple, sturdy, often in plain oak and he was instrumental in offering well made furniture to a broader middle class public. He was influenced by the teachings of John Ruskin and William Morris and embraced the use of machinery where appropriate.
Ambrose became managing director of Heals in 1907 and chairman in 1913. In running the firm, he was adept at keeping a balance between products that reflected conventional taste and the more advanced designs that pleased him. Alongside his own designs, the firm continued for many years to sell furniture in revived historic styles, and had a department that dealt in antique furniture. An important step in establishing a fresh image for the firm came with its new building, opened in 1916 designed by Ambrose cousin Cecil Brewer. His building was in a modestly modern style, with decorative plaques symbolizing the various products which the shop sold. It included, on the top floor, an exhibition space, the Mansard Gallery which showed work by Picasso, Wyndham Lewis and Modigliani. Artists such as Claud Lovat Fraser designed the company’s posters and its catalogues contained essays by influential art critics. The overall effect was to promote Heals as an iconic brand.
The inter-war years saw Ambrose’s influence at its height. He greatly expanded the range of products sold in the shop, which now had departments, not only of beds and bedding, but also of general furniture (including nursery, kitchen and garden furniture), upholstery, furnishing fabrics, carpets, china, glass, metal wares and electrical lights and fittings. Difficult economic conditions, however, meant that Ambrose Heal had to move on from his ideals, and adopt other new stylistic influences. A trip to Sweden in 1923 brought Scandinavian modernism into the shop and an Art Deco style was adopted after it hit the design world in the Paris International Exhibition in 1925.
Heal’s was now renowned for promoting modern design in Britain and by the mid 30’s had turned to designing elegant modern furniture in steel and aluminum. During the Great Depression, Heal’s launched a new range of ‘economy’ furniture. Soon after, the shop made waves by selling distinctly radical Bauhaus pieces by the likes of Mies van der Rohe. In 1933, he was knighted for raising standards of design, and in 1939 was elected to the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry.
During the Second World War, the firm’s efforts were diverted to war work. It soon regained momentum after the War, but Ambrose, who had kept a very tight hold on all aspects of the business, stood down from the chairmanship in 1953, and was succeeded by his son Anthony. Under his leadership sales of the Heal business grew from £75,000 pa in 1900 to in excess of £300,000 by the mid 1930’s. The much respected British furniture designer Gordon Russell said “He was perhaps the only man in the retail furniture trade of that time who had any real interest in and knowledge of design and, like most pioneers, he was sniped at from all quarters. By many craftsmen he was distrusted because he was in charge of an efficient business. By most businessmen he was regarded as a long-haired chap with odd notions. But he stuck to his guns. His outlook was not just a fashion of the moment, it was a deeply-felt way of life with him and affected everything he did. And his sincerity gained him a … devoted clientele … Today (1964) … it is difficult to realise what a revolution Heal pioneered”.
When he died in 1959 his Times obituary describes him as “one of the greatest artists and craftsman of our time”. Ambrose was married twice and had 5 children.
So, why is he a #Houseproud hero?
The notability of Heal’s rests upon the achievements of Sir Ambrose Heal who was a craftsman, designer and modern pioneer. His use of simple, practical lines and good quality craftsmanship meant he was able to provide premium furniture pieces to the middle class and provide an alternative to the previous reliance on antiques. He was truly ahead of his time. To quote the great man:
“Better furniture for better times.”