Hille Chairs

Introduction

“Our order book s have been very strong this year,” says Nigel Punshon, Sales Director, Hille.  The company, based in South Wales, targeted £3.7m sales this year, but is already looking at finishing the year on about £4.2m.  “Every year for the past six years we have made more sales and profits and taken on more people,” says Nigel. “This has been achieved on the back of a highly targeted new product launch each year. These, in turn, have partly been made possible through support from the Welsh government, in the form of match funded investment grants. So if we have been investing, say, £40k in new equipment, we have received a significant contribution towards this from the Welsh government. This is due to us being located in a tier 1 development Area which brings incentives such as a period of rates rebate. This help has enabled us to drive up investment in new product launches, which in turn have driven our top and bottom line performance alongside new job creation. It’s been really gratifying to be able to employ people who may have been out of work for 6 months or more and when they come to us we cannot believe how good they are and wonder why they have been without employment for such a period, a sign of the times.

Hille - newly launched SE school chair Designed by Professor Richard Snell and David Rowe

Hille – newly launched SE school chair Designed by Professor Richard Snell and David Rowe

The business is selling about 200k – 220k chairs annually. Successful product launches in the last couple of years include the SE Chair and the Pepperpot Stool.

The company has been working on a further mass market new chair design with emerging designer, James Plant, introduced to Hille through their involvement with Birmingham Made Me Design Expo.

Hille enjoys a distinguished history having been founded in 1906 by Russian emigrant, Salamon Hille, who employed skilled craftsmen to renovate and reproduce 18th century furniture building up a strong reputation for quality at home and as an export business. He was succeeded by his daughter, Ray Hille, who was, in turn, joined by members of her family including her son-in-law, Leslie Julius. In 1949, Leslie made contact with designer Robin Day, who along with Clive Latimer, had won first prize in the storage section of the International Competition For Low-Cost Furniture, organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art. Julius supported the young Robin Day working with him for the next twenty years. In addition to designing nearly all of Hille’s products he took over the visual end of Hille’s business designing brochures, showrooms, graphics, vehicle livery, and the Hille logo, which except for a few variations has been used for 60 years. Other distinguished designers that Hille has collaborated with include Charles Eames, Fred Scott and Michael Dye.

“Our best-selling line has always been the Series E original, designed by Robin Day,” says Nigel. “We are selling a little less of it each year now as it has been in the market for some years now. But it is still very dependable doing about 100k units a year.”

This case study reviews two recent examples of how Hille has been working with experienced and upcoming designers to maintain its distinctive design ethos and retain and grow market share.

Designers – Professor Richard Snell and David Rowe

“The chair, mundane in its functionality, is something most of us simply take for granted. Yet this practical everyday object is capable, through good design, of becoming art. More than that, when form and function are well combined, it can create wealth and sustain jobs,” said Professor Richard Snell of Birmingham City University.

Richard Snell’s designs have been created largely for the contract furniture sector working mainly with architects and specifiers. Design work has focused on seating for schools and universities, restaurants and cafes, hotels and halls of residence, airports and transport hubs around the world.  He has an impressive list of clients and partners including Conran, British Airport Authority, Commonwealth Games, Trusthouse Forte, Littlewoods, Debenhams, Fitch & Co, Hostess Furniture and most recently, Hille.

David Rowe has worked for well-known Midlands furniture brands, including Gordon Russell, especially on products where posture has been important. The Opus Seating Range, designed specifically for orchestral musicians, was one of Snell and Rowe’s early collaborations. Initially focussing on the CBSO during the research, development and design stages of the project, they produced a niche product which subsequently sold in volume worldwide.   They’ve been designing chairs for over 30 years and in recent years have noticed key changes in chair design and production.

SE School Seating Project

Professor Richard Snell highlighted the design project to create a new school chair, known as the SE Chair, with fellow designer, David Rowe, with Birmingham City University and Hille funding their two year research and development programme.

“We’ve been taking another look at materials in light of the need for a more sustainable approach,” said Professor Richard Snell.  “Polypropylene can be recycled easily, it’s low cost, has great strength, it’s suitable for injection moulding and due to its natural integrity it does not need any fillers to gain strength, making it much easier to recycle. In addition, theories around seating posture have developed significantly.

Hille Managing Director, Brian Foster who has been producing polypropylene chairs since the early 1970’s for 90% of the industry explaining the project said, “Separate seat and back chairs have not been so much in vogue over recent years, so Richard Snell and David Rowe’s design approach with the SE Chair has been brave and commendable in the precision of its conception. It’s been an amazing project. There have been a few years of discussions and meetings to get to this stage. However, the price is right and the design is flexible and attractive. We had 20,000 units ordered even without a lot of promotion. Although we are a volume player we look to offer sufficient flexibility and quality at the right price to appeal to the specifier and architect markets with our new design, colour and materials by offering a fresh approach in the context of poly propagation.”

“When we sit down there is a natural tendency for the pelvis to rotate backwards dragging the bottom half of the spine with it. When we support the spine in the lumber region then the vertebrae tend to get pushed sideways and downwards. However if we support the pelvis and stop it rotating backwards we can prevent the conflict of vertebrae in the lower spine and maintain balance.

“In Europe a new standard in school seating was developed following research showing an increase in the dimension and variety of shapes and sizes of children, resulting in an increase in the sizemarks being used from 6 to 8.  In starting to think about designing a new school chair we had to be aware of the new European standards, the well-being of the user – school children, both here and overseas.

“As a result the SE Chair exceeded the postural requirements of BS EN 1729, being made available in 6 sizes and in 3 frame colours. Skid base and swivel versions are among the variations in development.  A lot of people had ranges of products in the market already. We needed points of differentiation, but we also needed to be competitive on price. Polypropylene is a cost effective material. We looked to produce a chair that would sell for under £20.  However we wanted to see if we could mix polypropylene with other materials by designing a chair with separate back and base, providing the opportunity for separate material options within one chair.”

Plastics have been used in chair design since the 1960’s by designers such as Charles Eames and Robin Day.  The ‘Polychair’, Robin Day’s first polypropylene chair (also the world’s very first polypropylene chair), was produced by Hille and became such a design icon it was subsequently commemorated on a postage stamp. Developed in 1962 it was, in the words of Hugh Pearman, Sunday Times, “an immediate success” and is still, “one of the most affordable design classics going.” Since its launch about 14 million have been sold worldwide and the school seating versions are still being made by Hille at the rate of 500,000 a year.

Fred Scott, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, also worked for Hille. “In 1979 he produced ‘the Supporto’ office chair system which in turn formed a source of inspiration for ‘the Meridio’ created in 1990 by Michael Dye – designed in the Anglepoise and rather anglophile tradition of engineered knobs and junctures, rather than the more international approach where joints are hidden away,” said Professor Snell.

Production 

“Tooling can be an expensive element and taking a systems approach to product design can considerably reduce both the cost of tooling up and production. In creating our new SE Chair, our intention was to minimize tooling costs, which came in at around £180k in total, by producing 3 backs and 3 seats providing flexibility for up to 7 sizes and meeting EU standards.

“We looked at gas filling properties during the injection moulding process to develop a bone-like structure around the seat back to provide additional structural integrity ensuring lightness and longevity. The tube frame was adjusted at the fixing points enabling the required flexibility in sizing.

“Every element of the chairs is made in Ebbw Vale and required tube forming and CNC investment. We were conscious of working in a distinguished design tradition in tubular furniture.

“Companies like PEL (Practical Equipment Limited), renowned for the SP9 chair, or Spring Pattern 9, which was manufactured in Oldbury in 1932, became a design classic that has endured to this day.

“The designer of this particular chair is not known, but it’s thought to have been influenced by architect Oliver Bernard. PEL was an important design business in that it took on board influences from Europe translating these into mass production, working successfully with well-known architects such as Wells Coates and Serge Charmayeff,” said Professor Snell.

“One year on from its launch the SE Chair continues to perform really well,” says Nigel Punshon. “It’s given us a product that we didn’t have already and it’s been brilliant for new schools. There has been one change in that the price point has moved from under £20 at launch to around £25 and this has affected sales. We are however, very pleased to continue to sell around 20k units a year which isn’t bad as there are chairs available at around half the price of the SE so it is a more specialist product. We’re also adding lots of additions to the range. We’ve already launched the SE stool, and we’re in the process of launching a wooden seat option, writing tablet and concourse seat.”