History of Hille
The Hille furniture company was started in the East End of London in1906 by Salamon Hille, a Russian emigrant, to renovate and reproduce eighteenth century furniture. The focus of the business was very much quality rather than large volumes, employing skilled craftsmen and gaining customers such as Hamptons, a well known furniture store, amongst others. By the 1930’s the company had established an international reputation supplying products all over the world. Salamon's daughter, Ray, subsequently joined and worked with the company to produce furniture to original designs. In 1932, Salamon retired and Ray took over the reigns of the business with Hille becoming a Limited company that year under her leadership.
In 1940 tragedy struck as Salamon Hille died, followed by the destruction of the North London home, factory and stores. The war had already been a challenge with reduced numbers of commissions and a restriction on timber to furniture makers. Under Ray Hille’s leadership Hille were recommended by the curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum to the City Guildhalls to repair bomb damaged furniture, collecting it in a hired van. With new timber being unobtainable, old furniture was sourced and the wood used and re-worked. Old employees came back from the war and in 1945 the business moved to Lea Bridge Road, Leytonstone, and Ray Hille was re-joined by husband Maurice, daughter Rosamind, son-in-law Leslie Julius and then later by Leslie’s army colleague John Collier.
Due to the restrictions in the UK, quality furniture could only be made for overseas customers so Hille’s only option was to focus on export markets. Following visits to the US Hille built up a suitable customer base. Export was to become a permanent feature for Hille from then on.
In 1950 Hille moved to premises in Hainault but almost immediately the 1951 financial crisis hit resulting in the factory having to move to an old brewery in Watford. The company recovered and in 1961 Hille opened its new offices designed by Hungarian-born modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger who was best known for designing the Elephant and Castle development.
1961 also saw Ray Hille’s second daughter Cherill Scheer joining Hille, adding a new generation to Hille’s management. Her work drove Hille’s marketing, most notably the promotion of the original Polyside chair in 1963, sending out a line drawing of a stork to major government buyers, architects and designers alerting them to the following first samples of the polyside chair with some 600 units then sent out – a marketing campaign which subsequently led to the sale of millions of units in the years that followed.
It was Leslie Julius, in 1949, who 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, that year. Day and Latimer’s award in the face of competition from 3000 entrants from across the world made Day’s potential evident to Leslie Julius who had the foresight to support this talented designer. In addition to designing nearly all of Hille’s products for the next twenty years, Day also took over the visual end of Hille’s business designing letterheads, forms, vehicle livery, and the Hille logo which with a few variations has been used for 60 years. He was also responsible for graphics, brochures, showroom designs and exhibition stands.
From the very outset Day was given carte blanche to design whatever he wanted and to have prototypes built, which in itself would seem incredibly brave on Hille’s part, but Day had an ability to not only design products that would immediately sell, but that would also have been designed with consideration as to their ease of manufacture.
1950 saw the emergence of the Hille Stak chair which featured a ply back and seat linked with a laminated spine. An instant success, it was sold into assembly halls, canteens and made under license abroad.
Formed plywood was to become a feature of Robin’s designs for a number of years. Day also introduced the use of steel in the form of tube and rod frames, which were originally bought in from outside companies, until 1957 when Hille opened its own metalwork factory in Haverhill. Numerous designs followed as Hille began its policy of continued development adding ranges in chairs, storage and office products.
Robin Day will of course be most famously remembered for his best selling product, the Polypropylene chair. The first of which was the polyside chair in 1963. Polypropylene had been invented in 1954 and by the end of that decade Shell Chemicals produced the material in various formulations. Day realised that polypropylene would be perfect for a low cost mass produced chair. I think it is fair to say that the development of the shell was a process that would not be recognised today as there were no CAD drawing or CGI images as we have now so the shell had to be prototyped in fiberglass to finalise the design and then the investment of £6000 for a moulding tool had to be considered. A wise investment indeed as it transpired.
Such was the global success of the Polyside chair, by the early 70s Hille became licensor and had licenses in 30 countries allowing the production and sales of their designs which helped overcome high import duties and shipping costs with the sales bringing in revenue for research and development. Tools were produced in the UK and shipped out to various countries with comprehensive instructions covering every aspect of the chair’s production including materials and methods so as to maintain quality.
Further polypropylene chair designs followed including the armchair in 1967 and the 4-4000 Easy chair in 1970.
In 1972 Hille launched Day’s Series E range which was specifically launched for the education market featuring a range of five heights to suit all age ranges. It was this that really sealed Robin’s designs in the minds and lives of everyone as we will have all, at one time or another, sat on one of Day’s chair designs.
To put the success of Day’s polyprop chair designs into context it is estimated that some 14 million chairs have been sold and continue to be sold at a rate of 500,000 units a year.
There is no doubt that Robin Day had the highest profile of all off the well known Hille designers but their scholarship scheme which was set up in 1967 and their willingness to work with designers to offer prototyping and small production runs brought other dividends. One of which was the work with Fred Scott which brought about the launch of his folding chair in 1974 and most notably the Supporto office chair in 1979. As with the polychairs, Supporto had and still has global appeal which resulted in further export sales for Hille. Supporto is still in production today and can be sourced at www.supporto.co.uk
An exhibition celebrating Hille was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1981 and a book launched to commemorate this. Two years later Hille was sold by the family and Hille continued to work with Robin Day to bring to the market such ubiquitous classics as the Toro beam seating in 1990 which is still widely used on the London Underground network and the Woodro in 1991 which is still used by London Overground stations.
Hille’s focus on affordable quality has been carried forward as well as the desire to work with innovative designers. Recent examples of this can be seen in the new SE ergonomic chair which is a collaboration with designers Richard Snell and David Rowe, Birmingham City University, Hille and BKF Plastics. The posture theory behind the chair is the result of 2 years of research and the end result offers perfect postural support to aid comfort and concentration. Continued product developments include the new Pepperpot stool with further developments in progress.
Hille continues to manufacture the original designs as well as re-introducing some of the old traditions such as Hille liveried vans.