17 Aug 2017

William Birch was an Arts and Crafts furniture designer who specialised in chair making. His High Wycombe furniture factories were a major supplier of furniture for Liberty and Co in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rush-seated antique dining chairs he made in the 1890s are still prized for their comfort today.

Little is known about William Birch’s life before he established his furniture business at High Wycombe, around the 1890s. He was inspired by the Arts & Crafts furniture of the period, but realised it was out of reach to anyone but the most wealthy. Although the principles of “honest” hand-crafted construction and a return to country values were sound, the idea of cottage industry communes churning out non-mechanised traditionally crafted furniture for the masses was not.

However, people like Birch and Liberty saw the value in emulating the Arts and Crafts styles of Morris and his Cotswold School contemporaries, but in a part-mechanised fashion. The result was high-quality furniture that utilised all the Arts and Crafts concepts, such as quarter-sawn hardwoods, exposed joints and vernacular craftsmanship, at affordable prices.

At this time Wycombe was the centre of the church chair-making industry and, incensed by Randolph Churchill’s comments of Wycombe chairs being cheap and nasty, Birch set out to change that image. Around 1895, his seats came to the attention of Liberty, who commissioned him to make them for their London store. Liberty’s popular rush-seated antique dining chairs were mainly William Birch designs, and enabled him to move to new, larger premises in 1901.

There he was joined by well-known designers like George Whitehead and E.G. Punnett. Punnett’s slightly avant-garde, ecclesiastical style fitted in well with those of Liberty’s other designers like Leonard Wyburd and Archie Knox; his antique cabinets and chairs utilising flourishes of inlaid ebony and pewter, while still adhering to Birch’s vernacular design principles, such as rush seating.

Birch’s factory was eventually taken over by E. Gomme, himself an Arts & Crafts furniture designer. True to their original concept, Birch’s antique dining chairs, cabinets and tables are among the more affordable of Arts & Crafts antiques today.

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