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A British icon: the making of the ‘Balzac’ armchair

SCP’s bestselling ‘Balzac’ armchair celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. We reveal the story behind the design

the balzac armchair and stool by matthew hilton for scp

To design an armchair that sits as easily in an industrial warehouse loft as it does in Concorde’s glamorous lounge is no mean feat.

But it seems that the creation of the ‘Balzac’ chair was more effortless than you might expect.

Designed in 1991 by then emerging talent Matthew Hilton for SCP, itself a newly established furniture firm in London’s burgeoning Shoreditch, it’s become an instantly recognisable piece of British design.

‘We were presenting an alternative to the Italian design scene, which was a bit staid at the time’

‘We were part of a bunch of designer-makers – Ron Arad, Tom Dixon – who were presenting an alternative to the Italian design scene, which was a bit staid at the time. I’m sure most Italian companies would have spent ages developing the “Balzac” – we just did it,’ notes SCP founder Sheridan Coakley.

‘There were lots of things about it that weren’t fashionable then,’ says Hilton of the chair. ‘It came from an old typology and it was covered in leather that aged quickly when everyone was covering seating in thick, brightly coloured felt.’

designer matthew hilton working on the ‘balzac’ chair prototype for scp
Designer Matthew Hilton working on the ‘Balzac’ prototype in 1991

As the first piece of upholstery for both retailer and designer, the brief was loose, the only caveat being comfort.

‘Back then, design was more important than function, but we went out of our way to make a comfortable chair – we wanted to make the kind of thing you see in an old gentleman’s club where someone’s asleep in the corner,’ reminisces Coakley, who met Hilton shortly after his showroom opened in 1985.

‘Terence Conran always said it was his favourite chair’

But its voluptuous form and louche attitude wasn’t an instant success: ‘Interestingly, it did take us two years to sell one.’ It wasn’t until Terence Conran spotted it and stocked it at The Conran Shop that it started to take off (‘Terence Conran always said it was his favourite chair,’ adds Coakley).

the balzac armchair and stool by matthew hilton for scp
An early 90s studio shot of the ‘Balzac’ armchair and stool

The poster piece for 90s ‘Cool Britannia’,‘Balzac’ embodied the zeitgeist, making it into the Museum of the Home’s permanent collection, countless magazine pages, adverts and books and even Tony Blair’s office at the 1997 Anglo-French summit in Canary Wharf. But the chair’s popularity has endured well beyond its debut decade.

As testament to this, SCP does a brisk trade in reupholstering original pieces and there’s a healthy secondhand market for them, too; ‘We’re now covering chairs that were bought in the 90s, so the longevity is there in the design. It’s a pretty circular product.’

the balzac armchair and stool by matthew hilton for scp
The ‘Balzac’ armchair in one of the new upholstery fabrics added this year

Now more than ever, as SCP has recently developed a way for its shapely silhouette to be made using only natural, sustainable materials; the original foam padding has now been substituted for a combination of latex, coconut fibre and recycled wool felt. This year sees new upholstery fabrics added to the range, too.

balzac armchair on show at scp curtain road in 1991
An early version of the Balzac armchair on show at SCP Curtain Road in 1991. Featuring Sheridan’s daughter and a friend

Hilton says it’s tricky to know exactly what has made the ‘Balzac’ such a long-standing success – ‘you can’t set out to design a classic, it just happens’ – but its ergonomic, inviting shape and tactile quality seem to have something to do with it. ‘I love it when I see it in people’s homes. We get lots of people saying ‘we’ve had this for 20 years and it’s covered in dog hair and ice cream but it’s our favourite chair’, which is the best thing,’ says Hilton.

As Coakley puts it: ‘It’s consumers that decide whether something’s going to turn into an icon. I think we can unashamedly say it is because of that.’ scp.co.uk

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2021

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