Mid-century upholstered chairs

Among the mid-century upholstered chairs which sold at auction at W&H Peacock in August this year included a Robin Day for Hille Leo armchair designed in 1965; a Charles & Ray Eames for Herman Miller EA-219 Softpad desk chair; a Big Tulip armchair designed by Pierre Paulin in 1959, manufacture attributed to Artifort.

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The current rules around fire safety and furniture are contained in The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 (amended 1989, 1993 and 2010).

Now the UK government has consulted on updating regulations as part of ‘Smarter Regulation: Fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture’ but associations representing auction houses, dealers and the property sector had not been made aware o f the plans and are now on the backfoot as the consultation has closed.

The government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards opened a consultation on the proposals on August 2 which closed on October 24 but key members of the art and antiques trade did not submit feedback as they did not know about it.

A spokesperson for the government’s department of business and trade said: “We will continue to engage stakeholders as we review responses to the consultation and we will publish our formal response soon.”

In contrast, the upholstery industry had been aware and has made it clear it is unhappy with many of the proposals. Members have submi t ted det ai l ed responses to the consultation.

If the current proposals are brought into law, furniture that was first made prior to 1950 would continue to be out of scope and could be sold without restrictions (even if reupholstered). Items made after 1950 would need full original labels in order to be sold legitimately or the item must be reupholstered (as has already been the case since the 1988 regulations took effect).

New rules

Under the proposed plans, however, any item of furniture that was made post-1950 that is being refurbished and that retains its original labels will, according to the proposals, need to have its original label reattached alongside a new label from the upholsterer to indicate the added upholstery’s compl iance with the requirements of the regulations, giving details of the work carried out and which components were supplied.

However, problems look set to arise with the proposals’ treatment of the refurbishing of furniture that does not have an original label, as is the case with much of the vintage furniture made between 1950 and 1988. Where the refurbishing takes place after the new regulations come into effect, upholsterers feel they will need to strip all original fabric and filling materials and start from scratch, rather than just repair, because they are being asked to make a judgment on what was originally used, which many feel is too onerous.

Loss of ‘integrity’

Chairperson of The Guild of Traditional Upholsterers Hannah Weston Smith of Hannah & Nails said: “It is my understanding that from an upholster’s point of view, if we are asked to recover an item we will be required to strip it of all upholstery and replace it with material that meets regulations. This would mean that iconic pieces of post-1950s furniture will not be able to keep their integrity.”

Suppliers of second-hand upholstered products such as dealers and auctioneers will also be asked to inspect the products they intend to offer for sale and ensure they do not have any reason to believe it would no longer conform to regulations. They must also ascertain whether there is evidence of re-upholstery or repair having been carried out (see ‘Selected highlights of the new proposals’ for further details).

When listing items online, auctioneers and dealers will be required to display prominently the information on the permanent labels - both the original labels and any relating to re-upholstery. This could be done by taking photographs of the labels. The intention of the proposals is to ensure consumers have access to the same information as if they were buying in person.

Wendy Shorter-Blake, past chairman and training director of the Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers (AMUSF), who is in touch with The British Standards Institution and government, said among the responses on behalf of upholsterers is the request that the traditional techniques and filling materials of reupholstery such as horse hair, coir and wool should fall out of the scope of this new regulation, just as pre-1950 made furniture is.

Clarification required

Shorter-Blake said: “We also need a lot of clarification regarding definitions such as ‘reupholstery’ - does this mean stripped back to the frame and start again? - as well as the definition of bespoke. Our understanding of ‘bespoke’ is one-off unique items for an individual customer, but large manufacturers often use ‘bespoke’ when giving the customer a choice of size and range of fabric, but it is still mass-produced.”

Helen Carless, chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers (SOFAA), added: “For SOFAA members there will potentially be some impact but we await the final drafting to assess how severe it will be.”

Matthew Baker, auctioneer and valuer at W&H Peacock, said: “While we all want to ensure that the products we sell are safe for the end user, there are many pieces of Mid-century furniture which have a significant aesthetic and design value.

“We believe that seating by Robin Day, Ernest Race, Charles Eames, Peter Hvidt and many other great designers should be available to a new generation of collectors and shouldn’t simply be consigned to the scrapheap.”

Paul Middlemiss, founder of vintage dealer and furniture designer Merchant & Found, said: “My concern is that I think 90% of dealers don’t know about this draf regulation. A very clear directive needs to go to the vintage industry on both ‘ o riginal’ and ‘reupholstered’ furniture, so everyone is clear about what is happening

Another issue related to the regulations is the use of disclaimers by those offering for sale furniture that does not have original labels. This remains a grey area.

The government plans for new regulations to come into effect from October 1, 2024, but with an 18 to 24 month transition period, meaning the new rules would come into effect toward the end of 2026.

Chemical reaction

A major criticism of the new plans relate to the ongoing use of fire retardant chemicals in upholstery. Previously a number of MPs have lobbied for an internationally accepted approach to f lammability testing, removing the need for f lame retardant chemicals, however this has not been borne out in the plans.

Delyth Fetherston-Dilke, a former lawyer and an upholsterer at her firm Delyth Upholstery, has been leading a campaign with AMUSF to fight against increased toxic chemicals in upholstery and has submitted comprehensive questions and answers to government as part of the consultation.

Upholstered furniture

Examples of post-1950s upholstered furniture reupholstered by Delyth Upholstery.

She said: “We believe that the harm caused by these chemicals outweighs the fire safety benefit, and we are concerned that the regulations have not given proper consideration to the re-upholstery business.”

She set up the website eco-chair.co.uk and more than 5000 people signed its open letter to government.

Fetherston-Dilke argues that the proposed increase in chemicals is harmful to upholsterers as well as the general public and urges the art and antiques sector to raise their concerns with their MP.

She added: “Given the increasing body of evidence that indicates the persistence, bio accumulation and known health concerns of many flame retardants, we believe the risks associated with the use of these chemicals is greater than the fire risk from furniture without flame retardants.”

For more details on AMUSF and Fetherston-Dilke’s campaign visit: eco-chair.co.uk/cfr-campaign-instructions