Garry Ashton-Coulter, a collector of Art Deco and Moderne furniture for over twenty years, shares his appreciation of the Epstein Brothers’ creations. Garry is the society’s south-east representative.
Whilst having none of the skyscraper ‘theatre’ of American deco from the likes of Paul Frankl, or perhaps the delicate flair of French designers such as Maurice Dufrene, or Paul Follot, British Art Deco furniture is none the less solid, elegant and above all functional, made to appeal to the middle classes who wanted the latest designs, but to fit into a smaller home, on a tighter budget. Designers such as Ray Hille, who was dismayed by the description of British exhibits at the 1925 Paris Exposition, as having a ‘Dullness and aloofness with an absence of the spirit of adventure’, created their own designs which interpreted the work of Follot et al, with a particular British flavour. Long-established firms such as Heals and Waring and Gillow supplied the upper end of this market, with Betty Joel servicing the carriage trade from her Knightsbridge base.
To many people today, however, the epitome of the ‘British Deco’ style originates from the factory of brothers Harry and Lou Epstein. Epstein furniture was founded in East London in the 1890s by Morris (Solomon) Epstein, a Polish immigrant, who specialised initially in high quality reproduction furniture. It was taken over by his more adventurous sons in 1929. Harry was the designer and Lou the cabinet maker working with a team of highly skilled craftsmen. They too were influenced by the Paris exposition of ’25, and later Moderne style. Their furniture is now recognised as some of the best quality, with the most sought-after art deco designs. It has been argued that being immigrants, they were not influenced by traditional and previous styles such as the Arts and Crafts movement, in the way that other contemporary designers like Gordon Russell were; and as such they were more open to their customers’ desire for the ‘modern’ taste. From the Epstein’s factory in London’s East End, and three showrooms in London, Manchester and Glasgow, you could commission or buy their furniture. Theirs was not a local, boutique operation, but reached out beyond London.
The Epsteins have been credited with the design of the iconic ‘Cloud’ furniture which includes armchairs and sofas as well as dining suites, which now command a premium in auction houses and on EBay. Their exquisite fluted cocktail cabinets, beautifully constructed and veneered, are highly sought after by collectors. Many pieces were custom-made, and hardly any pre-war pieces are signed; so attribution can be problematic.
Compounding this difficulty, the firm’s design books and catalogues were destroyed in a fire at the factory. Identification is helped by the consistent high quality of construction and materials, and the knowledge and experience built up by reputable dealers, who have come to know specific designs and construction traits, plus of course, as with anything, reliable provenance. The lack of documentation may even be an incentive for dealers and collectors, who can use their connoisseurship to recognise overlooked Epstein furniture, now fetching high prices. A three-piece suite in fine condition can sell for over £10,000.
The Epsteins’ business survived World War II and they continued making furniture into the 1950s. They did then belatedly start to sign their furniture. Even if there won’t ever be a catalogue raisonné of their anonymous thirties output, they have earned a place in the hearts of British collectors. This is set to continue as the Art Deco and associated Moderne styles move towards their centenaries, conferring antique status upon Epstein furniture.
Photographs by courtesy of jeroenmarkies.com UK Specialists in Art Deco furniture and decorative Items.