Ahead of the Curve

The secret life of the Balzac armchair, one of SCP's most iconic designs, designed by Matthew Hilton in 1991.

Every year since 1985, SCP have been designing and making new products. As most companies who create design will know, sometimes you make a piece that for one reason or other becomes the standard bearer for your brand. For SCP, that piece is the Balzac armchair by Matthew Hilton. Designed and launched in 1991, the Balzac has stayed in continuous production for a quarter of a century. Here we look at the story of this most comfortable and curvaceous piece.


Saddle-stitch detail on the arm of the Balzac.

Launched six years after SCP began life, the Balzac was one of SCP’s first forays into upholstery making. The idea came from a desire to make an armchair that was both beautiful to look at and comfortable to sit in, a contemporary version of the classic English club chair. Working with a factory in Norfolk that SCP would later take over, getting the first prototype correct was a very lengthy process. Matthew Hilton’s design is full of curves and getting the details correct on the arms took nearly two years of development. This was done by using a decorative stitching detail, known as a saddle stitch, which is duplicated twice on each arm. Once this was done, the Balzac went into production, and twenty five years on, little has changed in how it’s made.


Original Balzac drawing | Matthew Hilton 1991

The only significant change has been the recent introduction of a version that is made with fully sustainable materials, as all SCP upholstery pieces are now made in this way. This slideshow presents all of the components and tools needed to make a sustainable Balzac armchair, and also shows the process itself.

One of the ironies of the Balzac is that when it was launched, no-one really liked it. The press were unimpressed and SCP customers seemed fairly non-plussed as well. That’s the odd thing about new design, sometimes it’s ahead of the curve.

Peter Mandelson has a think in his Balzac | Film still from Mandelson: The Real PM?, BBC4, 2010

However, after a few years in production the Balzac gradually began to take off. It was widely featured in the press, the then Labour communications supremo Peter Mandelson was photographed reclining on one at home and within a short time it somehow became a kind of cultural icon, representative of a moment in British design. It was then included in the Geffrye Museum’s permanent collection, featured in the well-known chair bible Taschen’s “1000 Chairs”, used for numerous advertising campaigns and has since been sat on and loved by many a SCP customer. SCP are very proud to have been making the Balzac for so many years, long may it continue.

A French name for such a British product? Well the truth is it was named after SCP’s owner Sheridan Coakley’s French sheep dog, also called Balzac.

Balzac collection in the store

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