You may have come across the name V. B. Wilkins whilst shopping online for vintage G-Plan furniture. You may even have a Fresco nest of tables in your lounge that started life on his drawing board way back in the 1960s. So, who was Vic Wilkins? Here’s a little of what we know about this talented British Mid Century furniture designer but if you have further information please comment below.
Our findings seem to begin midway through the 20th Century, at a time when tastes in home furnishing were in a state of flux. A pull and push existed between decorative furniture, made from British oak to traditional designs, and a simpler, modern aesthetic inspired, in part, by European designers. The pure forms of Scandinavian design had started to have an impact on Britain’s furniture industry, as did the Italian designers with their curvaceous, sophisticated styles. One particular in house designer who was based at E. Gomme Ltd., a family owned furniture business in High Wycombe, embraced both of these influences and went on to create one of the biggest sellers under the company’s brand name ‘G-Plan’. That designer was Victor Bramwell Wilkins and, despite knowing very little about the man himself, his furniture designs are like old friends that still make you smile.
1953: The G-Plan, a Brand New Concept in Home Design
G-Plan was an innovation in furniture manufacturing and retailing. Launched in 1953 by E. Gomme Ltd., G-Plan embraced the ‘contemporary’ style that had been on a slow burn in post war Britain, with many people still choosing traditional pre-war styles. The new G-Plan came with a catalogue mainly featuring light oak furniture in pared back Scandinavian inspired designs for every room of the house. Each piece was styled to the same overall design so it could be used in any combination, no matter your budget.
Designed by Wilkins, the first G-Plan range was simply called Brandon and it came in settees, easy chairs, bedroom furniture, dining room furniture and everything in between. Featuring splayed legs and a lack of decorative features that had more in common with the Utility Furniture Scheme, the designs may have seen fashions ebb and flow but they still look as fresh today as they did back then. Wilkins’ Brandon designs would look right at home in Ikea today. This was a time when the fine cabinet makers’ crafts of yesteryear came together with new machine technologies, which is why you can still find solid pieces in use across the world today.
For traditionalists, a small number of darker oak items were created but in a world where people wanted to brighten their homes, the modern styles in paler wood won out and each piece had a G-Plan brand red swing ticket and gold-embossed stamp as a symbol of good taste and quality craftsmanship.
The story of V. B. Wilkins really comes to life through his work for E. Gomme Ltd. making us wonder if he apprenticed with them. A delve into the far reaches of the Internet brings up a treasure trove of drawings and articles of furniture but not so much about the man behind them.
The Librenza is just one of many designs created by V. B. Wilkins, the name for which apparently came from combining the words library and credenza, which gives us even more reason for the inclusion of this fine piece of fifties’ furniture. The name is attributed by the High Wycombe Furniture Archive to Doris Gundry for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, it is said that she also came up with the original G-Plan name and campaign. Hats off to Ms Gundry for creating this fun room divider name, innovative marketing campaign and brand, her legacy lives on.
Created in various designs, the Librenza model B881 with its two tone walnut and black lacquer finish with brass handles and fittings featured in the 1956 G-Plan catalogue and customers could buy one for £41 9s. The designs had floating, adjustable shelves and black legs with levelling screws and came with a combination of options for TV storage, drinks section or secretaire. The Librenza came in several variations and were a part of G-Plan’s Italian design inspired ranges, which also featured simply sculptured chairs and occasional tables with black legs.
The new room dividers were fashionable, practical and could be combined with matching dining suites, settees and easy chairs to create a harmonious home interior.
The G-Plan Librenza - Italian inspired style
Occasional Table (8040) AKA The Astro
One of Wilkins’ more iconic designs would go on to represent that certain retro 1960’s and 1970’s look, along with Cathrine Holm kitchenware, colourful Pyrex and Tretchikoff paintings so popular in current interiors.
Despite the true Astro table not being designed until 1969/1970, the 8040 is often referred to as Astro by its adoring public who have rediscovered this glass topped retro gem. The 8040 was designed by Wilkins and sold in the mid 1960s. The High Wycombe Furniture Archive has an image that appeared in the G-Plan Flair! Catalogue in 1965, with the table at centre stage amidst Europa settee and chairs designed by Selig.
The iconic G-Plan occasional table 8040
With its circular glass top and curved criss-crossed frame, the 8040 was initially available in teak or tola. The design proved so popular that in 1969 a new version with an oval top was produced, the 8050.
The oval version, G-Plan's occasional table 8050
The depth of colour, construction and stylish appearance of these teak vintage table variations never seems to date and they still look as good today as they did over fifty years ago.
Without realising it, Wilkins’ designs had paved the way for the most popular range ever produced by E. Gomme.
Introduced in 1966, the Fresco range was yet another series of in house designs by Wilkins. Again with a nod to Scandi and Italian design, Fresco furniture was created in minimal but sculptural designs and came onto the market over a period of several years.
Fresco was a teak wood system that could be used solo or fitted together to create a full system of shelves and cabinets, making it an adaptable product that would fit small or larger homes. The interconnected pieces included chests of drawers, double door cabinets, corner cabinets and shelving plus stand-alone items like nests of tables and dressing table sets. In fact, Fresco went back to E. Gomme’s original concept of being able to furnish the whole home with furniture that would suit most décor schemes. Fresco was created from a rich teak wood with the highly distinctive inset oval handles that have helped G-Plan furniture to stand out from the crowd. Earlier versions often featured solid wood elements, whereas later editions were manufactured with teak veneer and utilised construction methods, such as stapling, to enable a more economical use of materials for mass production.
Fortunately for lovers of vintage furniture, the history of E. Gomme Ltd. was archived, with many original materials being rescued for posterity from the company’s offices and factory. Flicking through this archive is a fascinating exercise for collectors and designers alike because it includes original signed drawings and technical details of individual items of furniture. If you care to look through, you will see the name Vic on many design sign offs.
Without its mirror, the Fresco dressing table makes a roomy and stylish desk
The Astro AKA The Spider
In a similar way to which the 8040 has become known as the Astro, the actual round, glass topped Astro is often referred to as the Spider and for good reason. This stand out piece was launched in November 1970.
Glide your hand around the perimeter of this table and you really begin to appreciate the beauty of Wilkins’ design, the smooth finish and curved lines are incredibly tactile. The overall design is a joy to behold. Five curved branches lead from the base of the table top to its central core and out again creating five legs, giving an almost hour glass impression. Or, to look at it another way, the overall impression is of a spider holding up the table top.
An original hand drawn prototype of the Astro by Wilkins, dated 2nd February 1970, exists in the High Wycombe archives. With a solid afromosia (dark teak) frame and plate glass circular top, this is a vintage table to make a statement with. Despite having a glass top, the Astro was built to last and polishes up beautifully to reveal the rich varied tones of the dark wood. This is one of G-Plan’s designs that is rarer and highly coveted by Mid Century furniture lovers, including ourselves.
The original Astro table, often fondly called the Spider
So what did we discover about the man behind the name? Sadly, nothing much. What we did uncover is a rich and impactful legacy left by Vic Wilkins. It’s hard to say whether he designed for other furniture companies but his designs for E. Gomme Ltd. spanned from the very first G-Plan brand range in 1953 to the 1970s and included every piece of furniture you could possibly think of for the home. He created one piece of beautiful furniture after another, in designs that have lasted the duration in terms of style and quality, inspiring how many of our homes look today.
V. B. Wilkins may be a hard man to pin down as regards his own personal history but the work of this under acknowledged Mid Century furniture designer and craftsman continues to live on, giving pleasure to present and future generations.
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