British designers are in demand throughout the world for their skills and high quality craftsmanship. Events such as the London Design Festival and Clerkenwell Design Week attract increasingly large international audiences keen to see, and crucially, buy what UK furniture makers are producing.
CDW welcomed 32,300 visitors to its three-day showcase of international design in May. In 2013 that figure was just over 27,000.
Many designers are also discovering a growing market in China, where low labour costs were blamed for the decline of the UK’s furniture industry in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.
Of course, as with films and fashion, it helps if there a few star names. Will Knight, show director of Clerkenwell Design Week, says the current “design pin-ups” are Thomas Heatherwick, who created the cauldron used in the London Olympics opening ceremony, and Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, who designed the Olympic torch for the 2012 games.
“It has been a tough few years but the industry is feeling bullish at the moment,” says Knight. “It has creative credibility and is well-perceived throughout the world. London feeds the global design market and people come here to source and specify products for their projects in other countries.”
US stores such as West Elm, which recently opened a branch on London’s Tottenham Court Road, and Crate and Barrel are turning to British designers to create collections that are proving popular in America.
Raymond Arenson, executive vice-president of merchandising at Crate and Barrel, which has worked with Bethan Gray, Russell Pinch, Genevieve Bennett and Aaron Probyn, praises these and other British designers for their passion and craftsmanship. “Their designs often have a traditional reference that has been simplified and reduced to something more modern, and our US customers love this reinvention of the past,” he says.
Russell Pinch, who runs his eponymous studio Pinch in Clapham, south London, with his wife Oona Bannon, says British designers now command global respect for their work. “There is a massive design resurgence in the UK and it’s so exciting.”
Pinch, who opened his studio in 2004, says 30 per cent of his turnover is to overseas markets and interest from Hong Kong and China is increasing every year. There is, he says, a palpable momentum.
At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur Brett, a furniture company founded in 1860, has also found a new market in Asia. David Salmon, creative director of Arthur Brett, says British design is known throughout the world for its high quality. “It’s the same reason people buy an Aston Martin or a suit from Savile Row: if you want those qualities, you want a British designer,” he says.
Like many other furniture companies, Arthur Brett went through tough times when Asian manufacturers started undercutting prices. While many UK firms were forced to shut their doors, the company’s tactic was to go further upmarket, raising prices and creating more bespoke pieces.
“We now export 20 per cent of our work to China,” says Salmon, who adds that over the past 18 months sales to the US have picked up on a weekly basis. He says that many US customers have grown tired of buying cheap, low-quality furniture and are returning to the notion of well-made, high-end products, which they find among the UK designers.
Esther Leong, founder of New Chapters, which helps Chinese visitors and expats on trips to the UK, either on holiday or looking to settle, says there is an increasing interest in good quality design among her compatriots.
“The Chinese people themselves – I am Chinese – do not consider China to be somewhere you go for high quality craftsmanship and design. They would go to the UK, Italy or Germany for that. Also, they used to spend money on things that would be seen by everyone – cars and handbags – rather than items for the home, which are not seen. That is changing now.”
It is not just in Asia where British furniture designers are thriving. UK department stores have long been champions of homegrown talent but they seem to be tapping into a trend among British consumers keen to buy handcrafted products that can become collectables, rather than just functional pieces for the home.
Heals is well known for discovering emerging stars: it was one of the first stores to commission textiles from a newly graduated Zandra Rhodes, as well as Lucienne Day. Day’s husband Robin, together with Clive Latimer, took first prize in the 1948 Low-Cost Furniture competition, run by MoMA, for a storage cabinet that had originally been developed for Heals. Carmel Allen, Heals’ creative director, says the store is constantly on the lookout for new talent and scours universities and colleges hunting for promising students and helping them develop their ideas.
“This year we ran our first modern craft market to bring new designer/makers to the store and that will now be an annual event,” says Allen. “We have really noticed a desire among consumers for beautiful pieces that they can connect to.”
John Lewis, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, commissioned several designers, including Bethan Gray, to create a collection as part of its Design Collective initiative. Gray, who began her career designing for Habitat before setting up her own studio, says international momentum has been building behind British design for the past few years.
“Scouts come from all over the world to see what the British designers are doing. London is such a creative global hub.”
Competitions to find new talent, such as those run by Heals, are nothing new but they have tended to be run by contemporary studios.
This summer, an antiques company joined in. Butchoff, based in Kensington Church Street, west London, asked entrants to come up with a new piece of work based on an important antique. The winning piece, a laptop stand with features inspired by an old escritoire or writing desk – dubbed the E-scritoire – will be shown at London Design Festival in September.
Ian Butchoff, the owner of the company, said he was hoping to create the antiques of the future. “As an antiques dealer surrounded by works of the greatest furniture makers from history – Holland & Sons, Chippendale and Gillows – we recognised a need to support the next wave of design talent by looking for high levels of craftsmanship and innovation – skills that define the works we deal in.”
In addition to designers selling individually via the internet and finding their place in Britain’s department stores, there is also a third way that has sprung up – the modern collective. Catherine Lock is one of three founders of New Craftsmen, an online store bringing British design to a wider audience. The group has just opened a 2,000 sq ft shop in Mayfair, central London.
Lock, who used to work as a product developer for high street stores such as Habitat and J Sainsbury, says her epiphany came when she realised she was travelling to India to source Welsh-style blankets rather than buying the real thing in Wales.
“The movement that started with the farmers’ market, when people gradually started to care about the provenance and quality of their food, has now spread into other areas,” she says. “Many of the big luxury brands have become very homogenised and these makers and craftspeople bring more individuality and personality to their work.”
However, Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder, with Sir Terence Conran, of the furniture company Benchmark, sounds a warning note. Competitions and graduate shows are not enough, he says. The industry needs to train apprentices if Britain is to safeguard vital skills.
Benchmark trains a number of apprentices every year, but Sutcliffe is aware that many of the smaller studios cannot afford to do this.
“We have a tradition of excellence: well-constructed, well-made and well-proportioned furniture, but education design courses are closing down all over the country and workshops like ours are expensive to run and take up a lot of space,” he says.
“Apprentices are our future. We are ever in danger of losing these skills and I am acutely conscious of this. We use an 80-year-old carver who is remarkable, and I realised about five years ago that he has never trained an apprentice and that it’s probably too late now. I don’t want Made in Britain to be a passing fashion.”
Main slideshow photograph: Stacey Hatfield
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published