The Old Street roundabout, now rebranded as Silicon Roundabout in honour of the web companies clustered near it, was once the home of furniture making in London.
From the 1870s to 1910 it was also the busiest centre of furniture manufacture in the world, supplying retailers across Britain and the empire, and exporting pieces around the world. In the early 20th century a string of Factory Acts pushed the industry east to the Lea Valley and by the Sixties virtually no furniture was made in central London at all. Then, in the early Nineties, bespoke makers began to return to the area, lured by cheap rents.
People and their culture, however, are what motivate designer Russell Pinch of Pinch Designs to have his simple, elegant stools, coffee tables and lighting made in London. “We work with people we like and who understand our cultural reference points on how something should be done,” he says. “The beauty for us is that we have much more control than if it was made, say, in India. I inspect everything.”
The approach works; the last two years have seen an uplift in sales.
That ability to work directly with skilled, ethical manufacturers was behind the decision by Skandium, the Scandinavian design emporium, to have its first own-brand furniture collection made in London.
“The Finnish designer Harri Koskinen designed our Bello series of chests for us, but we wanted to be close to production to get good quality at a reasonable price,” says Skandium’s co-owner, Chrystina Schmidt. “If we imported from Finland it could be damaged and take six weeks to get here. We wanted really good quality.”
Skandium has found the relationship with Chris McCourt of Windmill Furniture, a workshop that has been operating in Turnham Green for 30 years, very productive.
McCourt’s experience includes making bespoke furniture for Paul Smith shops worldwide and the manufacture of Isokon furniture, based on designs by the Bauhaus refugees Walther Gropius and Marcel Breuer who worked for Isokon’s founder, Jack Pritchard. Today the range includes pieces by Barber+Osgerby and Michael Sodeau. To ensure quality and reasonable pricing products are made in the company’s factory in Chiswick.
Olivier Geoffroy, of Unto This Last, a furniture company he founded in Brick Lane nine years ago to combine the craftmanship of the individual maker with the latest computer technology, says: "We want to demonstrate that new technology can allow the individual maker to compete with mass-production price, quality and convenience."
The company takes its name from Ruskin’s famous lament that the mass-manufactured would destroy the hand-made. Clients who go to their shops-cum-workshops can order from more than 200 products in four different finishes and 180 laminates, and it is produced within two weeks.
They keep their prices moderate by designing pieces that can be made from one sheet of wood, with the minimum of waste, using an 8’x4’ computer-controlled router. Intriguingly, the new technology for which Silicon Roundabout is becoming famous is regenerating the area’s furniture-making industry.
Gareth Neal: (garethneal.co.uk) Urban Picnic from Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, W1 (020 7436 2344; caa.org.uk); or Philips de Pury (this month only) at The Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, SW3 (020 7318 4066; phillipsdepury.com).
Pinch: viewings by appointment, Unit 1W, Clapham North Art Centre
26-32 Voltaire Road, SW4. Brochure from firstname.lastname@example.org
(020 7622 5075; pinchdesign.com).
Skandium: 245-249 Brompton Road, SW3 and 86 Marylebone High Street, W1 (020 7584 2066 and 020 7935 2077; skandium.com).
Windmill Furniture: Turnham Green Terrace Mews, W4 (020 8994 7032; windmillfurniture.co.uk).
Unto This Last: 230 Brick Lane, E2 and Queens Circus, SW8 (020 7613 0882 and 020 7720 6558; untothislast.co.uk).