By Helen Walters
Little did they know when a mutual friend introduced them that the meeting would spark one of the most interesting business propositions to hit the furniture industry in years. But that's exactly what happened when Angad Paul, CEO of Caparo Group, met Alasdhair Willis, the former publishing director of style and interiors mag Wallpaper*.
"We got chatting about general experiences and ideas, and then he mentioned this notion that he had been thinking about for some time," says Paul from his London-based office. "It was only after a couple of meetings that we truly realized the potential of our collaboration. The fit turned out to be beyond serendipity."
That collaboration is Established & Sons, a boutique furniture design firm currently showcasing products by eight British designers, both well-known names (Jasper Morrison, Zaha Hadid) and up-and-coming talents (Barber Osgerby, Alexander Taylor). With 15 pieces in its regular collection, along with numerous limited-edition pieces, it all seems pretty standard for a boutique design agency. But the company differs from other small ventures like Isokon or Thorsten van Elten in a key aspect—and its name is Caparo.
With a turnover for 2006 set to top the $1.3 billion mark, Caparo Group is essentially a holding company of various manufacturing facilities. These supremely specialist subsidiaries deliver parts and finished goods to clients in a range of industries, from the military to automakers—including Aston Martin and Jaguar. Established & Sons can harness these design and manufacturing capabilities to fashion its roster of products.
"Through the group's facilities, we have access to tools which would cost another company a great deal of money," says Willis of the partnership, details of which he described simply as "equal" and "long term." (There are three other founding directors, Mark Holmes, Sebastian Wrong, and Tamara Caspersz.) "Other firms might have to invest in tools that cost a quarter of a million pounds in order to make one part of one chair. And it's impossible to be competitive if you have to farm out every aspect of the production process."
Established & Sons, in contrast, can experiment almost freely with the technology and skill of a vast array of resources. The limited-edition Zero In table, designed by Barber Osgerby, is made from the same high-density plastic used in Formula One car-body parts. Other designers are experimenting with an anti-vibration mesh used in warships. While designers aren't limited to working with Caparo companies, the connection is an obvious advantage that propels the fledgling Established & Sons into the ring with the heavy hitters of furniture manufacturing such as Cappellini and Herman Miller (MLHR).
Another driving force behind the collaboration was the desire of both Willis and Paul to promote British design and engineering talent. "While I was at Wallpaper*, I got an incredibly in-depth insight into how the furniture industry works, and saw this seemingly inevitable migration of British designers to work with overseas manufacturers," explains Willis. "I understood the reasons for it, but my mission was to find a serious manufacturer within Britain. I couldn't believe that we didn't have the skill base and the ability here."
Not that they're being entirely, altruistically, patriotic. The "cool Britannia" factor perennially goes down well overseas, especially in Japan. "I'm not saying that everyone cares that our provenance is British," admits Willis. "But as a package of British manufacturing and quality British design, we believe we're tapping into something that's highly marketable and interesting."
As for Paul, who acts as non-executive chairman of the company, the opportunity to showcase the capabilities of Caparo's subsidiaries in a creative, somewhat unexpected context was hugely appealing. "The combination of design and design engineering and British manufacturing meant that Established & Sons was a really welcome platform," he says. "People have been writing off Britain's service capabilities for years, but we've trebled our size in manufacturing in the past three years alone. Established & Sons provides a welcome shop window for us."
Practically speaking, Established & Sons works with a roster of designers on a product-by-product basis. Unlike fine artists, who typically work with only one agent or gallerist, furniture designers often collaborate with numerous manufacturers. But an active part of the Established & Sons business plan is to develop and nurture those relationships. "Designers are becoming more akin to artists, and there are real considerations to bear in mind when working with them," says Willis. "Such as thinking about whether they're being overexposed, which is a real, vital, consideration. And yet furniture manufacturers have never thought about it."
The company produces both hugely high-end, limited-edition pieces (a prototype of the Aqua Table by Zaha Hadid just fetched $300,000 at auction in New York, a record for a piece of furniture design) as well as cheaper, more mass-produced items. "We have a good balance between limited pieces that are there to generate conversation and debate, and the commercial bread-and-butter pieces," says Willis. But he adds that every piece in the collection has to meet a basic criterion: "Would I want to own it? Do I want it in my house? If we don't believe in something as a piece of design, then we wouldn't commission it."
Another major difference between Established & Sons and many of the other major furniture manufacturers is the speed with which they move from concept design to marketplace. Designs launched at fairs such as the Salone del Mobile in Milan regularly remain commercially unavailable for another two years or so, an accepted industry standard that Willis & Co. are keen to reject.
"The industry isn't looking to speed up, but they're really missing a trick," Willis says bluntly. "It's pretty basic: If you launch something, people should be able to get hold of it as soon as possible. And you shouldn't have to spend marketing money relaunching the same product two or three times. Yet that's what happens: It's utterly bizarre. In contrast, we launched 10 products in Milan in April of this year, and the majority of them are going into stores now. We're working incredibly hard and quickly to get things done to get the products out there—without jeopardizing the quality."
"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that consumer interest in art and high-end design has grown at every level in the past 10 years," concludes Paul. "We don't want to sound presumptuous, but in Alasdhair we've got someone who understands the space, we've got fantastic designers, Caparo knows a thing or two about building a successful business.… Now it's down to the consumer to decide whether they want the company to succeed or fail."