Friday 6 July 2018
“Come and meet my client,” James Brend invited myself and photographer Anthony Bailey. “He's only a few minutes up the road,” he added, thus proving an earlier piece of advice to anyone starting out on the chancy route that is bespoke furniture-making, that early success lies in making yourself known in your own area.
Now it's not often that I get to meet the customers, and this one turned out to be sort that could be either the maker's worst nightmare or his most delightful dream. Why? Malcolm Wager, who has been doing up a beautiful Lutyens-esque house on the leafy Surrey-Kent border, didn't know what he wanted. He desired inspiration…
Four A2 drawings later – each one took a day to prepare – and James and Malcolm arrived at something that was just right. Malcolm wanted wardrobes to sit either side of the bed in a very grand bedroom. The furniture had to complement dark antique pieces so they fixed on a reference. Rosewood.
“Rosewood was the starting point, because we have other rosewood in the house,” said Malcolm.
The result, installed but waiting for glazing when we had a viewing, is something of a tour de force in rosewood and cocobolo, with curved and gracefully columned cupboards, the upper sections of which feature slender glazing bars. James recalled: “The shaped glazing bars were made on a jig on the router table – 'nightmare' glazing bars comes to mind.”
So is it what the client wanted? “I'm definitely pleased,” Malcolm said, adding that he would be even more delighted in two weeks time when the job should be finished.
For we're not just talking fitted wardrobes here. James has built in another cupboard and replaced an MDF window seat with something much more gorgeous… and that's just the bedroom…
Enter its en suite and discover a bathroom utterly unlike any other. Struck by the shower cubicle which is ingeniously encased in timber, I was told it was actually a steam room. But no matter, the design is something else, James having come up with a shallow wave shape. And you know all those jokes revolving around going to the 'throne room'? Well, Malcolm's loo and storage unit run is as close as its going to get. And James has even ensured there is a pair of devil's horns behind the enthroned's head.
James said of the Tudor-style oak design: “The door to the shower was designed to be convex, so I reversed it which caused problems with seals. But it doesn't leak.
James is now looking forward to working on four more rooms in the house.
Talking about the client-maker relationship generally, he said: “We can usually come up with a design that is what the client wants, but sometimes they haven't a clue.”
Though he was still presenting clients with hand-drawn designs, he had bought a SolidWorks CAD package and was exploring it in recognition of the fact that customers could find a 3D presentation easier to envisage.
“Some clients really struggle with how it's going to look. One thought lines that I had drawn to represent panelling were in fact books!”
He said he also had potential customers who had no concept of how much time it could take to make a piece of furniture. “One client expected a desk to be made in a week.”
When I suggested that perhaps that particular person would be better off at IKEA he responded: “IKEA and their like have done a lot of damage to the perception of clients. They think 'if I can get a chair for Â£13 in IKEA why should I pay Â£400 here? It's frustrating at times but you have to go with it.”
His workshop is a 3,500sq ft agricultural unit which he spent some Â£4000 insulating with sprayed foam, painted white to reflect more light. On the same farm near Lingfield, Surrey since 2000, he recently moved from an 1,800sq ft converted cowshed, and will be heating it this winter with woodburning stoves fed with his own sawdust, and using ceiling fans to blow the heat down. Thanks to the hugely high ceiling and open front he is able to work in natural daylight most of the time.
James, 38, had until recently been set up as a limited company but is now once again operating as a sole trader.
He returned from travelling the world some 12 years ago and set himself up in relatives' premises.
“I had some good contacts,” he recalled. “I did a couple of kitchens. When you're on your own they take you for ever. I'd only got a little planer and a DeWalt crosscut and an Elu flipover and that was it, but people are prepared to be patient. Friends know you are starting out, you give them a good price and everyone's laid back.”
So what would he advise anyone in a similar position? “Make sure you can do it,” he said. “Put your mouth out to everybody. It's free advertising. That's how people get to know you.
“I started in a tiny workshop on my grandparents' farm, then kept it in the family by renting out a shed on my uncle's farm.”
So how had he progressed the business? “We've grown organically over the years,” he said.
Currently he is being helped by Jane Cooper, 26, who gained a City & Guilds in hand-crafted furniture at Crawley and is now enhancing her skills by watching James at work.
“The things he makes are inspiring,” she said. “Having just been to college, and now watching rosewood wardrobes going together, has been fascinating.
“It's good fun here,” she added. “A couple of other guys come in from time to time. It's a good place to work.” Jane was due to be joined in October by Nic Gutfreund whom I first came across as a mature student at the Carpenters Craft College in Stratford, East London. Small world, furniture making!
He's got the orders, he's got the workshop, he's got the help, so what's James's ultimate ambition?
“To make lots of money!” he joked. “I don't know really, but I'd like to have six people in here and have a decent turnover so I can concentrate on doing concept pieces, design and client briefs. I'd like to keep an eye on things and make sure things go out with super quality. At some stage I would like to look at having a retail outlet, a place in Lingfield.”
James, who by what he termed a freak of nature has one green eye and one brown one, is not afraid to be different so long as there is a reason, and he has a piece of sage advice for anyone thinking of setting up a website. “Don't have email,” he said. “Just list a phone number. You don't want people asking you by email how much a set of chairs is. They can go away and you'll never hear from them again. With a phone you can get commitment because they have to talk to us.”
So how does he make the business pay? “Some years we get four or five kitchens, some years none at all. With kitchens we can make money but they can get tedious. We've got three on the way which should see us through till Christmas.”
Having got Malcolm's commission delivered and mostly installed he was spending a little time on his own needs, making chairs – in style like a sort of rustic Mackintosh – for his girlfriend, to go with a dining table.
Awaiting delivery was a coffee table in American white ash with walnut inlay made for estate agents Savills, part of a range of free-standing furniture he is making for their offices.
So with work coming in in satisfactory amounts and variety, is he a happy and fulfilled furniture maker: “I sometimes wake up in the early hours and think 'why did I do this?' The answer is because I love it. No piece is ever the same.”