Friday 6 July 2018
Tony Portus and Ross Fenn are both well established names in the world of handmade furniture, with over five decades' worth of experience between them. The two have now co-founded Makers' Eye, an exciting website where visitors can view and buy the work of 50 of the greatest designer craftsmen in Britain.
Makers' Eye offers visitors the chance to peruse – on a stylish, easily accessible website – a huge range of beautifully designed, handmade furniture that will last beyond a lifetime. The website contains iconic pieces from a selection of handpicked makers, whose work spans the spectrum of contemporary design. From straightforward yet stunning designs to radical, functional artwork there is a style to suit everyoneâ€™s tastes. The site gives the current whereabouts of each piece, so potential buyers can arrange to see the bespoke pieces in the flesh.
Many of their makers have been awarded the prestigious Bespoke Guild Mark for their work. Indeed, some Makersâ€™ Eye members, including Wales & Wales, David Colwell and Fred Baier, are also represented in the V&Aâ€™s permanent collection as is John Makepeace, whose work is currently shown in the V&Aâ€™s â€˜Power of Makingâ€™ exhibition. We caught up with Tony and Ross to find out more about this exciting venture.
As any designer maker will testify, you always needed a 'shop window' and as Tony says, “Preferably one that doesn't carry retail margins.”
It seemed then, that the time had come to be selling work online, with the benefit of the pieces being viewed at makers' workshops. So with friend and client Ross, who Tony says, “Runs the best handmade furniture gallery in Britain,” it seemed they might be the perfect pair to do it.
Tony and Ross are well connected and already know the best makers in Britain, so from the outset they knew exactly who they wanted to feature on the site. Having sold bespoke furniture for over 20 years through his gallery, Artifex, Ross knows many of the makers and designers personally. When approached, as they are starting to be by designers unknown to them, their work and business practice is carefully vetted before being considered for inclusion. All other makers have either been recommended by Tony or are peer selected through the Furniture Designer Makers' Association.
Makers often articulate frustration over not having a relevant place
to showcase their designs and at first glance Makers' Eye has the appearance of an art gallery, which is what many have expressed a desire for. But as Tony explained, “It's not an art gallery as all the pieces are designed to be functional, but there is work there that can easily be described as functional art, or sculpture.” Ross added, “It is frustrating that so few potential customers are aware of the availability of all this amazing furniture and that sadly, some really talented makers are struggling to make a living.”
Anyone sceptical about the long term future for making and selling fine furniture would do well to talk to Ross. His gallery is a fine example, as within a 10-mile radius of Artifex, there is a high concentration of houses that have purchased furniture fitting this description. Quite simply, he puts it down to awareness: “If you see it you fall in love with it; if you are not aware that such furniture is still being made then you are unlikely to search it out.”
Tony comes from a background in retailing and early on loved the excitement of selecting and selling great design. After becoming manger of the Conran Shop in London he then found himself wanting to learn more about design and making, and went off to study at Parnham College in Dorset. He then set up the Cato Workshop, creating individual pieces for private and corporate clients, as well as handmade series pieces, like the 'Cato Rocker'.
Raising more than eyebrows
Promoting the venture is no mean task as the list of makers is likely to increase but there is strength in numbers and Makers' Eye have enlisted the help of a PR team in Bristol to assist with strategic advertising to drive traffic to the site. After all, they have some great work from the country's leading exponents of fine furniture making to talk about and not least, bucket loads of ideas and enthusiasm. As any sales manual will tell you, there's no point having the best product in the world if nobody's going to hear about it, and as Ross says, â”The main purpose of Makers' Eye is to raise customer awareness.”
A typical client
When asked who's going to use Makers' Eye, Ross was emphatic with his reply: “Anyone who wants to buy the best furniture available” and from what we've seen he's got the pitch just about right.
Although many pieces on Makers' Eye could certainly be called 'art' it's equally important that people enjoy their functionality as well as their beauty. An exhibition space large enough to display the work listed on the site would be vast and perhaps untenable in any location other than that of say, Central London and this raises questions about representation and equal access to the market. The name 'London Eye' has already been used so that wouldn't work anyway.
A virtual showroom of this magnitude is unprecedented and long overdue. There are other annual collections and shows all over the UK throughout the year but Makers' Eye enables you to search and purchase from an enormous range of amazing furniture from the comfort of your own home. The site also gives details on how to commission a unique piece and gives prospective customers plenty of advice.
All genres of the craft are covered without any bias towards technique, aesthetic or maker. Having said that, the collection needs to play to their strengths by highlighting the work of those who are producing very special pieces or creating exceptionally interesting work. If there's a common theme it is without doubt the quality of the furniture on the site, whatever the design. And with nearly 50 makers, there are designs to suit all tastes. The work is largely represented by those focusing on form, function and proportion. There are those that do set out to make functional pieces but with artistic or sculptural influences.
To the future
Tony and Ross have funded Makers' Eye through their own resources as well as with members' subscriptions so their commitment to the venture is nothing less than total. The two met when Ross became Tony's first customer 30 years ago and over the years filled his home with examples of Tony's furniture. After opening Artifex a few years later, he went on to sell his work through the gallery and often talked about ways to promote the furniture that they were both so passionate about. Having been in
retailing all his life Ross is well acquainted with the limitations of location and opening hours. The exciting thing about Makers' Eye is that there are no boundaries as far as customers are concerned. They are online 24/7 and get site visitors from all over the world. The pair have lots of ideas for the future of Makers' Eye but for the moment they are just enjoying the ride. F&C are behind them all the way and will be covering their progress in the months ahead. Good luck, gentlemen.