Q+A: Alasdhair Willis

Posted inID Mag

When Established & Sons first appeared on the London scene in September 2004—followed by an international launch in Milan this past April—admiration was mixed with skepticism. To some, the manufacturing company looked like a couture furniture outfit, big on image and ideas but, with its penchant for pricey, unattainable one-offs, less suited to the rough-and-tumble of commercial life. That its founder, Alasdhair Willis, former publisher of Wallpaper, is married to fashion icon Stella McCartney seemed to place it even more firmly in the design beau monde.

But Willis, 36, and his three co-directors are very serious about building a world-class modern furniture company using British-based designers—famous names as well as rising stars. Thus, after notoriously unloading a prototype Zaha Hadid Aqua table at auction in New York for nearly $300,000, Established used the money to cover the tooling costs of more affordable products, such as the ?70 ($129) Fold lamp by Alexander Taylor. Now Willis and his team are at the point where they have to start delivering on everyone’s expectations, not least their own ambition to go global. I.D. met with Willis in a bar near his Clerkenwell, London, studio to talk about the substance beneath the style.

As a former magazine publisher, why did you choose to go into furniture manufacturing? Nobody has tried this in Britain since the 1980s. Along with the rest of the team involved in this project, I have a genuine interest and belief in British design. That’s foremost. We wanted to create this stable of really good designers and then on top of that, manufacture everything in this country, which is the really tricky part. I don’t think it’s possible to go up against the big boys unless you have a manufacturing brain, but it’s never been my goal to have all the manufacturing in-house. Maybe 40 percent will be outsourced. This project is about having global ambition—that’s what we’ve said from day one. We want to promote British design and manufacturing across the world. Wallpaper also started off small, but it went global, and again, that’s what we intended.

You don’t have a house style or standard manufacturing technique. Why is that? We’re trying to push the envelope when it comes to materials. One of the reasons for that is that our primary manufacturing partner is not a furniture maker, and by the very nature of getting into bed with a company that works with the automotive industry as opposed to someone like Vitra, for example, you’re going to bring different abilities and skills into the mix. One of the things we did from the start was to take designers like Barber Osgerby to see manufacturing facilities in the Midlands and the areas around London and show them what we could do.

You’ve launched in London, New York, Tokyo, and of course Milan. What’s your business plan? Do you have a set timetable to move into profit after your start-up phase? All I’ll say is that we’re ahead of our business plan in terms of the success we’ve had. The best reason for that is the business model we developed: It allows for fairly immediate income through the sale of limited-edition pieces. There’s no question that there’s a good market out there for editions, and it’s one that we want to effectively take ownership of. The Aqua edition sold out, and now we’re moving on to other pieces such as the polished-aluminium Zero-In table by Barber Osgerby, of which the edition is half sold.

The success of Hadid’s Aqua table was probably a given, but how do you promote such high-end pieces from lesser-knowns like Barber Osgerby or Future Systems? You have to educate a market full of collectors who don’t really know the designers yet, but as soon as you talk them through who those designers are and what they’ve done and show them the pieces, you find the collectors getting very interested. This area of business is such a young market. Art collectors are buying design in the same way that they buy their Richters and their Warhols. It was a big art collector who bought the Zaha prototype. So I think we have a rather clever way not only of developing that side of the business, but also of seeing very helpful early revenue coming in to support the production costs. We’ve managed to spread our distribution pretty quickly while maintaining quality control. Orders are coming in from all over the world.

What about the Jasper Morrison Crate you launched at Milan this year? It’s just a ?90 ($165) version of a simple wooden wine case. Is he having a laugh? People either think it’s the biggest pile of shit, a joke, or they think, "My God, why didn’t I think of that?" It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from Zaha’s Swarm chandelier, say, which can never be more than an edition piece. Like the Fold lamp or designer and co-director Sebastian Wrong’s Convex mirror, Crate is relatively affordable. It’s an accepted object, because we all remember using those crates as furniture when we were students. As Jasper says, it does the job. So just bringing in the slightest difference—Jasper’s signature—is interesting. Japan adores it. Paris is mad for it because they like the intellectual approach. The U.S. hasn’t taken to it so much. This business is all about getting the right balance of pieces in the collection.

So variety is the key? We want to live and die by the diversity of what we do. What we have going for us is that we belong to no particular school or -ism. We’ve got to push back a lot of boundaries and build our brand equity. We’ll continue to work with our existing designers, and bring new ones in as and when we need them. This is not just a commercial thing. It’s based on long-term relationships.

Hugh Pearman is architecture and design critic of The Sunday Times of London.