How to build a design classic, by SCP founder Sheridan Coakley
Words Nick Compton
Portrait Laurence Ellis
With his furniture brand SCP, Sheridan Coakley has become arguably the most significant product design patron in Britain right now. Here’s how he did it…
Sheridan Coakley has a shop that was once in the middle of nowhere and is now in the middle everything; everything cool and happening, anyway. He runs a business that once operated in the margins and is now dealing in the stuff of daytime TV shows, a new national drug (even if fully capitalising on that addiction still seems a good deal harder than logic suggests it should be). Sheridan Coakley of Sheridan Coakley Products, better known as SCP, is now a grandee of the British design industry. In some ways, you could argue that Sheridan Coakley pretty much is the British design industry. And even he wonders how that happened.
Coakley’s father was ‘in’ bubblegum, buying the UK Bazooka licence after the Second World War, but Coakley Jr was not much for confectionery. He fancied being a photographer but started out dealing and then restoring early 20th-century furniture, mostly made from tubular steel, working out of a small workshop/shop on Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill (an area to which he would return almost 30 years later).
In 1985, he set up shop (and Sheridan Coakley Products) in an old upholstery warehouse on Curtain Road in Shoreditch. Coakley spotted the building while visiting his tubular-steel makers, housed in what is now designer Lee Broom’s space. Peter Saville, a fan of Coakley’s reheated Bauhaus, designed the SCP logo in return for a few choice pieces.
Initially he planned to use his grandly shabby new shop to sell vintage furniture, but that year he visited the newly opened, Philippe Starck designed Café Costes in Paris and decided he would turn his hand to producing contemporary design instead. A year later he was showing the first designs of Matthew Hilton and Jasper Morrison – both now design superstars – at the Milan furniture fair.
Since then he has produced pieces from designers such as Terence Woodgate, Konstantin Grcic, Michael Marriot, Tom Dixon, Russell Pinch, the late Robin Day, Kay+Stammer, Timorous Beasties, PearsonLloyd, Rachel Whiteread and Peter Marigold. In some ways Coakley is more the natural successor to Terence Conran. Though he lacks Conran’s overvaulting, empire-building ambition (and public profile), they are both Festival of Britain modernists, determined to develop a Scandinavian-strength design culture in the UK but also encouraging British designers, makers and manufacturers. Like Conran, Coakley is a manufacturer retailer. But perhaps in a different order. Conran was a natural retailer who also wanted to make things. Coakley made things and also wanted to retail. ‘I never aimed to copy that, but in a way we kind of did. We made stuff and we sold stuff and we also sold other people’s stuff.’
And his new designs from Morrison and Hilton weren’t yet setting the world alight. The business was built on Coakley’s remakings of early modernist design classics. ‘When I started, what supported my own designs were the classics. And I’m proud to say that a lot of them were knock-offs,’ he says. ‘We were able to sell a good-quality Corbusier chaise lounge to somebody who would never think of buying the official one. They all tried to stop me doing it. I was exposing them. My things were either made by the same subcontractors or were the same quality as theirs. It wasn’t about the quality, it was about the margins. Anyway, I fought them off and that helped me a lot. I’m very grateful to all those dead designers, because they sponsored the new designs.’
Pretty quickly though, Coakley was producing his own classics. In 1991 he launched Mathew Hilton’s Balzac armchair, a bona fide icon. And a very good seller. Coakley’s eye for design talent and manufacturing nous were serving him well. Most of his early designs had been produced in glass and steel, but he branched out, buying his own upholstery factory in Norfolk.
By the turn of the century, he happily found that fashionable London was relocating and moving in right next door. Given this sudden influx of potential punters, Coakley hired staff and upped his game. ‘It just enabled us to be a bit more professional as retailers,’ he says. ‘I always wanted to do retail; I wanted to see the end customer. In the 1980s, nobody came in, so no matter how badly I did it, it didn’t make a difference.’ But the new professionalism paid off. The business is now a third wholesale, a third contract furniture and a third retail.
In 2007 he opened a new shop back in his old haunt of Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill, though Coakley admits they have to work a bit harder at it over there. ‘People are much more knowledgeable and confident over here [in Old Street], more design savvy.’ But as he says, the East London customer is younger and less likely to spend £5,000 on a dining table. ‘In Notting Hill, they are older, more professional. They have the money. But we are not B&B Italia. And people like branding – lots of people don’t know who we are.’
Coakley is famously self-effacing. He has the seasoned, seen-it-all, slightly stately charm, manner and thrown together elegance of the rock aristocrat, though he is anything but pompous or self-satisfied.
He remains a skilled snuffler-out of design talent, but knows that for many young designers a commission from SCP is not the summit of their ambition. The big league is still the Italian design companies. ‘Ultimately people don’t want to work for us, they want to work for them. We are a stepping stone,’ he laughs, exaggerating the case of course.
It is true that for another set of designers, SCP, despite its location – or perhaps because of its location – is not really at the cutting edge. London is the epicentre of design trends right now, mostly driven by alumni of the RCA. One of the two key trends of recent years has been the rise of the conceptualist, those taking apart the very idea of what design is and putting it back together in strange new ways. This is not Coakley’s bag. ‘I’ve never really been involved in that. When it comes down to it, people want to eat at a table or sit down in a chair.’
The other key trend – and the two of course overlap, as is the case with a Martino Gamper or a Max Lamb, say – has been the re-emergence of the new craftsmen, the designer-maker, rediscovering and reinvigorating old craft traditions and materials. This he has much more time for. And there is more than a smattering of artisanal products, from rugs to pottery, stocked at SCP.
Coakley was also an early champion of a new wave of American designers, mostly Brooklyn-based, who knew their craft but were perhaps less interested in conceptual interrogation and more in entrepreneurial thrust. Much more up Coakley’s street.
‘I have always gone to America and sold in America and I just thought that there was this scene that was being neglected over here,’ he says. ‘They were mostly designer- makers and all really good. But being American, they just had more business sense than we do.’ The SCP brand’s roster of designers now includes a number of American outfits, including Rich Brilliant Willing and Fort Standard.
Not that he has given up on young British designers, betting heavily at the moment on Lucy Kurrein for instance, who he discovered while she was working at PearsonLloyd. He is also a keen supporter of the London Design Festival and organises the Shoreditch Design Triangle, providing a platform and rallying point for young, local designers.
There are ways, as always perhaps, in which Coakley is out of step but ahead of the game. He is an old- fashioned modernist who believes in good design made in numbers. Not Ikea numbers (though he does now produce an upscale take on flat-pack furniture), but more than just editions of eight. And, while he admits that the British furniture industry is long dead and past resuscitation, he is part of its re-invention; a process happening across a number of industries, as a multitude of small-scale, highly skilled specialists.
‘We are a nation of specialists,’ he says. ‘And you are starting to see people investing in the right technology, in weaving and textiles, in engineering. And manufacturers are more willing to do small runs for us.’ And they are no longer pricing themselves out of business. Coakley says he can now produce and sell Morrison’s debut steel and glass side table more cheaply than when it was first launched.
In some ways, it is surprising that SCP is still the size and shape that it is; still smallish and open to happy accident. No big-money investor has come along with plots to make Coakley CEO of a new design empire. ‘They probably met me and decided they didn’t want to work with me. It is kind of surprising, though, that it never happened. Furniture is sexy, but maybe my business model is a bit chaotic. It’s not as simple as people would like it to be.’