The idea of a bunch of friends from art school getting together to start a furniture-design business doesn’t sound like much of a radical venture. But when Established & Sons set up shop in London in 2005, it had onesurprisingly simple—and, even more surprisingly, revolutionary—objective in mind: to promote the work of British designers in Britain. This meant curating a collection of high-end design objects devised, produced, and sold all in the mother country. One of the four patriotic entrepreneurs behind Established was Alasdhair Willis, who was no stranger to being part of a design zeitgeist. Along with editor Tyler Brûlé, he founded the style tome Wallpaper magazine that went on to typify the slick, seductive décor of late-’90s urban living. Willis served as publisher of Wallpaper until 2002, married designer Stella McCartney in the following year, and then set off to popularize British design by building it from the ground up. If, by founding Established, Willis’s interest was reviving some of the wit and experimentation in British design, he and his colleagues did so not by pushing a single overarching style. Rather, the team pushed a broad range of designers and approaches—consider a fast futurist statement by Zaha Hadid next to a pure minimalist cube by Jasper Morrison—which turned Established into something of a union for radical creativity (membership based on talent). Since 2005, Established has extended its reach even further: They opened a gallery in the West End, which shows its limited-edition pieces, while the East End headquarters still contains a showroom for the more mass-produced items. Established has also dropped its British accent—or, at least, let designers from other parts of the globe do some talking as well. These include collaborations with Maarten Baas, Jaime Hayón, and Roy McMakin. Established isn’t just selling exciting merchandise—it’s investing, researching, and collaborating with these designers at every step, making it something of a movement that isn’t defined so much by a specific look as by a specific interest in keeping the art of objects alive.
SUZANNE SLESIN: So tell me how you moved from being a publisher to a furniture entrepreneur?
ALASDHAIR WILLIS: Well, I never had any strict career path. I didn’t have some vision in college that I would one day run a furniture-design business. As with most things in life, it comes down to various circumstances. I founded my education on paintings and the arts, and when I left college, I practiced as an artist for a period before succumbing to the inevitable need to earn some cash and I went into magazines.
SLESIN: It wasn’t just any magazine.
WILLIS: No, it wasn’t. I actually started in a number of publications. I helped get a U.K. literary magazine called the Modern Review off the ground. From there I went to do Wallpaper, which was extremely significant in my life because it was a big success, but it allowed me to use my creative side. As the publisher, I also had to develop my acumen for business. We never ran it as a sort of church-and-state operation. I was very often involved in the creative, the same way the editor would be involved with the business. It nurtured that sort of fluidity, while obviously building up my interest in and love for design. It was during that period that I saw the opportunity to create a design-and-furniture company in the U.K. that was going to be committed to supporting British-based designers. A lot of the designers I had met while at the magazine had their products made by overseas companies, and they felt like the only people who recognized their work were overseas.
SLESIN: So who else was on your team when you started Established & Sons?
WILLIS: The team was quite tight. There was Sebastian Wrong, who is still my business partner and design development director. There was Mark Holmes, whom I knew from art college; he’s a designer himself. There was Angad Paul, who was manufacturer, business partner, and an investor in the company. And Tamara Caspersz, who was also a founding member. We all came from creative positions, first and foremost, which is evident in how we put our collections together. We took risks and went into areas a traditional manufacturer wouldn’t dream of going.
SLESIN: How do you think people will look back on what you’re doing? For example, could you compare it to something like the Memphis movement or Droog Design?
WILLIS: Well, we aren’t a traditional manufacturer. I’ve always referred to us as a design company—a design collective—and I’m about supporting designers on every level. And as the company develops, I think that will become more and more apparent. So, yes, I hope that one day people will see us as a movement. But I don’t want to be too bold and say we are quite in the league of the two that you just mentioned. [laughs]
SLESIN: If you look at Memphis, although the designs were very different from each other and had very different personalities, it was really one concept. What’s interesting about your company is that it has a very wide range of expression.
WILLIS: It does, and I think that’s born out of who we are and also the time we live in. We’re very much our own curators. We do pieces that don’t always fit in the same sort of stable. Our curation reflects how customers sort of curate their own environments now.
SLESIN: You started with British designers, but you’ve branched out to designers from all over. For example, you work with Roy McMakin, who’s out in Seattle.
WILLIS: He’s an artist who we represent now in Europe. The original position was to support British-based designers because they didn’t have a platform in the U.K. But it was always the intention that once the company gained strength and presence we’d reverse that trend, in a sense, and bring international designers to us.
SLESIN: Was Zaha Hadid the first one?
WILLIS: Zaha was one of our first designers because she is actually British-based. You’d find her in every place except for London, and she has a British passport and has been running her business out of the u.k. for more than 25 years. So she was part of our original stable. But last year in Milan we announced our partnership and collaboration with overseas designers. We were already being approached by the greatest international designers, so it felt right.
SLESIN: You do two kinds of productions. I can’t really call it mass-production, but you have special editions and then you have something a little larger-scale.
WILLIS: None of our pieces are truly mass-produced. The lighting now is becoming much higher volume, and those kinds of pieces we sell around the world in 40 countries. But the top end of our collection is often limited editions. And those are mainly represented through the London gallery.
SLESIN: So McMakin isn’t going to make high-volume pieces?
WILLIS: Not yet. His show just opened with us and it’s doing well, but it’s an extremely challenging moment.
SLESIN: That was going to be my next question. [laughs] I hate the expression “challenging times”—all times are challenging. But how is the state of the economy affecting your business?
WILLIS: The business side of me is making sensible business decisions in terms of targeting less affected areas of the market. We are in a good position, considering that we are still a young company. We are still growing, and we can go into areas where we have little presence—even in this challenging economy—and post a substantial year-end growth. We see ourselves coming through this horrendous period. But that’s the business side of me. The creative side is extremely excited, because what you see happening during these periods—something that always tends to happen when things are bleak—is you start seeing some wonderfully creative things going on. During the last two or three years, the whole strategy of design chasing the tailcoats of the art world, and the amount of editions being produced of some very dubious quality, isn’t going to happen now. With new designers—at least the ones we are working with—you see them taking a different approach, a different attitude, and what comes with that is more exciting, with far greater integrity.
SLESIN: Since you do have such a range of designers, do you notice a different audience drawn to certain designers more than others?
WILLIS: I’m here to work with and represent the designers, and I’m here to help them support their work. The exciting thing about working with these guys is their signature, their process, their way of thinking. Established & Sons is a celebration of the designer and the designer’s signature. So we do reach into very different audiences. Somebody who is a massive fan of Jasper Morrison and appreciates the Crate Series [a collection of pine pieces started in 2006] is not necessarily the same person who is going to like Zaha’s work or Future Systems. But that makes us who we are.
SLESIN: There are also schizophrenic people who like everything.
WILLIS: Well, I mean, I count myself as one of them. Maybe I’m the worst curator in the world, but I believe they do work well together and have a dynamic that plays off of each other. There are a lot of Jasper Morrison fans who are total purists, and that’s what they want. I’m working now with Maarten Baas on a piece for Milan this year, and I’m also working with Jasper and with the Bouroullec Brothers, and, obviously, they have a very different belief and force and skill of design to that of Zaha, for example. But then you have someone like Jaime Hayón, who’s doing the most wacko stuff, but who is Jasper Morrison’s biggest fan.
SLESIN: Do you share your wife’s interest in ecological factors, or even animal rights? Does that ever come up in your collections?
WILLIS: I would be lying if I said that I have the same level of commitment. I just returned from seeing her show in Paris, and the reviews have been great. That a fashion designer of her position does not use fur and leather . . . Well, it’s integral to her personality and therefore to her company. Does that also exist with Established? No, it doesn’t, but what does exist is a sense of responsibility toward working with materials and production methods that are certainly less dangerous to the environment. Just as we’ve expanded beyond Britain in our collections, we’ve also looked for alternative methods of shipping and production. I’m nowhere near my wife’s level, but I’m a vegetarian—I have been for many, many years—and I share similar beliefs that I try to reflect as much as I can in my company.
SLESIN: It sounds like you have a plan for the future.
WILLIS: We should be taking more of a responsible attitude to every part of our existence on the planet, from the environment to how we treat others—just our legacy in general and what we leave behind . . . I’m 38, but I feel so optimistic when I talk to teens and hear how genuinely concerned they are about changing the way we’ve treated the planet for generations. I think something good is going to come out of it.
SLESIN: You sound optimistic. Stateside we haven’t been too optimistic in art and design this winter, so it’s nice to hear these things.
WILLIS: We’ve had a pretty hard winter here, too. Interest rates are down to half a percent, the lowest this country has ever seen. Three hundred and some odd years and the Bank of England is the lowest it’s ever been. And then wars and so forth . . . But on a creative level, I’m optimistic. On long-term future, I am too. On a short-term business level, I think by maintaining who we are and keeping a clear identity and voice, we’ll be fine.
Suzanne Slesin is an internationally known design journalist and the publisher of Pointed Leaf Press.