Extended interview: Sheridan Coakley


23 April 2015

Among British furniture manufacturers, SCP has an enviable history.

Founded in London in 1985 by Sheridan Coakley, SCP celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It secured its place among furniture brands in the 1980s and early 1990s at a difficult time: when industrial production of furniture in the UK was severely limited; consumption of modern design even more so.

SCP built its name through a series of collaborations with young designers. Coakley was the first to bring work by Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic and Matthew Hilton into commercial production, while further collaborations with designers such as Pearson Lloyd, James Irvine, Michael Marriott and Donna Wilson (as well as artists such as Rachel Whiteread and Michael Craig Martin) followed.

The UK market in which SCP now operates looks very different. Industrial production has improved; contemporary furniture design has been embraced by large swathes of the public; and many of SCP's early designers have become leaders within the industry. It is telling that SCP's exhibition at this year's Salone del Mobile in Milan, The Arrangement of Furniture in a Room, was one of the most accomplished at the festival.

The Arrangement of Furniture in a Room was SCP in reflective mood. Coakley invited Marriott (a longterm collaborator with the brand) to create the exhibition design and the results were idiosncratically wonderful. Marriott displayed a series of SCP productions, never-produced prototypes and re-editions atop furniture sourced from flea markets and found on the streets (from Georgian consoles to contemporary pingpong tables). The exhibition signage awarded equal import to both SCP's products and Marriott's scavenged cast-offs.

It was a suitably retrospective exhibition for a brand celebrating an anniversary. While visiting the exhibition last week, Disegno interviewed Coakley. In the conversation that followed (shared below), he reflected on the changed face of the furniture industry; the damaging impact of trend; and why furniture needs to be de-sexed.

How has the furniture industry changed since you began SCP?

The whole thing that has happened in the last 20 years is that furniture has become fashion. In fact, at one point there were quite a few fashion brands trying to make furniture. You know, “Throw away the sofa you bought last year, because this year sofas are going to be green.” But that’s not how it works with furniture, you buy stuff to last.

People do talk a lot about the relentlessness of fashion seasons.

When companies like Armani and Ralph Lauren suddenly thought furniture was sexy, which it was about 10 or 15 years ago, furniture suddenly rose up in that kind of world. They thought furniture could be driven in that way and, to be honest, I think manufacturers would like it to be driven in that way. Some manufacturers would like furniture to be the latest hot thing.

But there’s less interest in industry and furniture among some younger designers, isn’t there? System and digital design seem far more culturally relevant.

If they do feel that, then that’s maybe not a bad idea. Furniture needs to settle down. People need to not think of it as sexy. There are lots of other aspects of design that students should look at because furniture is a tiny part of the world that designers can contribute to. Also, it’s quite hard to make your living as a furniture designer. There aren’t many successful furniture designers. Do we need another chair? How much more furniture do we need?

Oscar sofa (2009) by Matthew Hilton atop (left) Georgian console table (c.1820) and (right) gate-leg dining table (c.1960)

Is that not a difficult thing for you to say given that you’re in the business of producing furniture?

Not really, I don’t think so. I’m not saying there’s a sense of moral duty, but to do this annual thing of bringing out another design… when it comes down to it, a chair is a chair. It’s for sitting in. It should use the latest technologies and materials, but, as a rule, chairs end up being made of wood or plastic.

In the end it’s fashion we’re talking about. Nothing more. It’s just doing a little twist on a design to say, “This is the chair to buy for your home this year.” I think designers could spend their time doing more important things. If anything, they should be encouraged to spread out from designing physical products for people to buy. How often do you buy chairs for your dining table?

I don’t think I’ve ever bought a chair.

You probably found some.

I use the ones that were in the flat when I moved in.

Which is fine. Aspirationally, there’s probably something you want to buy. But if you did buy some chairs, then you’re not going to say next year, “I don’t like these chairs now, I’m going to go buy some other ones.” I’m not trying to talk myself out of doing what I do, but I have a bit of an advantage in that SCP makes relatively expensive products, so we expect people to keep them for quite a long time. There’s a longevity in the materials, design and process that will hopefully make that product last for 25 years. It’s not our business to be constantly refreshing. Hence the fact we’re remaking some of the furniture we made years ago.

Archiver shelving by James Irvine (1996) atop extend dining table (c.1970)

So you’re saying you focus on the afterlife of a product?

We’re not nostalgic, but we now have opportunities to present old products that didn’t have an opportunity in the past. If there’s still a relevance in the design, it’s worth doing. What I don’t want to do is say, “We’re producing a look from the 1980s.” And hopefully the designs we pick are beyond that and have a relevance today as much as they did then. But it’s quite hard. Look at James Irvine’s Archiver for example. A man named Tom Harper does product development for us and he did all the work on producing Archiver. I asked him if he liked it and he said, “Yeah, I really like it; it’s very 1980s.” But too me that looks like a brand new piece of furniture. It’s quite hard to discern if something is contemporary. We look for something that transcends its period and is as relevant today as it was then without it being nostalgic.

Do you think this notion of trend in furniture is really a new phenomenon though? You’ve said some of the pieces in the exhibition didn’t have an opportunity when they were released in the 80s and 90s. Is that not just another example of trend?

I think that was because back then people didn’t buy modern furniture, particularly in the UK. We were still in the cricket, warm beer and inheriting your furniture mode of thinking. People bought antiques and the people who could afford our furniture in those days didn’t buy modern furniture. You forget that it was a very different world then, which has now completely reversed so that people buy modern furniture. You don’t get people in the UK saying, “Oh God, that’s a bit avant-garde.” Modern furniture is also not nouveau riche any more, because there used to be a stigma that if you were buying new furniture, you had new money. It was a class thing.

When I first made the stuff it was mainly being sold to shops in Germany and America, as well as to a few architects and designers. Other than that there was no interest. It just wasn’t on the agenda. The cost of producing these things is quite expensive and one thing that has changed is the cost of producing things in the UK. If you want to produce things in the UK now, it’s much easier than it was. The engineers who survived through the 1980s and 90s have invested in machinery that takes away a lot of labour so they can produce really high quality products relatively economically. They’re much more competitive because they can produce this quality through technology. That’s what has enabled us to bring out a lot of these things again.

Missed daybed (1998) by Michael Marriott atop Butterfly table tennis table (c.2000)

But what caused a shift towards a more trend-based, faster-paced furniture system?

Greed, I should think. Purely greed. I think it gets out of control because it becomes fashionable and therefore people want more. The press want more; manufacturers want more. If you discover Philippe Starck, you want him to design everything because he’s so successful. It’s a kind of beast. Usually the most important changes in design come when a new material or process comes along. There was tubular steel in the 20s and 30s, and plywood at the same time. Plywood enabled Artek to do what they were doing; tubular steel for the Bauhaus. Then plastics in the 1950s onwards, up to the point when Jasper Morrison designed the Air Chair for Magis, which was a breakthrough. As a rule, what makes a chair an important one is that the designer was able to use some new way of making it. Otherwise, it’s just another wooden chair. I don’t object to that or belittle it, but what are you doing when you make another four legged chair in wood? It’s kind of just interpretation or styling. Which is no big deal really.

Would you have more difficulty founding SCP today than you did in the 1980s?

Oh, it would definitely be easier. You’ve got more customers and you’ve got more design press who are interested. I wish I could start again, particularly now that there is interest in locally-made things and craft things. Greater integrity in a product is very of the moment, which is really a reaction to the established Italian businesses, which have really lost their honesty of what they’re doing and where they’re making it. I think there’s massive opportunity, particularly in the last few years.

Mono table (1995) by Konstantin Grcic atop Vanson sideboard (c.1960)

But is the market not saturated? A lot of the brands, such as the New Nordics, put out products that look very similar.

That’s their fault, isn’t it? That Scandi look has got to go soon. But that happens, doesn’t it? It happens in clothes, music, architecture. There’s always the core that drives or sets something and then the rest just copy to get the look. Habitat do that; John Lewis do that. But the Scandinavians have been particularly good at that. But often I think this sort of thing gives people a chance to afford something as the things at the forefront tend to be much more expensive for whatever reason. In our store we have our customers who range from people in their 20s to people in their 70s. For professionals or people who have been working for a long time, for them to buy a £3,000 dining table is still a decision and a big purchase, but for someone in their 20s or 30s it’s a massive decision. We really struggle to sell chairs in our store for more than £300 for instance. If you’re 35 years old and have been working for 10 years, then buying a set of Hans Wegner chairs is a lot of money. They’re £800 each and you’ve got to buy eight of them. There’s a market for cheaper products.

How do you go about communicating the value of the products you sell?

It’s quite difficult and to do with the whole idea of branding. The concept of what you represent to people is hard. If you take a product in isolation and show it to someone to ask them how much it’s worth, that’s quite a hard thing for anyone to answer. It could range from anywhere between £80 and £800. Communication is done through all these other nefarious ways of the designer adding value, the store itself and the press. The press have a massive influence in terms of helping people make a decision as to whether something is good or good value.

But as a rule with furniture, I still think it’s one of the few product ranges where you get what you pay for. It’s not like with clothes where it can be very difficult to tell the difference between a Top Shop dress and a high-end brand on first look. It’s quite difficult to determine that through the material and manufacture. With furniture I think people cost it in a realistic way. It’s to do with the materials and how it’s made. If a chair costs £600, then that’s generally what it cost to make it, once you’ve involved margins. I don’t think people in our industry say, “What can we get away with selling this at?” It would be interesting to get a group of young people who like design but don’t know much about it and asking how much they thought it was all worth.