In Conversation

Sheridan Coakley & Michael Marriott


Michael’s studio is neatly situated in the old Thomas Briggs (London) Ltd. factory building, adjacent to a bridge that spans Regents Canal, running from Shoreditch Park in the South to the rarified air of Islington in the North. Sheridan makes the short trip from SCP East on his BMW C1, a fairly ridiculous looking “roofed scooter” that he buzzes about on whilst working in London. A veritable meals on wheels, he arrives armed with a tasty lunch selection from the Food Hall on Old Street and we are greeted at Michael’s door by a lot of potted flowers. He tells us they are leftover props from a recent photoshoot that took place on the canal, as is custom, Michael has appropriated them.

A set of stairs takes you up to Michael’s first floor studio, which is entered via a tightly packed workshop area full of tools, wood and the nuts and bolts of a designer’s life. There are plenty of found and procured objects around, from a mint copy of the Italia ’90 Panini sticker album owned by the Swiss graphic designer who shares the studio, to a beautiful bike frame hanging from the rafters. The studio has the patina of a place well-occupied and well-loved, it’s also remarkably quiet for London. Michael then makes tableware and cutlery magically appear from the built in kitchenette, lunch is served and the conversation begins.

The pair first met at Michael’s graduation from the RCA, where Sheridan recalls, “you made that fantastic chair (The XL1 kit chair).” By this time SCP Curtain Road was open, which Michael remembers visiting. “Although I had not met you I had been to your shop before, I remember coming to your shop when you first opened it and being very impressed by the parachutes”. This prompts Sheridan to explain how Bar Music Hall in Shoreditch (situated opposite to SCP) had previously been one of the largest army surplus shops in London and how they had bought a load of parachutes to use in the shops opening display of Philippe Stark furniture by Baleri Furniture. At this time Michael was living in Brick Lane and they both explain how quiet it was around the East End, how SCP stood out. “I could sit in the shop all Saturday and no one would come in, or people would leave a taxi outside because they were scared of where they were,” says Sheridan. “It was like a ghost town on weekends, everything, including the pubs were shut.”

We ask what the state of British manufacturing in terms of design product was at this time.

“I think there was very little”, says Michael. “There were no customers,” explains Sheridan, “there was the Conran shop whose customers I was told were “people in the media”, but accountants, lawyers and people like that didn’t buy modern furniture, they bought antiques.” There was a small contract furniture market at the time, with people like Hille still producing, but in terms of the domestic market, there was very little going on except for the likes of Heal’s and Aram in London. Sheridan’s theory is “that furniture manufacturers in the UK, on the retail side, made that fatal mistake that lots of people make, thinking that the only way to compete is to be as cheap as your competitors, as oppose to the opposite, because eventually you will be priced out by somebody, and many were. They also didn’t export.”

So what was happening to British manufacturers at this time, why did so many seem to disappear?

Michael has recently been reading up on the British car industry, “which I always think is a quite interesting model of how modern Britain hasn’t become modern, truly modern, in the way that say Germany has.” He recalls the “Austin Rover British Leyland debacle”. Telling the story of how many smaller British motor vehicles companies became one bumbling organisation in the 70’s, with union problems, restructuring problems and later problems with Thatcher. “Despite all this, they had some really good products in there, which were really designed and engineered by some in-house practical thinking, passionate engineers, producing things like the Mini, or the Range Rover. So you get these odd fantastic world beating vehicles coming out of this house of vehicle manufacturing who were otherwise making complete dross. There was some really good stuff but others that were seen as a complete joke, like the Princess, the Allegro, the Maxi.” “We went through a very bad period.” Sheridan concedes. One of the key problems, as Michael sees it, is that the whole company was not “brand managed” and this left us lagging behind some of our European and international competitors. “When they made the Italian job, which was built round the idea of the Mini as the key player in the film, British Leyland didn’t offer them any support whatsoever, they had to buy all those Minis and they wrecked dozens of them doing the stunts. Fiat on the other hand offered them whatever they wanted and were really keen on them doing the film with Fiat 500s not Minis, but because it was so key to the story they stuck with the Mini and the producers had to stump up the cash. This illustrates very well the difference with the British industry and its competitors at the time. Ford were the same, supplying the Capri for Denis Waterman to drive round in Minder and on many other shows and films. The Avengers was the only time British Leyland ever gave cars to a TV show and didn’t charge for them.”

So what changed in the 1980’s.Why did a lot of influential designers emerge in this period and how did the design industry start to accommodate them?

Michael highlights a number of factors he believes were catalysts for change. He recalls there being a definite reaction against the Milan-centric design industry that had been firmly established in the post-war period. He feels that whilst its influence was waning, North European design education was getting much better. If you allied this to a punk spirit in Britain with a strong do-it-yourself thread to it, you ended up with a kind of iconoclastic, amateur, make-it-in-your-own-shed type of designer emerging. Sheridan also points out that the lack of real industry forced many of these designers to learn how to make things, so that they could sell them to a growing alternative market. This hands-on approach, he thinks, gave many of these designers an edge. They both agree that a sense of change was palpable in East London, where artists and designers were settling in en masse. Sheridan is also quick to raise the influence of the media, “someone said to me once that the British fashion industry only started because of the press, they created it. I think it was the same with design as well.” The founding of Elle Deco by Ilse Crawford in 1989 is credited by both as a watershed moment of sorts; for the first time there was a magazine that was pushing a domestic design agenda. Sheridan remembers it as a period “when we suddenly realised that warm beer and cricket didn’t work any more, that wasn’t the image of Britain we wanted.”

It would be easy here to paint a picture of heady days, when the British design industry was being equally driven from the top down and the bottom up. A place where influential arbiters of taste rose up to shape the lives of the masses and young British designers started to emerge from their sheds on to the international scene. This however, probably isn’t the whole truth. Less glamorous factors, like the 1987 opening in Warrington of the first IKEA in Britain, also had their part to play. As Sheridan sees it, “people don’t change without choice, but if you put a Habitat or and IKEA down in a place, people would go and buy it. Up until then where did they go and buy everything? If you lived in Hull and you wanted to buy furniture, then you went to your local furniture shop and bought what they offered you. So I think there was a democratising going on by people like IKEA and Habitat.”

We wonder whether a particular British design aesthetic emerged from this period, or whether we have one at all.

“Sort of one”, say Michael. “I think it is on the whole very different from the Italians or the Scandinavians, who are much more easily identifiable. I think it relates a bit to a make-do-and-mend, shed, DIY kind of thing. In a way you could say that Castiglioni’s early found objects were kind of English in their aesthetic.” Sheridan adds, “there is also a Protestant North-European thing going on. Jonathan Meades talks about “where grape turns to grain”, that’s where things change. But if you look back at Georgian furniture, or look back at Arts and Crafts furniture, this modernist streak isn’t new. I think there has always been this puritanical, restrained, Quaker type of thing going on.”

With lunch finished, Michael puts the kettle on and breaks out some chocolate. Whilst he is making the tea their discussion quite quickly covers a range of subjects, from how British design is perceived worldwide (on the whole pretty well) to why large scale manufacturing doesn’t seem to work in this country. They don’t agree on everything. Michael’s view that big industry in Britain has consistently been hamstrung by something inherent in the British class system (“dirty hands versus clean shirts”) that engenders a feeling of distrust between management and workers, is refuted by Sheridan who cites BAE Systems and Rolls Royce Engines as good examples of excellent industry. What they do agree on is that we are particularly good at niche markets and the smaller specialist cottage industries that are driven by a passion for a particular trade, whether it’s the petrol-heads who work at McClaren, or the design lovers who work at SCP.

As time is running out before everyone has to return to work, we ask what are the positive things going on in the design industry now and what should we be looking forward to in the next few years.

“One of the positive things is that the roller-coaster ride of production going to the Far East is kind of settling out, there have been a lot of burnt fingers there.” Says Michael. “To some extent that has readdressed the concept of home production on different scales. I think it has affected how designers work and will work. There is a new generation of designers who are interested in making, or are looking into ways of developing their own product, whether it’s by their own hands or through sub-contracting, or by utilising contemporary technologies like laser cutting.” On the subject of manufacturing at an SCP kind of scale, Michael also see positive changes. “With the changes in Europe, the whole Eastern European manufacturing base has become more integrated. Right on the doorstep there is one of the world’s best sources of timber. There are also excellent skills relationships, there are people there who are fantastic craftsmen and production people and I think that will all keep growing and expanding, which is a very good thing. On the smaller scale, there will be more stuff happening here in the UK, which is good for the liveliness of the general culture, but less appropriate to the real income earning big turnover stuff.”

Sheridan is also upbeat about the current outlook and positive about how a new generation of consumers are becoming far more discerning. “With upholstery we are lucky, because it is one of the things that really should be made as near to the source as possible. I think businesses like ours really need to specialise, rather than go mass market. We have gone back to using traditional upholstery techniques and materials, removing foam from our products, making things more eco-friendly and actually better made. I think consumers should have a choice of what materials are used and where things are made, but importantly they need to be informed about it. I think people should question as much as they can what is behind a product. Where does it come from? How it is made? Who has made it? It’s when consumers ask these questions that industry really has to respond.”

This piece was originally published in SCP’s annual newspaper, SCP Issue No. 3

Sheridan Coakley & Michael Marriott Unpacking lunch