“Other companies looked on in amazement,” says British designer Jasper Morrison, recalling Established & Sons’ early events at Milan furniture fair. “Not even the biggest brands were able to afford such extravagant shows, and then there was a newcomer with barely any products to sell, taking one of the most expensive spaces in Milan and throwing the biggest parties.”
But this year, eight years on from its launch, the London-based company will lie low in Milan, focusing on an exhibition of previously shown limited-edition pieces in the courtyard of art gallery Massimo De Carlo in Lambrate. Last October, Sebastian Wrong became the fourth of the five founding members to resign from the company. After half a decade of show-stopping events, the most chatter the brand is likely to generate this year is: what is going to happen to Established & Sons?
The brand was founded in 2005 by designers Tamara Caspersz, Mark Holmes, Alasdhair Willis, Sebastian Wrong, and with the financial backing and production expertise of Angad Paul of business group Caparo (a company specialising in steel and engineering products). Their business plan was timely and smart. They were going to tap into a burgeoning market for limited-edition design, while also concentrating on innovative but saleable mass-produced furniture pieces. Along the way, they would foster design criticism through their self-published magazine and gallery events, and boost the profiles of British-based designers. But perhaps their biggest goal was to make products in Britain: “Historically, in this country there was a real sense of pride in being a mechanic for a British company like Aston Martin,” Willis told the Design Museum in an interview in 2007. “So, I guess part of what we are trying to do at Established & Sons is to reintroduce that concept and potentially inspire a pride and value in something being not only designed, but made in Britain.”
Launching the year that Britain’s last car manufacturer MG Rover went into administration, the “Made in Britain” sentiment could easily have been dismissed as nostalgic, but E&S delivered it with so much chutzpah it had the design scene convinced. Britain’s highest-profile designers and architects were commissioned: Zaha Hadid, Amanda Levete, Michael Young. And the shows were spectacular to the point of excessive; its not-for-sale installation Elevating Design in
2007 saw the brand realise pieces from its collection in Carrara marble, and elevate them on six-metre-high plinths, simply to spark debate on “design art”. Although there were doubts as to whether it was real marble, the plinths were too high for anyone to tell and everyone involved stuck to the script.
Back-lit by paparazzi flashes – thanks to the connections of Willis and his fashion-designer wife Stella McCartney – the brand’s events achieved what no furniture brand had to date: glamour. And with that came all the trimmings; the queue for the openings turned into mosh pits (frequented by even the most high-profile designers); celebrity sightings appeared in the following day’s papers; and as a consequence people who didn’t usually care about design, knew of E&S.
Inevitably, critics accused the brand of using its famous connections to generate press, but three years on it was impossible to dismiss the work that E&S produced, it was beginning to establish itself as a serious contender in the international furniture- design industry. Following a period dominated by Scandinavian minimalism and a rather safe output by many of the previously leading Italian brands, E&S’s tone – “a kind of swinging 60s revival,” Morrison describes, “with a typically British combination of sense of humour and daring” – was just what the industry needed. Its flamboyant, “anything goes” attitude was reminiscent of Italian brand Cappellini in the 1980s, which, like E&S, championed experimental work and individual style regardless of the financial risks. “The objective was not to satisfy a market, but rather to disrupt it,” says British designer Sam Hecht, and E&S certainly wasn’t frightened of causing controversy. Pieces such as Sebastian Wrong’s Buggs light, a Bauhaus-style globe boasting a Bugs Bunny grin, commenting on the greed of boom and bust, was loved or loathed.
Even Morrison managed to cause debate when he designed an exact replica of a crate, then priced at £90. It divided critics; Alice Rawsthorn described it as “an interesting addition to the design history of the found object” and “a wry critique of the seemingly unstoppable production of yet more superficially striking, but purposeless, new objects at a time of environmental crisis”. Others were less impressed: “Why spend big bucks on a designer table that looks like a wine crate when a real one is a fraction of the cost?” asked the New York Times. Either way, various extensions of the basic stackable box idea have launched every year since. Even IKEA produced one.
But it was with the less known names that the brand was particularly successful; and Wrong and Holmes established themselves as adept talent scouts. “When we formed the company we were all aware of the great creative talent around us and E&S provided a platform for all that,” says Holmes. Emerging designers Alexander Taylor and Raw-Edges produced work for the brand that earned a place in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in New York. At last, Britain’s experimental graduates – many from the Royal College of Art in London – had a local manufacturer to produce their work. “I was less than a year out of college when they contacted me,” recalls Shay Alkalay of Raw-Edges. “For us, it was simply amazing. Can you imagine? They were one of the biggest brands. It set up our career.”
E&S didn’t make designers rich. Behind the scenes rumours started building that the company had difficulty developing products successfully and fulfilling orders. But “it was great for media”, says Morrison. In fact, it was as images in the media – specifically online – that the work really existed. In 2007, as E&S was coming into its own, so were design blogs. It was the perfect match: E&S’s product images, shot clean against a white background and so glossy and ephemeral you couldn’t tell them from digital renderings, glowed on the luminous computer screen.
While E&S set out to thrust Britain’s heavy machinery back into action, it inadvertently became the poster child of an era when design existed as pixels. The products didn’t need to materialise to be impactful, they were reaching unprecedented audiences as data. They didn’t even need to be attached to designers. Following a period obsessed with names, designers started to become secondary. Images travelled light, with just a few words attached, and they were liked or dismissed regardless of who designed them. Working with an ever-growing list of young designers – most of whom produced just one piece for the brand – E&S sated a thirsty audience with idea after idea, rarely investing in just one group of designers.
E&S seemed to be constantly evolving in its first few years and even the brand’s core identity was subject to change. In 2008 the Made in Britain stamp disappeared from the branding, replaced by just Great Britain. “Ideas evolve and so do businesses,” says Holmes of the change. “The goal was completely genuine,” reflects British designer Alexander Taylor, who watched his Fold series roll off British assembly lines for the brand’s debut range. “The energy at the start was incredible. But they were trying to make really original pieces, and when the financial crisis hit, there were fluctuations in the prices of materials, and the reality started to dawn that Made in Britain is difficult to do.”
In 2008 Holmes and Caspersz exited the company. In 2010, chief executive Willis left and Wrong departed two years later. Clearly the departure of the brand’s high-profile directors was of concern to the board. When filing their annual report for 2010 in 2011 (the last complete report that exists at Companies House), the summary stated: “The company’s future success is substantially dependent on the continued services and continuing contributions of its directors. The loss of the services of any of the company’s executive officers could have a material adverse effect on the company’s business.” But the remaining directors certainly didn’t advertise these concerns and although the grand parties and dinners of the first few years were replaced by more low-key affairs, both in Milan and the London Design Festival, it simply seemed to reflect the times.
It is telling that the story that really stood out in Milan in 2011 was an online collaborative journalism project, Milan Uncut, asking questions about the furniture design industry. With the world in economic crisis and companies the size of countries folding, fair-goers started to question what was behind the industry’s glossy facade: are manufacturers slaves to the media and their insatiable appetite for new images to feed blogs and news pages? Are designers used as PR fodder without any real intent of ever manufacturing their products? And are there therefore better ways for designers to do business?
Tellingly, in 2012 “hackers” stole the show, with several exhibitions exploring new methods of production and distribution – and perhaps experimenting with solutions to the questions asked the previous year. In this environment, E&S, together with many other furniture design brands, has struggled to find its place. “The past couple of years has felt a little bit muddled in the pieces and understanding who they are now, where they’re going and what their trajectory is,” says Hecht. “It’s more that they need to collect themselves and understand what is relevant for them and for design. But I think that’s not a bad thing.” And above all, it seems symptomatic of the industry as a whole.
In their new projects, the previous directors have certainly taken very different routes from what they did with E&S. Caspersz and Holmes launched the understated luxury homeware accessory label Minimalux, Willis set up communications agency The Anonymous Partner, offering himself as a “discrete” business partner. And Wrong is in the early stages of a collaboration with Danish furniture brand Hay, which has spent the past 11 years quietly investigating production systems and building up solid relationships with producers and distributors, while a minimum of time and money has been spent on lavish PR exercises or parties. A product of the same time as Established & Sons, Hay has taken a very different route to market.
So what now for Established? “I look at it a little bit as going from adolescence and into maturity,” says chairman Paul. “When it came to making an impact we went about it in the right way, all that youthful energy that we were able to come with as a business eight years ago, I don’t discount any of that, but what we want to do now is to build something that has longevity.” So, instead of a big show in Milan, this is a time for introspection and consolidation for E&S, with a plan formalising for the London Design Festival in September. “Maurizio and I have decided to take a breath and looked at what our liabilities and assets are and how we can create a blueprint for the position as a design leader in the next 20 years.”
The chief executive, Maurizio Mussati, with a background at companies like the Italian lighting manufacturer Flos and Dutch furniture producer Moooi, agrees that the time for excess is well and truly over: “We will never be in the position again where we bring 20 new products to Milan, just to see the reaction of people, because it implies spending tens of thousands of pounds without any real feedback afterwards. There was a time for it and possibly that was correct then, but now we have to be much more considered in what we put forward. Our commitment to innovation and experimental approach to materials is a crucial part of the brand and now we need to affirm ourselves, not via excesses but through the potential and strengths we have developed so far.”
Established & Sons defined an era and some of its output is already considered classic, but is there still a relevance to the brand today? “Absolutely,” says Hecht. “Established bought an avant-garde realisation that had been missing for so many years. They delivered designers’ ideas physically without compromise – this is essentially how Memphis occurred. They are completely and utterly vital for design, and if they disappear it would be a tragedy. Design needs these companies.”