Interview: The Original Sofa Co
I hope you’ve had a great start to the week friends? You may have noticed that it’s been a little quieter over here this last week and that’s because in a slightly unexpected turn of events, I’ve been halted in my freelance adventure and offered a full-time role at a design studio, which was too good an opportunity to not give it a try to see how it feels. It’s definitely a change going from the lifestyle/editorial world to the world of branding and typography but it’s a very creative environment and they do amazing work so I was tempted to take the plunge and see how a couple of months there would be like. I will let you know how it goes/
Last week I was running a giveaway with Louise from Super Duper Things and we have just announced the lucky winner of a gorgeous set of prints so check out the post to see if that’s you.
Today I’m sharing with you a new interview with a creative entrepreneur, which I hope you will enjoy. I’ve been chatting with David Robinson, the founder of The Original Sofa Co, who has told me lots of interesting things about the Chesterfield sofa, an iconic piece of interior design so I’m excited to give you a glimpse behind the scenes of his workshop and showroom too. Let’s dive in!
Interview: Meet David Robinson
Hi David! Thank you for your time and answering my nosy questions. I’d love to start by learning a little more about your creative and professional background. What led you to the world of the Chesterfield?
I was 22 when I took my first step towards an independent career. A friend from University, Kelly Clark, offered me to partner with her in creating a new womenswear fashion label. Every piece was designed and created in Sheffield in-house and we were adamant not to send any work off-shore. This of course came at a cost and it proved difficult to make it in the fashion industry without a lot of pre-existing contacts. Luckily for us, we were able to show our capsule collection at a great venue on our very first London Fashion Week, and from there had the opportunity to show in Paris, so that by the end of our first season, we had 18 client accounts.
The way I was making ends meet in the meantime, was by buying and selling preloved cars and motorcycles. One day my mother bought a secondhand Chesterfield suite that had belonged to her aunt; it was still in a lovely condition and we found a buyer for it on Ebay, which is the very moment it hit me that this could potentially be a sustainable business idea. That was 15 years ago!
What was your entrepreneurial journey in founding the company? I’d love to hear about some of the challenges you have faced along the way and how you tackled them.
At first I filled up my garage, my mother’s garage, and the utility room with Chesterfield sofas. When I ended up renting a small industry unit, that’s when I realised this was becoming something of its own. I stepped down from my role at the fashion label to focus on this new venture and shortly thereafter, I was restoring furniture with my own two hands. Learning about 19th century furniture was particularly interesting, it made me realise there was a whole other challenge there: these pieces that had survived in great condition for 100 or 150 years had done so because of the particular way in which they were crafted, with patience and very high quality materials.
When I felt ready to design and produce my own range, I spoke to as many manufacturers as I could but a lot of them quickly pointed out to the difficulty of hand-tacking and working with loose fibres, which was a frustrating setback until I came across a manufacturer in Lancashire who agreed to give it a go. I refined my designs, had the frames made by a third generation framemaker in London and invested heavily into the premium materials needed to make the range to a beautiful standard: horse hairs, horse tail, coconut hair, and all the other materials necessary, then had them delivered to the factory. After two weeks without concrete news from Lancashire, I grew nervous and drove to the factory myself to check on the range’s progress. Sadly, I found out that they had struggled to start work on the pieces and fortunately, I was able to get all the materials back with me and safekeep my investment. At that point I knew I had to take a leap of faith if I wanted the venture to succeed and I took a different approach.
I searched through the artisan and maker community in the UK and found a passionate artisan upholsterer who did a lot of work restoring furniture for English heritage. I offered him to join the business full-time and this was the start of The Original Sofa co. A few years down the line, we had our own workshop and showroom, and then opened a dedicated showroom on Sloane Street, just across the road from some superb fashion houses, which sort of made things full circle as it is Fashion that gave me my first taste of the world of entrepreneurship.
What do you think makes the Chesterfield sofa such an iconic, timeless, and popular design? Can you tell us what you’ve learned about its history through the years?
A Chesterfield can be such a simple yet complicated piece of design. Like a luxury car or watch, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Subtle variations in the fabrication process and the materials used will have a big impact on the finished object, so not all Chesterfields are created equal! It is a functional furniture piece in a home, which has varying degrees of comfort depending on the way it was made, but I think it’s fair to say Chesterfields are synonymous with British heritage, and with comfort, as well as with luxury. They’ve been present in the corridors of power, from literary salons to political offices, through the centuries, and this has given them an undeniable symbolic status.
We ourselves once supplied Chesterfields to the Cambridge Union Society (one of the oldest student debating societies in the world) and a particular piece had seen each American President of the 20th century sit on it: it had been there when the first D-Day battle-plan meeting had been held. Chesterfields have always been sought by people with a refined taste and they are still highly popular with the political elite. We have supplied pieces to world leaders including Angela Merkel and Heinz Fischer.
In an age where retailers are generally seeking to lower their production costs, often at the price of a loss of quality, it’s great to see independent businesses take a different approach. You embrace the craftsmanship and handmade fabrication methods that were used in the 19th century, can you tell us more about the production process. What are the steps involved in producing a new Chesterfield?
Absolutely! My ethos has always been “no compromise”. Every customer we work with is different and has different needs so we cater to this by offering 5 different crafting methods and materials at 5 different price points. At the top end, producing a piece takes around 20 working days and begins with a hand-cut Mortise & Tenon jointed frame with walnut legs. We then add 8-point hand-tied loose coil sprung seats arms and back. Coconut hair is used to create a bed for the horsetail to be sewn in. Each of these stages constitutes a different handmade process, including hand-sewing to ensure everything is tightly secured. Next we add pure cotton felt and lambswool to line the piece before adding the leather and use brass tacks to make sure everything will stay in place for a generation. Finally once the piece is entirely crafted, it is dyed. We mix our own dyes to ensure that each design is unique and offer a breadth of colour choices for each order. When it comes to Chesterfields, this is the finest crafting process available today.
Traditional furniture-making and upholstery are fascinating crafts; I wonder where one can train and learn these artisan skills, do they traditionally go through an apprentice route? Where do you look to hire your master craftsmen? How do you source the diverse range of premium materials going into each piece together?
People who can craft with such a level of skill are a rare commodity indeed! It is a difficult craft to learn and it’s not for everyone. We look for true artisans, not just upholsters, and to find master craftsmen, we rely on word of mouth as well as our own apprenticeship scheme. We actually have an apprentice who is due to finish his formal training this year. All of our craftsmen are employed directly by us and work in-house. This provides greater transparency in the production process and is a great way to identify and solve any problems quicker and more efficiently. We are a small but tight-knit team comprising artisans, client liaisons, and interior designers.
Interestingly, it’s pretty hard to find raw materials of a very premium quality. Because there are so few companies which work at this level of high-quality, it’s a very niche industry. Through the years we have developed a strong contact book and we currently work with a supplier who is based in the Netherlands to purchase many of our fillings.
You have an impressive range of clients from luxury retailers like Chopard, to media powerhouses like ITV, tech giants like Google, and top universities including Harvard and Cambridge. Can you tell us a bit more about your different customers (hotels, office spaces, residential clients) and how you work with each in a different way?
Each project is unique and every client has a different set of requirements. We don’t only produce Chesterfields, we have clients approach us with very specific and original challenging briefs such as recreating Tower Bridge as a sofa for an event space for example. We also crafted three of our Porters chairs for a London-themed party and had the leathers printed with themed designs. The images included the “Winking Queen” and Roger Moore as James Bond (with a secret twist – but I can’t tell you the twist otherwise you would know who the client is (!). That was a very fun project.
Our clientele is international so we need to deliver worldwide and this requires some strong logistical planning, but after 15 years it has become second nature of course. There is some flexibility involved if a piece is travelling by ship and may be slightly delayed for reasons beyond our control but on the other hand, if a piece travels by air, it can be in New York under 72 hours. We once had a client who was so pressed for time for an event that they requested an airliner to fly a pair of sofas to them. They were the only thing travelling on the journey! At $300,000, this was probably our most expensive delivery in the history of the company.
I also saw that you restore and stock pre-loved Chesterfield sofas, can you tell us a bit more about what’s involved in the restoration process and what is the price point for these pieces in case any of our readers are interested?
Pre-loved and restored Chesterfields are gorgeous pieces that have stood the test of time. They are priced around the £1,500 mark, which makes them competitive as compared to a premium sofa from a high street store, and they are a great way to achieve that quintessential vintage or gentleman-club style for those who want their homes to have flair. We take the donor sofa and retain as much of the original leather as possible. We put in a brand new seat for comfort, either fully buttoned or flat, and carefully blend in the old and new leathers together with a dyeing process. By the end of the restoration, a pre-loved Chesterfield has regained all of its allure and longevity for its new home.
Thank you so much for your time David and letting us know more about the world of The Original Sofa Co. Readers, I hope you enjoyed this piece and if you have any questions for David or his team, please feel free to ask in the comments. You can visit the showrooms in Chelsea, London SW1 and Gateshead, NE11 and follow them on social media @OriginalSofaCo on Twitter and Facebook.
Thank you for reading!
Disclosure: I’ve loved working on this post in collaboration with The Original Sofa Co. Thank you for supporting the wonderful brands who support Hecticophilia. All words are always my own. Want to work together? It’s this way.