HAND GRADE, WOOD FLOORING REIMAGINED
Building a set for a floor as spectacular as our Hand Grade collection demands equally spectacular props, so ours featured an extraordinary light from Canadian company Bocci, furniture from Villiers, and oil paintings by Ben Lowe. Havwoods interviews Ben Lowe, Harry Villiers and William Tusting of English leather company, Tusting, who make the bespoke bags which carry our Hand Grade samples.
When did your passion for painting begin?
I’ve loved painting for as long as I can remember. Things picked up momentum when I was given an old box of oil paints, probably when I was about 12; so I was stretching up canvases and experimenting from there on really. I used to paint pictures and sell them to friends, not for much money, whilst pursuing a career in graphic design. In 2000 I went full-time with my painting – a bold step at the time, but one I’m glad I took as I’ve not looked back since.
So how many paintings have you done in your career?
No idea. Lots. I have to paint constantly or I’d curl up and die.
How long does it take to complete one?
It depends on the medium, to an extent. And my style is inherently stripped back – I try to get the message across with as little information as possible; so it’s not uncommon to make a painting in just two or three sessions. The time is more spent in finding good subject matter to fuel the paintings. And the downside to a minimal approach is that you have nothing to hide behind; so a good amount of work ends up being scrapped. On the other hand I have been known to re-visit paintings over the course of many years until I get the result I’m looking for.
What is the biggest goal in your career?
I genuinely don’t have any. I’m just glad to be busy doing something that I love.
Heavy Night from your Pictures of the Dark collective was one of the paintings we chose for our Hand Grade room set; can you tell us a little about your inspiration here?
The collection came at a difficult time. We were battling with the emotions connected to losing someone close to us, and that fed through to the paintings I was working on at the time.
Whereas your latest collection, Feathers of Fiction, is quite different?
Over the years my source material has included landscapes, portraits, figures and still life. In fact, I see my challenge as an artist to find art in everything: weeding out those little moments that tug at the heart strings and giving them a physical presence. The birds in this collection are fictitious – amalgamated impressions of the birdlife around my home and studio in Gloucestershire, abstracted to convey emotions and thoughts as much as objects or moments. Several of the paintings try to capture a sense of group dynamics and constant busyness, presenting an opportunity to be a bit more playful with colour. Little Yellow birds pays homage to the Franz Marc painting Little Yellow Horses, which I loved when I was younger.
Villiers is a British company run by three brothers, Harry, Tim and Hugo, who coax metals of every hue into fantasmagorical shapes. Often these are combined with stone or glass to create tables, mirrors, lighting and sculptures which now provide their own talking points all over the world.
We understand that you first worked together in 1989 after an encounter with Kevin McCloud led to commissions for Christopher Neville and Liberty of London, but what are your individual backgrounds?
Tim has a background in shipbuilding and served an apprenticeship as a welder. Hugo has a diploma in motorcycle engineering and has also worked as a theatre technician. Harry has a degree in graphic design and previously worked in advertising.
That’s a pretty diverse set of talents, so how did you end up collaborating in bespoke furniture design?
We were all working independently and occasionally sharing projects like making props for television commercials. Whilst working at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge Hugo met Kevin, who was looking for some help producing a metal lighting collection. Hugo introduced him to Tim and it went on from there.
Do you each have specific functions within the company?
Harry is the main designer and heads up sales. Tim is production director, whilst Hugo heads up lighting development and special projects that include installations for clients such as Andrew Martin International.
Tell us a little about the materials you most like to work with and how they inspire you.
We work in all types of metal: bronze, copper, brass, mild and stainless steels. Each metal has its own characteristics and capabilities and, over the years, we have developed an understanding of these qualities. Stainless steel is the material we use most of all, as it has resistance to moisture which makes it ideal for our customers who design super yachts or live in tropical or coastal climates.
Our world is one of mass production; is it difficult to find the craftsmen you need to work both for and with you?
Metal craftsmen all have a certain “attitude”, whether it is forging red hot steel, turning on a high speed lathe, pressing curves under our 20 tonne press or milling a meter long tapered console arm; you have to get stuck in and make it happen. In the past we have employed craftsmen from the aircraft industry, who traditionally work to thousandths of an inch! Furniture, however, will not fall out of the sky at 35,000 feet so we ask them to relax their tolerances a little.
Of all the pieces you have made, can you each show us your very favourite item and tell us what makes it so special for you?
Harry: My favourite design is the single loop Byron Console as it ticks many boxes and has become one of our most successful items of furniture.
The elegant tapered arms flow out of a simple twist, the idea being to create a sculptural impression of a bird in flight. The design and method of production really suits our workshop capability and can be made from mild steel or stainless steel. It can also be made to bespoke sizes with just a little additional tooling, keeping the cost to a minimum.
You sell all over the world; please tell us about your most memorable commissions?
Earlier this year we were commissioned by a very well known interior designer to create a buffet table for his client in Mumbai.
The client had been at school in Canterbury and had successfully bid for four large stone carvings from the Cathedral’s main window which had been deemed too far gone for restoration. Each carving weighed 340kg. We mounted them onto individual bronze frames and topped them with 15mm thick toughened glass.
Once the tables had been export packed, together with our tool kit of allen keys, spirit levels, touch-up paint, glass polish and lifting apparatus, the tables were flown to Mumbai. A few days later we were reunited with them in an enormous private dining room complete with a large collection of impressionist paintings and a polished marble floor that enabled us to slide and align the four tables together beautifully. Job done we flew back to the UK, all within 72 hours of departure.
And finally a practical question for our readers: what timescale do you require for bespoke commissions?
Bespoke commissions can take between 8 and 14 weeks to produce after the budget, design and finishes have been approved. Delivery time for our made to order standard items is 6-8 weeks, but we do carry stock of our most popular standard items and can deliver within 10 days.
Leather was once one of the top three industries in the UK. Now there are just 30 tanneries and manufacturers left. How did you not only survive, but flourish?
As a family we have been tanning, grading and trading the world’s finest leathers for over 130 years. Through the generations, the family members have adapted well to the changing world and demands on the business. During the 1980’s economic and environmental pressures meant that it was no longer viable to keep the tannery and so we chose to diversify, moving from tanning to sourcing fine leathers and eventually to manufacturing luxury briefcases, holdalls and handbags. Our expert knowledge of leather left us perfectly placed to turn the very finest materials available into exquisite pieces which combine truly original character with unmistakable quality.
You are the fifth generation Tusting in the leather industry; did you always want to follow into the family business or did you ever want to rebel?
I have always enjoyed outdoor pursuits, particularly skiing and cycling. My heart would have had me follow this passion and make a career as a ski guide, though I doubt this would have impressed my parents long- term! Perhaps fortuitously, this was not to be since I couldn’t obtain the necessary work Visa and so, instead, I decided to use my training and education gained at the leather school within Northampton University to continue the journey started all those years ago by my great, great grandfather.
Exports now account for around 60% of your sales, how do you explain that?
Tusting products are held in very high regard because of the British craftsmanship, care and expert knowledge that goes into producing every single bag. There is a high demand for British products all around the world, and particularly in the Far East, and it may be true that knowledgeable overseas buyers realise the exceptional quality of British luxury goods rather more clearly than British shoppers do! All customers, however, are increasingly keen to learn about the heritage and provenance behind their luxury goods and therefore they value our insistence and pride in manufacturing our products in our own UK workshop. When they buy a Tusting bag our clients can be sure that it has been made from flawless materials, to the highest quality, by experienced craftsmen and women. We expect these pieces to last a generation and mature beautifully, developing a mellow patina and a distinctive personality.