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Thirty years ago, the modern British furniture scene was dominated by small designer makers and lacked any real retail presence. Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder of Benchmark Furniture, tells Stacey Sheppard how his innovative approach to modern furniture design allowed Benchmark to fill this gap in the market and go on to become one of Britain's most successful manufacturers of bespoke furniture.
This year, for the first time, Benchmark Furniture exhibited at Milan's Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the largest interiors decoration trade fair in the world and a platform that will allow the company to launch its products to a worldwide audience. To some, this may seem a little late in the development of the company, what with it being almost 30 years since its launch. But if there is one thing that Benchmark co-founders Sean Sutcliffe and Sir Terence Conran can't be faulted on it's their knowledge of the market and their impeccable sense of timing.
After all, when the pair first set up the company, it was their recognition of a gap in Britain's modern furniture market that allowed them to really capitalize where other manufacturers were yet to explore. Sutcliffe explains: "When Benchmark was founded in 1984, the design scene looked very different. There were very few makers of modern furniture in any sort of scale. Ercol was making very traditional furniture, Peter Miles was making on a modest scale and Heal's Cabinet Factory was still in existence albeit rather traditional.
"The modern furniture scene was dominated by small designer makers who worked on high value commissions or pieces for galleries - most notably John Makepeace, Alan Peters, Ashley Cartwright and David Colwell. Retail environments didn't really exist, other than Heal's and the first Conran Shop."
Sutcliffe took on the challenge of this untapped market sector and started making furniture for the Conran Shop and for Heals. "Benchmark's early ambitions were to make small production runs of innovative, modern English furniture made with craftsmanship," says Sutcliffe.
Over time, the company grew more successful and its client base began to expand to include restaurants, cafes and hotels. But even as the company grew, it stayed true to its values and the manufacturing process remained firmly rooted in craftsmanship.
But craftsmanship is just one of the numerous elements that helps set Benchmark apart from other furniture manufacturers in the industry. "There are very few other furniture manufacturers who start with a tree and end up with furniture in their showroom, having completed every process in between themselves, in their own workshops," explains Sutcliffe.
"Our customers really appreciate being able to come to our showroom, which is next to the workshop, and see furniture being made. But people are often surprised to hear that our furniture is all made in England in our own workshops, because most other British furniture companies have their furniture made overseas," he says.
zinc, which has now become one of their specialist skills."I'm passionate about wood having grown up as a woodworker and trained at Parnham College so wood is very much at the heart of Benchmark and what we are most renowned for," explains Sutcliffe.
"However, we've also embraced other materials. Our work in zinc stemmed from the late 80's when we were trying to emulate the zinc bars of the West Bank in Paris. The popularity of zinc then led us to experiment with other non-ferrous materials and as a result we have significant expertise of working with zinc, pewter, copper and bronze," he says explaining that what he most loves about such metals is that they have a handmade look and feel which differentiates them from other highly-manufactured materials such as stainless steel.
According to Sutcliffe, it is this combination of woodworking and metalworking that makes Benchmark very unique in the market place. That and the fact that sustainability has always been central to the business both in terms of what is made and how it is made. But for Sutcliffe, this focus on sustainability wasn't a calculated strategy, but more a natural development.
"I'd grown up with a belief that we needed to develop a more sustainable world and was influenced and inspired by Jonathan Poritt so it was a natural and obvious move for me to set up Benchmark so that it operated in a sustainable way," he says. Benchmark's commitment to sustainability was rewarded in 2007 when the company became the first furniture maker ever to receive the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development.
But it is not just sustainability in the traditional sense that motivates Sutcliffe. He is also passionate about ensuring that the skills that his team has acquired can be passed on to the next generation. "Our apprenticeship scheme is the cornerstone of our business and fundamental to our competitive advantage," he says.
"I firmly believe that the ecological value of apprenticeships, in terms of human sustainability, is really important. I'm passionate about the benefits of apprenticeship schemes and believe that society today does not give enough value to artisanship and industry. For many young people, a more hands-on, creative approach to training reaps much greater rewards both for them and for our country, which is crying out for these essential skills."
Ensuring that the next generation of furniture makers is able to continue the work that Benchmark has been doing for the past 27 years has never been more important as we look to the future of the furniture industry.
Sutcliffe explains: "There isn't much grass roots innovation going on in the furniture industry as we just don't have the cash. Innovation is therefore more about 'intelligent adapting' and looking at new materials and processes that are used in industry and then adapting them for our own use. For example, Benchmark's design team has just toured the McLaren F1 factory and has come back with loads of ideas and inspiration for using new materials."
Sutcliffe is acutely aware of the fact that British furniture will never be able to compete on price with furniture made in the Far East or certainly not in the medium term. "I believe strongly that we must concentrate on what we do best - adding high intellectual added value and delivering high levels of craftsmanship. We have a fantastic tradition and reputation within the UK for making luxury goods and we should build on those strengths."