I’m in a Novotel in Leeds with Naughtone. A second home to travelling salesmen up and down the country, it seems an odd place to meet, especially since the company’s HQ is a short drive north in Pannal. But there is good reason to be here. The company has supplied the furniture for a cosmetic makeover of the place, a project with its long-time collaborators, interior designers Blacksheep. Today, directors Matt Welsh, Kieron Bakewell and Mark Hammond are seeing their products in situ for the first time since completion. They look happy, as well they might: through a mixture of custom-built and standard Naughtone products they have managed to breathe some life into a pretty soul-sucking environment.
“They had these bizarre little open spaces and it was all single height,” says Hammond gesturing towards the foyer. “The banquette looked liked it had been ripped out of an 80s movie.” By installing bar-height versions of their Trace table and bespoke banquette seating Naughtone imbued a mix of intimacy and informality. Broad-shouldered Hammond is the quietest of the three, preferring to let newest addition Welsh and co-founder Bakewell do most of the talking, but he comes alive when talking through the finishes: “What can I say, I’m a furniture geek,” he shrugs.
Novotel is just one of many large clients Naughtone has worked with. You can find its products in venues as diverse as Jaguar’s car showrooms and the Royal Albert Hall and, most recently, the BBC’s new Salford headquarters. The BBC commission came about through another ongoing relationship the company has with an interior design firm, this time ID:SR, which was designing the fit-out. Keen to be seen as “giving something back” following the controversial multi-million pound relocation, the Beeb held a competition with Naughtone, inviting students to design a piece of furniture for the building. The result was Busby, a high-backed cylindrical chair by student Samir Skalli, which is perfect for working quietly in open-plan spaces. Impressed, the BBC ordered 40, and the guys plan to launch it properly later this year. “They [the BBC] were on about making something out of old film reel cans and all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff,” says a bemused Welsh. “We had to rein them in a little and say ‘let’s make something useful.’”
This nicely sums up Naughtone’s design approach. Cast your eyes across its rapidly expanding collection (it aims to produce four new products a year) and you’ll be struck by its coherence. There’s no room at the inn for whimsical flights of fancy; instead the collection is anchored by purpose. “We do quite simple stuff,” says Bakewell, the outfit’s chief designer. “We are not trying to break the mould with fancy new manufacturing techniques and so it isn’t a huge leap of faith for people to buy into the Naughtone thing. We make products that do the job and that people actually want.” Everything is made locally, too, which is extremely encouraging for a region whose once-formidable industrial heart has all but flatlined.
Despite the amount of bespoke pieces featuring in projects like the BBC and Novotel it is not an aspect of the business that the three actively push, preferring to present themselves as a company with set products. However, the collection does lend itself to adaptation. A change of base or a different finish allows for a seamless crossover between office, education and leisure sectors and have helped the company ride out the recession. “There was no Naughtone downturn,” says Hammond. Partly in reaction to the market, they are exploring wood as an aesthetic rather than just a structural material, but it’s the happy union of elegant steel and warm fabrics that characterises much of their work until now.
As we decamp to upmarket Harrogate for a pub lunch, the conversation and beer flows. All native Yorkshiremen, they possess an easy charm tempered by gentle self-deprecation. Bakewell tells of his mild obsession with Volkswagen Sciroccos, including a hair-raising tale of how the last one he owned virtually exploded on the journey back from London. The story gets everyone laughing, as does Hammond’s piss-taking of Welsh’s drawing ability. “I’m an excellent drawer,” says Welsh, aping Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman. Their knockabout humour is disarming and one suspects they would be fine regular drinking companions.
From here it is a short hop to the Naughtone HQ, tucked away on a clandestine business park in sleepy Pannal village. The designers have adapted the building to house an ad hoc showroom, office space for the five staff and a warehouse. Naughtone moved the business here from Leeds city centre 18 months ago, exasperated with the daily commute, and although rural Yorkshire is blessed with natural beauty, one wonders whether they now feel disconnected being so far from London. “There is a lot of curtain-twitching that goes on in the industry, particularly in Clerkenwell,” says Hammond. “We don’t have that here and the train to London is so easy.” And although Bakewell suspects money has been lost by not having a London showroom, it’s a sacrifice they are all comfortable with. “We’d have to have someone there all the time… and my chickens would hate it,” adds Hammond.
So, business is booming, and – given the length of Naughtone’s client list – it is surprising that the company is not better known. Much like the birds of prey that populate the Yorkshire countryside, the company has swooped under the radar. The fact that it’s hovering outside of Clerkenwell must be a factor, but another is the product range itself – with no “look at me” designs screaming for attention, they seem to be both everywhere and nowhere. Inevitably, this has meant people are now starting to copy them. Frustrating, but Hammond attributes part of the problem to the weakness of UK creative copyright laws. “We pride ourselves in this country on British design heritage, but our protection laws are so fluffy,” he says “Unless you are willing to go to court there isn’t much you can do.” Thankfully, Naughtone displays more integrity in its own business model, paying the same royalties to competition-winner Skalli as it does to full-blown pro designers. “We didn’t set up the business just because it might prove lucrative. We love design and we have to be fair.”