Sustainable businesses love the West Country
Sustainable businesses love the West Country
The West Country is becoming a power house of sustainable design businesses. Middle of nowhere or not, like birds of a feather, they flock together
It's not just the sand, the surf, and the occasional rays of sunshine that make people of a creative and an eco-bent head off down the A303, never to return to the metropolis. But they certainly help, say the designers behind Bark Furniture, Skinflint Design, Tom Raffield and A Short Walk.
Cornwall is, says Jonathan Walter, who with his wife Lakshmi Bhaskaran runs Bark Furniture from Camelford, a very good place to live (if you're not unemployed). 'It's curious because Cornwall certainly is not natural place to set up a business as location-wise, it's rubbish...Birmingham would make much more sense.
'But those of us who come here do relish the sense of...release from life in the city... you get to love the space, the lack of traffic. And while property is expensive to buy, rents are relatively low. But I do think you've got to be bit eccentric to set up a business in Cornwall.'
Dan Dicker of A Short Walk, which is based near Truro and manufactures accessories from recycled plastic coffee cups and plant pots, says the reason for relocating to Cornwall was to be able to walk to run a business and walk to the beach when the urge to surf became irrestistible. And Chris and Sophie Miller of Skinflint Design, which deals in reclaimed lighting from the UK and Europe, make no bones of the fact that wanting to be close to the sea was a major factor in leaving London.
Bark Furniture was launched two years ago and it's finding a market for its smart, bespoke, hand-crafted products made from sustainable materials that have a hint of the mid-century modern era about them.
He thinks Devon and Cornwall are losing their association with cottage crafts, as people who have worked in other industries before moving into design bring their high-tech skills, such as CAD design or industrial processes, to the area. 'For example, I work with someone who is an expert in CAD and that means from my sketches, he produces CAD designs which have mathematically pure curves, which I can send to my prototype company to template. It speeds up the process and improves the design.
Walter himself worked as an accountant in London and New York before deciding to quit and train as a cabinet maker in Sao Paulo, where he lived for several years.
He returned to the UK in 2007 and decided to hone his skills by training in fine furniture making with renowned furniture maker David Savage, who's based in Beaworthy in Devon. After the course, Walter felt it was a no-brainer to stay in the area, because he could work with other graduates who like him couldn't face the the thought of returning to London where rents for workshops and accommodation would be prohibitive. He met his wife when she was also on the David Savage course and in 2010 they decided to launch Bark.
'It's going well and we are happy here. We find a lot of like-minded people and as more of us come here, so Devon and Cornwall are developing a reputation not just for great craft, but for sophisticated design and specialist skills. And we all benefit from working within a community of fellow makers.'
Sophie Miller of highly successful Skinflint Design says Cornwall is an innovative area, with a lot of small businesses that can excel because of the varied local skills. 'There is a skilled workforce here and we can subcontract work out to local people and support the community.' What Skinflint and Bark aren't oblivious to is the fact that while they're based in the West Country, their products are not widely sold here, rather London and the South East remain their customer base.
Skinflint sources its vintage lighting from factories, car production lines and other former industrial premises, as well as churches, throughout the UK, and also from countries of the former Eastern Block, such as the Czech Republic. Pieces can date back 100 years and many are over 50 years old.
'We restore these pieces to comply with all the latest EU and health and safety regulations. Our customers like the stories behind the products, the fact that there aren't an infinite number of them, and that they have a far less manicured look than new lighting products,' says Miller, who moved with her husband Chris to Cornwall seven years ago. Skinflint pieces are also well-priced, starting at around £50.
A Short Walk is another success story, as it now sells in the tens of thousands to Homebase, John Lewis, The National Trust, as well as to some 500 independent retailers.
Set up by Dan Dicker, a former designer for Dyson and a keen surfer, A Short Walk makes eminently affordable eco accessories from recycled plastic coffee cups, and now plant pots. It takes the material to a local moulding factory, and turns it into coasters, place mats, clocks, noteboards, picture frames, tide clocks, bird-feeders, and many more items, which it wholesales, and also sells online. The materials is dyed using carbon so it looks and indeed feels like slate, and it can be written on with chalk.
'We respond to what customers tell us they want,' says Dan's brother Simon Dicker, who looks after sales for the company. 'People do like the fact that our products are eco-friendly, and it's certainly much easier to sell a product if there's a story behind it.'
There are plenty more interesting companies in this neck of the woods, including Letterfest a North Devon based business set up by graphic designer Wendy Harrison. She's put her love of typography to innovative use, creating FSC-cardboard letters and animals, as well as paint-your-own cardboard Christmas trees and other home accessories, which she sells online. Like her peer group, she too loves the area and finds it an inspiring place to work.
So the moral of the tale isn't always to go where the work is. Sometimes you've got to go to where you want and make the work come to you.