Design runs in the bloodline for father and son furniture makers, Alex Willcock and Felix Conran, who founded Maker&Son five years ago from the idyllic Grade II confines of the family home, Kemps House – located just outside the village of Balcombe, West Sussex.
Before this, both enjoyed design-centric careers in varying guises over the years. Alex started out as a cabinet-maker in Australia (where he met Felix's mother, Sophie Conran) before working as Creative Director of the Conran Group. Felix (grandson of Sir Terence Conran) had his own clothing line before co-founding CLAN design studio with some fellow Central Saint Martins students. Now running Maker&Son, the pair design and produce beautifully hand-crafted furniture with sustainably sourced hardwood frames, made using all-natural materials. Their selection of sofas, chaises and beds have gained something of a cult following. Here, they talk about the importance of history, home and showrooms on wheels.
Where did the journey for Maker&Son begin?
Alex: We came up with the idea of Maker&Son five years ago in our family home in West Sussex: Kemps House, which we now often refer to as our third founder. It’s named after the architect who designed and built the place for himself. For me, an important part of its legacy is that it’s always been a working house in that way: this place literally became the home of the family and the business at the same time.
Felix: We decided to continue doing what we love (designing and making), in the exact way we felt it should be done, with the people we love. This meant zero compromise on quality and making our products entirely from natural materials. We soon debuted our Song range, which has since afforded the recognition of ‘the most comfortable sofa in the world’. Trust us, it really is the most comfortable thing.
Alex, you once credited the inception of Maker&Son to writing your “morning pages”, a meditative technique recommended in The Artists' s Way by Julia Cameron – do you still practice this?
A: These days I’m not that fortunate to dedicate as much time as I once did to my morning pages, but I usually do some sort of writing or meditation in the morning for a short while.
How do you ensure your brand values are incorporated into the day-to-day running of the business?
A: First and foremost, we are a family business, and take pride in creating products that bring families together. We are very fortunate to run our business from our home, and employ a local team of dedicated, creative individuals. We share the belief that the greatest way to consider the future is to make products that will last a lifetime.
F: From the very beginning, creating beautiful things from natural materials has always been a number one priority at Maker&Son. We take pride in producing lifelong products for the home, made by talented craftspeople. We design and make each of our pieces by hand, using traditional methods – knowing our products are both physically and ethically comfortable is hugely important to us.
What is it like working as a father and son team?
A: We both take a hands-on approach to the business and are involved in everything from the design concept right through to the marketing campaigns. You might find Felix on board your mobile showroom visit or find me nestled in a Love Seat in our showroom in Sussex. As the business is run from our family home, we made a point of making the house feel friendly, welcoming and approachable for those working here every day. Kemp House is such a vibrant place of change, rooms are purposed and repurposed as people are always moving around. Spaces become playrooms that become offices. It’s been a constant evolution.
What are your sources of inspiration for your designs?
A: Honestly, my greatest inspiration (sounds so corny) is nature, and the natural world.
F: For me, it's the materials themselves. I try to listen to what a material’s properties are, and there are certain things that they will never do – and you should never make them try to do. Other times you are really trying to push the boundaries of what a material is capable of. Take the bentwood lights, for example. There's no steaming, no processing. They're all held together by tension inherent to material.
Do you have a favourite spot within your home?
A: Oh that is a hard one. I would say either the kitchen or the upstairs family bathroom. I have so many wonderful memories of bathing the kids within literally a few hours of them being born.
F: Definitely the kitchen. There is an amazing cabinet that Alex made from recycled antique doors and a bit of an old kitchen counter. It looks like it has been there forever but really in the grand scheme of the house, it is very new.
Do you have any favourite pieces from the collection?
A: The Large Sofa - I love it because I love the whole thing of family and it just reminds me of nights cuddling up on the sofa, watching a movie with all the kids. I think it’s the ultimate family sofa.
F: My favourite piece is our Footstool, for a number of reasons... it’s something that we absolutely could have just made in a very basic way, but we didn’t. It has a fully sprung base in it, just like all of our furniture. So it’s full of comfort for sitting, for lounging back and propping your feet up. I love it because it can pair with any of the other pieces, or any existing furniture. The sheer comfort that you feel when you're in the corner of a sofa with your feet up is just awesome. It’s a sort of ‘Swiss Army Knife’, and I’m also now really excited about our storage footstool launching later this year...
Coming out of lockdown, have you seen any big change over the year with how people are styling their homes?
A: The past year has taught many of us how much we value our homes, and the importance of investing in timeless pieces to create a safe space. We’ve seen a shift in the way people are choosing to decorate their homes; with the aim of making them feel a certain way, rather than it simply looking a certain way.
Your mobile showrooms (quite literally, a sofa in a van that visits you at home, so you can try before you buy) are a wonderfully different way of showcasing your offering – where did this idea come from?
A: People assume that the mobile showroom idea was born out of the pandemic, but actually it was a concept that began years ago. In order for people to commit to buying one of ‘the most comfortable sofas in the world’, we had to give them the opportunity to test this theory. This started with putting a Maker&Son Love Seat in the back of a van and driving to potential clients' homes, It was so well received, so the idea organically grew from there. Now we have a fabulous fleet of mobile showrooms across the UK.
Can you tell us what's next for Maker & Son?
A: We'll carry on doing what we do best, bringing our offering to many more places and extending our approach to different areas of the home as well. At the moment, we're quite excited about introducing Maker&Son Dog Beds for our favourite four-legged friends…