We’re not biased, honest. Yes, Mr Coakley’s SCP store does happen to be opposite Domus Nova’s Westbourne Grove office, but we’ve always been one of its biggest fans. We can only thank our lucky stars that we’re now just a hop, skip and a jump away.
SCP West opened in 2007 [following on from the original Shoreditch-based store, SCP East] and gave west London a unique brand of design it had never seen before. Not only that, but it is also renowned as one of the UK’s most innovative and internationally respected manufacturers of contemporary design.
Pretty impressive, considering that the man behind it had no formal training. Coakley admits that he originally got into the antiques business because of a desire to avoid getting what he calls “a real job”. “It was all part of being in what was known as the ‘alternative culture’. You wanted to earn a living, but you didn’t want a proper job.” The markets and auction halls in the 1970s were where he discovered his passion for art and design. Back then he lived around the Edgware Road area, but he soon moved to Notting Hill where he began working on a stall on Portobello Road. It was then that the design bug caught hold of him, so much that he opened the first SCP on Westbourne Park Road. He found the area a huge contrast to anywhere else, with the young middle classes living in some of the most valuable houses. The store was moments from the Railway pub [now Tom Conran’s The Cow], where he professes to have spent much of his time.
Operating as a vintage dealer buying and selling early 20th century furniture, Coakley restored many of the pieces in his store. Most people would find this impressive, but he describes this time as merely “a nice way to make a living”. He inevitably gained an in-depth understanding of the manufacturing process as a whole, something that would prove to be one of his greatest assets in the years to come. Fortunately for Coakley, at the time contemporary furniture didn’t have the same appeal as the secondhand pieces he was dealing with. “In the 1980s, the UK scene wasn’t that great in terms of what was emerging in interior design and furniture. It was perhaps a coincidence, but people were also looking for something a bit different that they could collect as a series and use, rather than entirely modern furniture.”
It was in 1985 that he found a deserted and dilapidated site on the Curtain Road that pushed him to make the controversial (at least back then) move from Notting Hill to Shoreditch, spurred on by rising costs in west London. Once an upholstery warehouse, the industrial building was “fantastically grim”, he says – and probably just what he was looking for. Back then Shoreditch was very different to what it is now. Coakley recalls that the entire place would shut down at weekends, with no passing traffic, and only one or two artists around – not ideal for a new design opening. “I could sit there on a Saturday and not one person would come in,” he says, admitting that it took nearly 10 years before the shop took off. “The reality was that the building was my warehouse and showroom for exporting and selling to architects. Now it’s the perfect place for SCP – as the area has evolved, the people who live and visit there are an ideal customer base.” In 2001, Coakley and his team of 30 or so staff finally turned SCP East into a bona fide shop.
During these early years, a somewhat maverick and non-conformist movement suddenly began to take hold of the British design world. Designers such as Jasper Morrison, Ron Arad, Matthew Hilton and Tom Dixon were emerging out of art schools with a more rebellious take on design. A market for such furniture didn’t exist in the UK back then, but Coakley immediately saw the potential in these young talents. In 1986, when SCP first exhibited at Milan’s Salone del Mobile, it took with it the first designs by Matthew Hilton and Jasper Morrison. “I got to know Jasper when he was a student and manufactured his first production pieces for him, recalls Coakley. Though they are now fully fledged names in the design world, he still collaborates closely with some, notably Matthew Hilton. Last year Hilton and SCP launched a set of new armchair and sofa designs, while past years have seen the iconic Balzac armchair, Oscar range & Compass table. Although Sheridan has close relationships with British designers, he also has many US names under the SCP belt, including Fort Standard and Bec Brittain, “I personally find American designers particularly interesting, but unfortunately they are underrated by Europeans. I would see their designs in various stores in New York, and would subsequently contact them. Now they are stocked in SCP.”
So, despite the success, why only two stores? Coakley doesn’t want a shop on every high street – he knows that SCP is never going to be able to compete with stores such as Ikea and Habitat. He will reveal, however, that if he was going to open another store, it would probably be in north London, but for now he’s only thinking about it. With this, he also admits that he would much rather keep his work local and have everything manufactured in the UK. As the company grew, Coakley opened his own upholstery factory in Norfolk – Coakley & Cox - which he believes gave SCP much more control over product development. When not at the Norfolk factory, he sources many other components for SCP’s designs across the UK. “We weave our textiles in Wales, yarn is spun in Yorkshire and ceramics are made in Stoke-on-Trent. There’s something appealing about that, plus it’s a great way to work, as I can visit the factories easily.” Something that is evident is how proud Coakley is to be a British manufacturer.
So what does he see as the big trend for furniture in 2013? For him, furniture design is a constant evolution. Big changes only happen when a new material comes along, which is not often. He sees 3D printing as a big trend for the future but that’s a long way off. As for 2013, he thinks people will become much more confident in mixing new and vintage design, becoming less reliant on current fashions. He still stands by his design ethos that future pieces need to be purposeful, with form and function.
One might expect someone with such an illustrious career to be very self-assured, but Coakley couldn’t be more different. He is strikingly modest and humble, always happy to give his time to talk about his roots, struggles and the designers he has worked with, rather than his own success. It is almost as if he doesn’t quite realise the impact he has had on the industry. At Christmas the Shoreditch store was virtually impossible to get into, with shoppers carrying armfuls of wooden toys, brightly knitted cushions and state-of-the-art telephones. “Yes, it was really quite a good year for us,” shrugs Coakley.
Home for Coakley is now in Hampshire, a 1970s house that was originally built for an engineer by a local architect. Coakley clearly loves it, right down to its entirely wood and brick construction, and the 20 acres of grounds where he grows hay and trees. “I wanted land all around me. I think I thought I’d run some sort of commune. It goes back to that alternative society thing.” It’s hard to believe that 2015 will see the 30th anniversary of SCP. Asked how he will be celebrating, he responds with a slight groan; he’s not sure, but it will be “definitely something quiet”. Sheridan, you can try your best, but we doubt that will be allowed to happen.
View SCP on the Domus Nova Design Guide.
SCP West, 87-93 Westbourne Grove, London W2 & SCP East, 135 Curtain Road, London EC2A; scp.co.uk