Perfection V Ambition (finale)

Perfection V Ambition (finale)

At the close of part two we’d established that design practices often stop hiring once they have reached a certain ratio (ar kid) to maintain their design language and quality control. Furniture companies seem to have their sights set on different goals, however. And who better to pick this up than Matt Welsh of British furniture Co Naughtone who, after a decade of solid growth are now going global…


I ask Matt to talk us through their journey to date.

“As a small to medium sized, fast moving furniture manufacturer, the ability to change direction and respond to market and client requirements has been the foundation on which we built naughtone. However, the market is changing.”

Truphone, London.
“This is what an office looks like now!”

“We’ve seen a real shift in the type of business that is interested in a warmer, more eclectic, domestic style in their environment. ” Yes indeed I think to myself – thinking back to a previous article on Furniture Strategist No Place Like Workplace. Ahem, sorry Matt, carry on…

“More traditional businesses like Law Firms and Financial Institutions are following the lead of the forward thinking, flexible businesses and are creating softer, less system furniture orientated spaces.” Matt continues, “So, this trend isn’t just for the Tech Start-ups and Marketing Agencies anymore, this is what an office looks like now!”

Very true. Everyone wants to look like a start up. Big businesses want to appear more approachable to their consumer base. People like local, craft and casual in an increasingly corporate and globalised world.

Lancaster University Library by Sheppard Robson
naughtone at Lancaster University Library (Sheppard Robson)
So having heard about naughtone’s success on the other side of the pond I ask Matt to walk us through it.

“We launched into the US 2 ½ years ago and saw instantaneous success.” explains Matt, “This gave us the confidence to push forwards. The US is highly service orientated, so it became apparent that to really become a significant business over there we would need to start to product our furniture in North America.”

Naughtone’s Chicago showroom
‘So how did you develop this opportunity?’ I ask.

“A plan was hatched. We decided to explore the opportunities a partnership with a major manufacturer might offer us. We’ve always admired Herman Miller and felt that, like us, design was at the very heart of their business.”

But how did it come about? Did you just walk on to the Herman Miller stand and say ‘Hi guys, check out our cool British brand?’

“The initial contact came from a cheeky message from myself to Brian Walker (CEO) of Herman Miller via LinkedIn! Things escalated quickly as it became apparent they were also exploring opportunities in our sector. Once we met the synergies became very obvious.” Now there’s a lesson in northern sales tactics for you. Lesson one: Thee don’t ask, thee don’t get.

Etsy HQ, NYC.
Matt continues, “In June 2016 we entered into a “Strategic Partnership” with Herman Miller, this probably sounds a bit woolly?” Whoa there. They’ve already got you speaking ‘that commercial speak’ Matt. Strategic partnership..?

“Basically Herman Miller have invested into naughtone and are providing us with assistance in growing our business globally. We start production in North America in October, with Asia following shortly after. This means we can provide much better support for our clients, particularly on an International level.”


So Herman Miller provide the network, experience and infrastructure to take naughtone to the next level and beyond. ‘Is there any danger of brand dilution?’ I ponder, having watched the brand steadily grow over the last decade.

“We’re still running the business and defining the creative direction, but we have a support network to enable us to do it on a Global scale.” says Matt, ” In essence, this deal enables us to continue to grow, but also to retain the character and personality that many of our clients have grown to love.”


Well, there’s no two ways about it. This is a furniture start up’s ambition crystallised. Full access to the support, network, business acumen and kudos of a Global leader in furniture, yet still retaining creative direction. Could this be furniture brand utopia? It’s great to see a British start up we’ve watched grow up (to the ripe old age of 10) now hit the global stage. Congratulations to Matt, Kieron and Mark and may your new partnership bear lots of fruit. Strategically of course…


Thanks for reading and thanks to all participants in this mini-series:

Roger Stephenson OBE of Stephenson Studio

Paul de Zwart of Another Country

Simon Millington, Interior Designer

Matt Welsh of Naughtone.



Perfection V Ambition (part two)

Perfection V Ambition (part two)

Following my discussion with Roger Stephenson OBE (Architect) and Paul de Zwart (craft furniture owner) in part one, I continue to ponder if big business success means selling your design soul. Or is it possible to have both?

I recently caught up with a pal of mine – multi award winning Interior Designer Simon Millington..

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 21.24.38

“In my world, workplace design continues to change and evolve at a rate that is difficult to keep track of.” Simon explains, “The edgy spark isn’t so much about the aesthetic, that’s actually relatively easy to keep fresh no matter the scale of your studio. Being edgy is actually more about the increasingly brilliant ways you can innovate and make an environment more engaging and productive to its users.”

I shuffle forward slightly. Go on.

“It’s a massive mistake to think that this is simply about whacking in a few swings and slides in an office space in the lame belief that your workplace is now the best place to work in the world. That is actually about as edgy as an amoeba wallowing in the primeval soup.”

Let’s stop this now.

I’m with you on the slides Simon, I’d be afraid of ripping my pants, but all this talk of soup is getting me hungry.

“To push boundaries you have to engage with your client’s company at all levels – you need to truly understand how they work as individuals and as a collective. You need to understand their brand, their culture and the frustrations and challenges they face on a daily basis in the work environment. You have to become imbedded and have the right thought processes to make valuable and unique responses that suit them without patronising or alienating their team. To get this right, it takes time, commitment and comes at a cost to the designer and indeed the client” Simon enthuses.

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“more often than not, the full potential is not delivered through fear.”

As someone that has worked in, founded and owned large and small design studios, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

“In a small studio it becomes all-consuming and you effectively have to shut the door to outside projects and distractions – not good for business. The small studio needs to be careful not to cut corners to remain a viable business. For larger studios, it is actually easier to be fully committed to a project and become truly imbedded with the team. You have the back-up resource to keep the wheels turning as you immerse yourself into the project and really research the potential solutions thoroughly, but it’s also true to say that pace and value drop off a cliff in this situation. The approach to taking educated risks or challenging the norm becomes more conservative and more often than not, the full potential is not delivered through fear.”


I had a feeling the ‘F’ word might be coming. Large scale commercial design studios aren’t generally known for risk taking… So where’s the line? How do you get the best of both?

“The unexpected and uncool answer to all this is a bit like the tale of Goldilocks” says Simon, “It needs to be just right. To push boundaries and innovate you need to keep the pace, passion and concentrated talent of small team. You need the studio owners to be on the tools to be a stakeholder of risk, but you also need to have the security and back up of a wider team working on a full spectrum of projects and programmes to keep the wolf away from the door, and this is what the larger companies enjoy.”

‘Nailed it’ I mutter to myself. During my career I have met a number of design studio founders who chose to intentionally halt growth once their team grew to a specific magic number. At first this puzzled me, but the name of Mancunian band ‘A Certain Ratio’ sums this up beautifully: it’s recognition of the fine balance between a well oiled machine… and dysfunction. Maintaining work quality and design philosophy is intrinsically linked to a senior designer’s ceiling limit of how many projects they can manage at any one time. There is a limit. A number. Going beyond this magic number can have disastrous consequences.


Simon concludes, “From experience, the really remarkable work comes from a studio that isn’t an international brand, nor is it a pop up that has only existed for a few years. The spark of genius comes from a medium sized studio where a high level of skill and expertise exists without dilution of the masses.”

This is a key difference between aspirations of Designers versus furniture producers. The holy grail for many designers is to have a small to medium sized high quality studio, with an extensive client waiting list allowing free creative expression. The ultimate goal for furniture manufacturers however is expansion, high number production and (for some) world domination. In the final part of my mini series, I talk to Matt Welsh of Naughtone, who has just agreed a deal with Herman Miller to take his UK based business Global….

Thanks Simon!