Upstairs at the east London HQ of British furniture brand Established & Sons, Sebastian Wrong crosses his long legs and perches on a Quilt sofa, designed for the brand by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Assistants are sent away so we can talk alone. ‘I’m not Kim Jong-un,’ he laughs, although, coincidentally, the sofa is a shade of North Korean red, and the company Wrong co-founded, left and rejoined last spring has had as tumultuous a past as many a wayward state.
During this year’s Salone, in his resumed role as Established & Sons’ design director, Wrong is launching the brand’s first new collection for six years. It’s a big moment for the rock ‘n’ roll furniture manufacturer, which, since its birth 13 years ago, has suffered the departure of its five founders (former chairman Angad Paul committed suicide in 2015), huge debts, loss of direction and near extinction, before being brought back from the brink last year by three new owners.
Five new pieces, including the handblown ‘Filigrana’ light by Wrong, will be unveiled within the Fiera. Two sofas by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and Konstantin Grcic are headline acts, there’s a light by young Swiss designer Dimitri Bähler, and a chair by octogenarian Italian Mauro Pasquinelli. They represent a fresh start, says Wrong, and signal a move into ‘more accessible, competitively priced, relevant products’.
Almost the opposite, then, to what E&S became known for when, in 2005, it wowed Milan with a daring debut collection of eight pieces by Britain’s best designers, including Amanda Levete’s ‘Chester’ sofa, the limited-edition ‘Aqua’ table by the late Zaha Hadid, and the ‘Zero-In’ table by Barber & Osgerby. E&S’ original mission – to make everything in the UK with Paul’s steelmaking family firm, Caparo – challenged the traditional (mainly Italian) production landscape.
From left, ‘Barbican’ divan, by Konstantin Grcic, a geometric sofa available in three textile combinations, with memory foam pads; ‘Light’ lights, by Dimitri Bähler, a series of lamps, made from Japanese paper and carbon fibre, that emit a soft, diffused light; ‘Filigrana’ lamps, by Sebastian Wrong, a set of four handblown, acid-etch suspension lights, available in three colourways; ‘Cassette’ sofa, by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, available in distinct metals, this sofa is easy to assemble and take apart. Photography: Ana Cuba
Jay Osgerby, who worked with E&S from the start, recalls: ‘Established was a phenomenon; it totally unsettled the market. Everyone, from Flos to Vitra, was talking about this ambitious young powerhouse.’ High-octane parties accompanied every launch; in 2005, E&S laid on four double decker buses to collect visitors from all over London and bring them to a bus depot in Hoxton to see the collection. ‘The parties had such glamour and energy,’ says Osgerby.
‘We were fuelled up and firing on all cylinders,’ says Wrong. ‘It was a very free-spirited platform, and we took risks and worked with amazing people.’ Did they ever say no to anything? ‘Occasionally,’ he laughs, ‘but being ambitious and outspoken were our core principles.’
For years, E&S steamed ahead, making high-concept, costly pieces, ignoring the late delivery times and distribution problems that were starting to tarnish its glittering reputation. ‘There were consistent delays,’ recalls Simon Alderson, co-founder of design retailer Twentytwentyone. ‘It had such a diverse range, and a huge supply base, but if you have too many variants, you run into problems.’ In 2007, realising that Caparo’s skills in making pressed car parts were not easily transferrable to the furniture sector, E&S had to abandon its ‘British Made’ tag and produce in Italy. Still, the collection grew and became increasingly random.
Alderson finally gave up on the brand in 2015, but last year, his faith restored by the new regime, he reintroduced pieces from the E&S back catalogue, including the Wrongwoods collection by Wrong and artist Richard Woods, and the ‘Zero-In’ table, which, thanks to a slicker production process, now sells for £950 instead of £1,500. Alderson says, ‘The fact that Sebastian is back has given me confidence. He’s a great figurehead and curator, and understands the brand like no one else.’ Sales, finances and distribution – E&S’ former weak spots – are now overseen by three new owners with promising skill sets: Vincent Frey is the grandson of Pierre Frey, founder of the Parisian fabric house; London-based Patrick Mueller-Hermann is a management consultant; and Swiss investor Ramzi Wakim has a background in hotels.
The new team’s first move was to cull the collection by two-thirds, relegating 102 products to the archive. Taken together, the remaining 42 pieces no longer look like they’re about to break into a fist fight. ‘At times the collection has been confusing,’ Wrong concedes. ‘Our DNA matches the perception of what British design – its edginess – is all about. But we do need to change from being a company that makes objects you look at with curiosity to one that makes things you want to live with.’
Wrong is well placed to oversee this transition. He left E&S in 2012 and a year later joined Danish brand Hay as design director. As well as launching more than 30 products, including the Wrong London lighting range, he injected the mid-market Scandinavian brand with pizazz, hosting glitzy launches in Milan’s La Pelota, where once E&S had partied. His four-year stint at Hay, he says, has given him ‘insight into design development and costs, and what products must do to deliver. Established is not there yet,’ he adds, ‘but it’s early days.’
E&S has always drawn star designers and it was not hard to reel in Grcic and the Bouroullecs. ‘As a designer, Established was brilliant to work for,’ says Osgerby. ‘You want your producer to have ambition and belief and a desire to get the job done.’ And while big names sell and headline acts draw attention, Wrong doesn’t want to abandon E&S’ experimental roots.
Over the years he has put graduation projects by the likes of Shay Alkalay of Raw-Edges and Wouter Scheublin into production and given countless young designers a break. The Pasquinelli project is something of a departure. When Wrong came across a chair by the veteran designer in a factory in Italy, he hunted down an unrealised 1976 design of another chair by Pasquinelli and set about producing it. (It’s the first time that E&S has ‘rebooted’ a living designer; in his heyday, Pasquinelli was well known among the chair experts of Manzano.)
‘Priced at around £550, it’s a working chair and relates to a period I like very much,’ says Wrong. ‘And we need some bread and butter chairs in the collection.’ The other new pieces also ‘fill the gaps’ and cater to a world in which ‘meetings take place on sofas rather than in boardrooms, online retail is on the rise, and battery life is a constant battle.’
Anyone who remembers what a ballsy game-changer E&S was is rooting for them. ‘It helped us create three of the most iconic products we’ve ever made,’ says Osgerby. ‘I hope it can carry on making brilliant pieces.’ Alderson adds, ‘The quality of design is so high, it deserves to succeed. It was such a positive addition. It didn’t follow trends; it invented its own language.’
As originally featured in the May 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*230)