INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
Sheridan Coakley: Unsung Hero of Great (British) Design

SCP founder Sheridan Coakley has been championing good design in the UK for well over 20 years now and in the process he has launched the careers of some of Britain's biggest talents and created a number of modern design classics. Here, he tells Stacey Sheppard how it all started, why SCP will never be able to rival the major high street retailers and about his dedication to the British manufacturing industry.

For a man who has had no formal design training whatsoever, Sheridan Coakley hasn't done half bad for himself. From a desire to avoid getting what he calls "a real job" Coakley got into the antiques business, buying and selling early 20th Century furniture. It was at auction halls and markets that he first discovered his passion for arts and crafts and for design from this period and the next three to four years Coakley spent buying and selling what are now really quite collectible pieces.

Contemporary furniture just didn't have the same attraction as the vintage pieces that he was dealing in. He says: "In the 80s, the UK design scene wasn't really that great in terms of what was coming out in interior design and furniture." So instead Coakley opted to take his beloved early 20th century pieces and restore them to their former glory. As a consequence he gained a far greater understanding of the manufacturing process, something that would prove to be a great asset in the coming years.

By 1985,Coakley had set his sights on opening a new kind of retail store: one that sold classic and hard-to-find pieces that were functional, beautiful and made to last. This was the year that the SCP showroom and headquarters opened on Curtain Road, EC2, London. But it wasn't all plain sailing according to Coakley. He recalls: "I always liked the idea of having a store as it is so much more fun selling to people direct. But when I first started, the market in the UK for that kind of contemporary design was so small that the majority of the pieces I made went to Germany and America, albeit on a very tiny scale."

Opening a store was more wishful thinking and he says that it took ten years before it really started to work. "I opened my store in Shoreditch, where we are now, and I never had any customers. I could sit in here on a Saturday and not one person would come in," he admits. Surprisingly, there is absolutely no hint of self-pity in Coakley's voice when he makes this admission. As if qualifying his distinct lack of footfall he says: "The reality was that it was my warehouse and showroom for exporting and selling to architects."

At the time when Coakley was just setting up he says there was a rather maverick and non-conformist movement starting to take hold in the UK. The likes of Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton, Ron Arad and Tom Dixon were all coming out of art school displaying a rather rebellious approach to design, almost a counter-culture, for which there was no real market in the UK. Luckily though, Coakley saw the potential in these young talents and in 1986, SCP exhibited for the first time at the Salone del Mobile in Milan showing the first ever manufactured designs by Matthew Hilton and Jasper Morrison.

Since Coakley's early days of creative entrepreneurialism, he has put a lot of effort into nurturing new design talent and in doing so he has developed products by the likes of Terence Woodgate, Konstantin Grcic, Michael Marriott, Andrew Stafford, Russell Pinch, Robin Day, Donna Wilson, Alex Hellum, Kay+Stemmer, Timorous Beasties, PearsonLloyd, Rachel Whitread and Peter Marigold. Nearly three decades on and the company is firmly established as a pioneering force in the UK and international furniture industry.

However, despite his success, Coakley says SCP is never going to be that competitive in terms of being able to make furniture at the price that the likes Habitat or Ikea do. "We try to make things as economically as possible but we are never going to be cheap," he says. "In a way that is an advantage, as there is no point in us trying to make super cheap furniture and scouring the world to do that by going to places like China and India." In fact, Coakley tries whenever possible, to work locally and get things made in the UK.

As the company's success grew, it was necessary to expand the manufacturing capacity. One of Coakley's first steps was to buy and start to run his own upholstery factory in Norfolk, giving SCP far better control over product development. When not making upholstery at the factory, Coakley sources components for SCP's other designs all across the UK, creating a network of production partners. "We weave our textiles in Wales using a mill that has been there for a hundred years. The yarn is spun in Yorkshire, the heartland of British textiles, and our ceramics are made in Stoke-on-Trent," he says. "There is something quite appealing about doing that and it's quite a nice way to work. It's very easy to go and visit the factories and to have a good relationship with them."

What becomes evident during our conversation is that Coakley is very proud to be a British manufacturer & retailer championing great design. But there is not even the slightest hint of self-importance as one might expect from someone who has had such an illustrious career. In fact, what shines through is a real sense of humility and modesty, almost as if he doesn't even realise the impact he has had on the industry. I was almost taken aback by his response when I asked him what his proudest achievement is to date.

"What I am most proud of today is making a profit," he says reeling off a long list of well-known retailers who he says are unable to say the same. "To have stuck to my guns for what I believe in and to have survived for this long and made a small profit is really good." That is quite possibly a slight understatement, but I've learnt by this point that Coakley is not only humble but also quite unassuming. When I ask him how it feels to win awards and be asked to judge competitions, his response endears me to him even more. "I tend to have a panic attack and hope that I don't have to get up and say something, which I generally refuse to do," he chuckles. "I'm getting old so it is quite nice to get the recognition, but I tend to be in the background and hopefully the product speaks for itself." I think it's safe to say that it does.

Stacey Sheppard

*Sherian Coakley is on the judging panel for the WAN Furniture and Interior Accessories Awards. SCP