Kevin McCloud: Critical Angle

He's famous for his views on other people's tastes in interiors, but now 'Grand Designs' presenter Kevin McCloud is launching his own range of furniture and homeware. He tells Simon Brooke why he's putting his reputation on the line
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The Independent Online

Although McCloud has worked as a designer in the past and has created a sofa for this collection, the rest of the Place pieces will come from a range of designers, both established and fledgling. McCloud's role has essentially been that of curator and this, he believes, is what suits him best.

"Being on television I'm quite sensitive to any accusations of cashing in," he says, sitting in his hotel room in Brighton and grabbing some supper from a tray after a day's filming for a programme about this year's Riba Stirling Prize for architecture. "People sometimes say, 'When are you going to sell out?' But everything I've done in my life has been based on my being able to take an editorial position. Take Grand Designs. What differed there was that we didn't try and design things for people - we just went along and watched and that gave us an editorial freedom not just to criticise but also not to have to sell something."

The idea of the curating role came about during a meeting with his business partner Mary Czulowski, whose experience in the corporate furniture market includes a stint as head of Silent Night Group, parent company of Parker Knoll among others.

"Working in the furniture business, I've known Mary for years," says McCloud, who is 46 years old. "She's a live wire, very dynamic. When she approached me I said, 'That's interesting but there is no point you asking me to design product at the moment because I've got no time.' But then my colleague Christopher Hall said, 'Since people know you not as a designer but as an editorial authority, why don't you take the same role here? Why don't we find other designers to create products for a range which you'll edit, curate, almost, a bit like you do on television?'

"That threw me into a completely different position. I suddenly realised that as curator I could set up a platform with the values I felt were important with design and we could use that as a defining framework."

Born in Toddington, Bedfordshire, he attended the local grammar school. "I was a humanities all rounder - art, languages and music," he says. "I've never specialised and that's why I'm good at joining things together, making connections. Whether you're designing a pair of shoes or a city, it's the same process of analysis and functionality."

He attended the Florence Conservatory of Music and then went up to Cambridge where he initially read modern languages but switched first to philosophy then to history of art and architecture.

He then led what he describes as "two weird, parallel lives designing for the theatre and people's houses". His lighting and furniture design consultancy, McCloud & Co Ltd, numbered among its clients the Savoy Hotel and the Queen of Jordan. But he sold it in 1999. "I was good at the creative stuff but I didn't like running a company," he explains.

Although he also created a lighting range for Debenhams, writing books and newspapers articles became more of a focus - something that clearly appeals to his temperament. He also began to present the television makeover show Home Front and from this came the more ambitious Grand Designs in 1999.

"It was very different from any other kind of programme about the home but luckily I had a very courageous commissioning editor at Channel 4, Liz Warner, and a very inspiring series producer in Daisy Goodwin. Even then when we were editing the first programme we didn't know whether it was going * to be a one-hour or a half-hour show let alone if we'd get another series. But we created a new vocabulary, it was more like a documentary."

The antithesis of the MDF-and-staple-gun school of interior design, it attracted up to 4.5 million viewers, indicating there is a significant audience for serious architecture and design. As well as an international version, the series has spawned a magazine and a live show.

But McCloud describes television as "very wasteful" of time. "You're forever filming, travelling and editing. I live a nomadic life during the week." Weekends are spent in Somerset with his wife Zani and four children aged from four to 17. His home is an amalgam of tastes, with a modern kitchen and traditional living room.

The initial discussions for Place began just 18 months ago and its development has been rapid but McCloud believes many designers were looking for a vehicle like this. When asked to describe the look of the pieces, McCloud seems stumped for a moment.

"Well, there's quite a lot of leather sofas," he laughs. "No, it's very neutral, lots of black and brown. With the first catalogue we're trying to provide large objects of furniture in fairly neutral colours and then add colour with cushions, throws, glassware and decorative objects. We've had two big inputs. One is a sort of beachcomber look - dry, dusty oak - while others have a more crafted feel. In spring we'll add products which have a slightly funkier, more 21st-century feel with a hint of the 1960s and 1970s about them."

He is particularly excited about the tableware by David Rhys Jones, and the use of skilled craftsmanship has been an important element. Almost all the designers are British. "I'm very interested in designer-makers," says McCloud. "Charlie Fowler who has made tables and chairs is a brilliant designer and he's come from a family of carpenters. We're very good in this country at producing designer-makers because we've got to - we don't have the culture of corporate sponsorship they have in Italy, for instance."

"Kevin is very into craftsmanship and quality," says Charlie Fowler, a 25-year-old based in Dorset who graduated just two years ago. "What he's doing is fantastic for young designers. He saw some of my pieces and then, once we met, we corresponded by email and used computer-aided design to get the right look."

As well as the furniture and classic glassware, there are quirkier concepts. Edinburgh-based designer Stefanie Damm creates cushion covers using old pullovers bought from charity shops. "We wondered how we could manufacture her cushions," says McCloud. "Then we found these women in South Africa who could produce them in bulk. Natal is full of junked western clothes and so now they're producing for us."

Ethical issues are important to Place; it uses only Forestry Stewardship Council-approved timber, for example. "We decided that if we're using Second- and Third-World countries we have to make sure we're trading as sustainably as possible and the way we do that is with contracts," says McCloud. "I felt that here was an opportunity to apply this whole raft of principles I really believed in." The company is looking to become the first non-food brand to get Fairtrade accreditation. It also aims to be carbon neutral, compensating for the carbon dioxide it will create by shipping products around the world though planting trees.

So, with the big-name guru in place, the look of the first collection established, the designers on board and the ethical questions addressed, the only question is, will the products sell?

"People assume that because you're successful in one area, somehow it's going to rub off," he says. "I was terrified when we did Grand Designs Live that no one would come. I don't have a history of golden touches and I'm terribly dependent on Mary. I talked to [Terence] Conran about this and he's made some huge mistakes in his time and lost huge amounts of money. But what you have to do is to move on to the next thing and keep going."

Mary Czulowski believes there is a demand for what Place has to offer. "The industry used to be just about what is called 'price degradation', in other words endless sales which the consumer doesn't even believe are genuine anyway," she says. "I think now people are more interested in how a product is made."

She was prompted to work with Kevin McCloud because of his profile: "He is someone with a strong design authority and he can tell the story of the design and manufacture of these products. People are developing more confidence now in what they buy and what they put into their homes."

The catalogue print run is about 80,000 and the price point is very accessible: £700 for a leather sofa, £600 for a sideboard in American white oak and £30 for six glasses, for instance. "This isn't for Mr and Mrs Posh," says McCloud. "I'm interested in tapping into people who are design conscious but don't have that much money. People who can relate to the value of objects. Some people appreciate objects not for what they are but for what they symbolise and that's a terrible thing. I'm much more interested in the object for what it is."

It won't yell Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren Home then? "I hope not. I think it should reflect well on the owners. When people say, 'I love that sofa', they're saying, 'I love your taste' and not, 'Where did you get it?'"

He believes more people these days want individuality with a sense of integrity. But Place is still very much a commercial enterprise in a competitive market and not a campaign vehicle.

"My biggest fear," says McCloud, "is to be though dull and worthy." His ambition might well be laudable, but no one could call him dull.

Place, tel: 0870 443 9391, www.placeto.co.uk

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