In the week before Christmas, you couldn't get through the door of SCP, the contemporary furniture store in Shoreditch, east London. Shoppers carrying armfuls of wooden toys, state of the art telephones and brightly coloured knitted cushions jostled their way round the shop floor and queued out the door to pay. "It really was a good year for us for retail," shrugs Sheridan Coakely, its owner.
Coakley, it would appear, is having a good recession. But then, he's no Johnny Come Lately – his store has sat on Curtain Road for more than 25 years. And neither is he just an independent retailer. SCP is also a manufacturer, usually working with local London designers and producing as much as possible in this country. While his wooden furniture is made in Slovenia and rugs in India, all upholstery, textiles, bone china and lighting is made in Britain.
Coakley was one of the first producers to work with names such as Jasper Morrison, Terence Woodgate, Konstantin Grcic and Matthew Hilton and has since added a whole roster of British talent to his list. Among the resulting designs are a few that would now be designated classics, not least Hilton's elongated Balzac armchair, launched in 1991, whose enduring popularity has certainly helped the company along. The Slow sofa system, created by Woodgate in 2005, later became a major part of the refurbishment of the Barbican Arts Centre.
Tall, nonchalant and likely to be standing outside the shop with a roll-up dangling from his lip, Coakley is a bit of a one-off. A rebel with a furniture business.
When SCP first moved to Curtain Road in 1985, more showroom than retail outlet, whose customers were restricted to cutting-edge architects and designers, the area was desolate: the only pub an out-of-the-way gay establishment called the London Apprentice and you couldn't get a takeaway coffee. "It's true that we are getting better as shopkeepers," says Coakley of his apparent success. "But it's the location that has really changed." Now there aren't just pubs galore, but organic food shops, hip coffee places, expensive independent fashion stores and high street dependables such as American Apparel and Pret A Manger. The average SCP customer is a design-savvy 25 to 45 year old; Kiera Knightley and her mother make regular appearances.
If Shoreditch itself is the current epicentre of London style, Coakely's own career reads like an anecdotal history of English taste. The son of a bubble-gum entrepreneur (who bought the British license for Bazooka from the US company after the Second World War), he started out in antiques in the 1970s, picking up decent pieces of the then much-desired Art Deco and Arts and Crafts furniture along the south coast and selling it in Portobello Road. "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," says Coakley, who had dreams of being a photographer but happened to have a BRS van rather than a Leica camera.
Then, along with the capital's aesthetic movers and shakers, his preference veered towards a more modernist style. He started finding tubular steel furniture instead, sometimes reconditioning it and rechroming the blistered metal arms ("The sacrilege of it," he says. "Imagine doing that now to an original Marcel Breuer chair," referring to the classic tubular steel chair with rattan seat). His customers had taken Terence Conran's mantra of modern living to heart; trailblazers whose sofas no longer had pelmets and whose furniture hadn't been inherited from previous generations.
Eventually, Coakley started getting new tubular furniture made instead by Pell, a factory in Birmingham specialising in stadium seating, and selling it in truck loads to the Germans. And then, after an epiphany in Paris in 1984 when he visited Philippe Starck's first complete interior, Café Costes (a fantasy of what was then called "New Design" style, where Starck had taken all the features of a traditional café and given them a postmodern makeover), he started SCP, to bring a British version of New Design to the world.
"I've never been as successful as people assume," says Coakley, sitting in the beer hall opposite the store that's mercifully empty at 4pm on a Tuesday in January. And indeed some of the designers he's worked with have occasionally been frustrated by what might be called a laid-back attitude. "But I've never borrowed much money and I've always lived within my means." He says he is a poster boy of late developers.
"I didn't get married until I was 30, didn't have a child until I was 38 and didn't have a mortgage until I was 40." Now home is a 1970s house in Hampshire, built for an engineer by a local architect, in 20 acres of its own land. Coakley loves it – right down to its entirely brick and wood construction and its 20 acres, 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."
In 2001, Coakley and his team finally turned SCP in Shoreditch into a bona fide shop, rather than the more intimidating sparsely furnished showroom it had been. And four years ago, they took a bigger plunge and opened a second store in Notting Hill. The hedge funders of the west have taken a little time to be persuaded of the merits of a brand that doesn't have the international allure of a label such as the super expensive B+B Italia, though this year they seemed to have turned that corner. Meanwhile, in 2009 Coakley added a whole range of smaller products in the flatpacked Boxed collection – including the Jeeves coat rack by Stemmer and Sharp and the Sum shelves by Peter Marigold – that can be carried home on the spot. And for last year's London Design Festival, he focused on a range of fully functional but jokey household accessories (such as the Cheesy Pete cheese board) by Michael Marriott, Ed Ward and Carl Clerkin called "All Lovely Stuff" (all three designers work from studios a few miles away).
Not that SCP is only thinking small. Wholesale was up by 7 per cent last year. Lane Crawford in Hong Kong buys in the big pieces, such as Matthew Hilton's Oscar sofa. Design Within Reach in the USA is a good customer as is Le Bon Marché in Paris. Heal's in the UK will soon be stocking Donna Wilson's beautiful woollen blankets, woven in Wales and then finished in Galashiels by the same company used by Hermès and Ralph Lauren.
Nonetheless, Coakley is still most interested in what is close to home. He sees his customer as the one who is attracted by the local. "I believe in the independent retailer," he says. "And certainly round here, you can see them coming back. Individual clothing stores, shops trying to sell locally grown food. Our customers like the fact that they're buying something both conceived and if possible made nearby." Even, apparently, when what they're buying is a sofa.Reuse content