When Rachel Whyte-Moran and Simon Watkins first met around 15 years ago, they bonded immediately over the subject of string. "Mutual friends had always said we'd get on," says Rachel. A shared love of hardware has now seen them through 10 years of successful trading under the name of Labour and Wait, first from a minuscule shop in Cheshire Street, just off the north end of Brick Lane in east London. More recently they moved to the former Dolphin pub in the freshly rehabilitated Redchurch Street, where neighbours include Australian beauty brand Aesop and utilitarian French clothes label APC.
The store's windows are currently filled with an intriguing display of black rubber work gloves, brushes and buckets, like an S&M take on the world of homeware. "Well, we don't like things with a lot of decoration," says Simon. "It's a bit more civilised here," he says of the new premises. "Higher ceilings, less frenetic." Where weekend-only customers used to fill the Cheshire Street store to bursting on Saturdays and Sundays, nicking a fair few small items along the way, the pair now trade all week long.
Labour and Wait's stock consists of functional tools, linen towels, trowels and kitchenware, brushes, buckets and, of course, many types of string. They sell heavy cotton canvas aprons, bundles of pencils, and the sorts of leather school satchels that Janet and John swung from their shoulders. Their traditional Welsh blankets in garish pink/purple colourways are sought after; it's also the place to come for a Sussex trug. In its early days, some considered this fetishisation of slightly retro, day-to-day objects as nothing more than fashionistas gone mad (both Rachel and Simon had been menswear designers), but east London's burgeoning band of trend-setting residents soon formed a waiting list for the lilac enamel milk saucepan the pair had unearthed at Austrian company Reiss (established more than 200 years ago).
In 2006, they set up a concession in Dover Street Market, Mayfair's Comme des Garçons-run fashion emporium, and they now have 11 concessions in Japan, too. "We were quite reluctant at first, we've always only wanted one really great shop," says Rachel. "But the Japanese were quite persistent, and very charming." The pair recently created a pop-up store in a Tokyo art gallery, and celebrated its opening with an English-style tea ceremony that included PG Tips, Tunnock's tea cakes and digestive biscuits. World domination, however, is not on the cards. "We want to keep it special," says Rachel. "Everything's become so global and every city has the same shops. It's disappointing. We wouldn't mind expanding to include a teashop, a book shop and a great haberdashery, but not to have a store in every city."
Nowadays, Watkins and Whyte-Moran are serving more of a cross-section of the population than you might imagine, a demographic defined by a love of beautifully crafted things that actually have a use; it includes a high percentage of men: "They seem to be interested in details, history, authenticity," says Simon. "With all the technology, all the activities that happen in the virtual world, you can lose contact with real things. I think that's where we come in. Things that aren't mass-produced have a character of their own, and the imperfections are part of it."
Indeed, out there in the retail world, others are catching up. In March, the Conran Shop launched its Utility range, a collection including wholesome storage jars, carpet-beaters, vegetable brushes, dusters and basketware that refer to a bygone era when kitchens were the domain of home-baking and preserving, rather than Nespresso machines and ready meals, and houses smelt of furniture polish not Diptyque candles. "We'd started taking a fresh look at our kitchen department over a year ago," explains group buyer David Perez, "and we found that what was really selling were traditional and utilitarian products. Stepladders are in our top-five sellers in every store where we sell kitchenware [London, Paris and Tokyo], and feather dusters are always strong."
Elsewhere across the store, Perez says you can see a softening of lines and looks. "A few years ago, kitchens were still really clinical. Now there's a vogue for the liveable. Even sofas are looking less 'taut'. Craft is coming through, too. People seem to like things that look like they've been made by a person rather than a machine."
While some might put this longing for homeliness and tradition down to a search for comfort in the cold chill of recession, the Conran Shop puts it down to a new enthusiasm for olde-worlde kitchen values brought on by the success of television series Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. Others might just see it as nothing more complicated than an inevitable cyclical change in taste, replacing stainless steel and bright plastics with neutral colours and good honest materials such as wood and linen.
Certainly, when it comes to furniture, plain wood is once again high on the style list. "We do seem to be having quite a good run," says Edward Tadros, the self-effacing chairman of family-run British furniture-makers Ercol. "The Originals range, which goes back to 1943 and 1944 is attracting a lot of attention. And the Chiltern range, which we designed last year for John Lewis seems to be working. We've just made 300 stacking chairs for Margaret Howell." (The London fashion designer has been stocking re-editions of Ercol's sensible furniture since 2000).
What are now called Ercol Originals started life in response to a request from the British Board of Trade in 1944 to produce 100,000 low-cost wooden Windsor chairs. The company, which dates back to the 1920s, worked out a way to steam-bend elm in quantity and created easy-assembly furniture in a pared-down aesthetic, fulfilling the country's need for so-called utility furniture, to refurnish its thousands of bombed-out houses. "I know I'm biased," says Tadros, "but I'd put their enduring appeal down to the fact that these designs are timeless, well-made, solid, not demanding when it comes to taste. And they do say that when money is tight, you spend it on something that lasts." For those for whom cash is less of an issue, vintage Ercol pieces now change hands for ever increasing prices in the flourishing market for mid-century modern design.
Back in Redchurch Street, Rachel and Simon have just taken delivery of their first order of grey felt German slippers. "We'd been looking for exactly the right ones for five years," says Rachel. "It's taken a lot of trawling." The right ones, it seems, have a dainty green detailing. They've also finally tracked down authentic Brown Betty teapots made in Staffordshire through an American website (there were plenty of wannabes around, made in China, in far-from-authentic white porcelain with a brown glaze).
But the very first product to arrive in their store – painted brushes, from Lord Roberts Workshop in Edinburgh – is about to disappear. The non-profit set-up, which employed ex-servicemen, has just closed down. "That's the thing about products from another era," says Simon. "There is an in-built possibility that they'll cease to exist." Even in the world of traditional, retro objects, then, change is always around the corner.
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