From a tentative start in his father’s antiques store, Timothy Oulton has established a global network of stores selling handcrafted, vintage-inspired furniture. The British designer talks to Rose Kaye about quality, heritage and yellow submarines
From a tentative start in his father’s antiques store, Timothy Oulton has established a global network of stores selling handcrafted, vintageinspired furniture
The furniture and interiors brand Timothy Oulton is authentic, masculine, distinctly British and packed with playful character. It’s an accurate reflection of its eponymous owner—in person the Mancunian seems searingly honest, loves a laugh and has personality to spare.
Oulton cut his teeth in his father’s antiques store, where he came to love heritage furniture but also recognised its limitations in the market. When he took the helm of the company in 1990, he turned its focus towards design, reinventing antiques and using only the best traditional techniques and fabrications. The brand’s contemporary furniture now has a global presence, with stores in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Dallas and Beirut, to name just a few, and in-store galleries at HD Buttercup in Los Angeles, ABC Carpet & Home in New York, Coco Republic in Sydney and Melbourne, and Casa Filamento in Guatemala City, among others. And Oulton’s nowhere near done yet.
Timothy Oulton’s clever blend of vintage and modern, as well as its attention to details such as studs and materials, is what makes the brand so special. And the latest collection is no exception. It’s fun and dramatic, with 1970s-inspired items such as the Inception coffee table and the Den sofa in gorgeous peacock blue velvet. It also plays with new materials, such as carbonstone, a man-made stone created using recycled quartz, and further explores the richness of leather with new iterations such as Aussie leather, a waterproof nubuck. Oulton tells us about the collection, antiquing and stud appeal.
Nobody at business school looks at furniture and thinks, “Yeah, that’ll work.” Trust me, they don’t. My parents fell into it. I did the antiques thing for 10 years, and it was pretty tough going. It’s very exciting and enjoyable, but it’s not a proper business. I’ve now gone back into antiques and we’re opening an antiques shop next door to our Gough Street home store, but that’s a different thing; it’s a hobby. The only things in
“Antiques never die; you just have to make them more relevant”
there that aren’t British are the Louis Vuitton trunks. He was prolific: we’ve got plenty and we only provide the very best ones. But if there was an English equivalent, Louis would be out.
Keeping It Real
Of course, we borrow from the antiques world, but antiques aren’t interesting on their own. They never die, you just have to make them more relevant. Authentic materials, vintage materials will never die. You may have periods where they are more or less fashionable, but they’re never out of fashion. It’s not easy. If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being a right mishmash.
Materials are our main thing. The shapes seem to come later. We want epic, like carbonstone or our Aussie leather, because that’s the first thing that attracts people. We call it “eyes first, mind second.” It’s really “eyes first, heart second, wallet last.”
We’re not aiming for world domination, but suddenly people are chasing us. It’s a good problem to have. I’ve been on both sides, and I know which one I prefer. We get a lot of cosmopolitan people who travel coming into our store. They’ll pop in when they’re in town for a glass of champagne. We even won the best service award at Harrods in London—that’s against Prada and all the big boys. Furniture companies normally never even get close to them.
There was one kid who even cried when he left our store in Amsterdam. We have a yellow submarine there: you press a button and it plays the Beatles, it plays “We all live in a yellow submarine.” He loved it. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard of a kid crying when he left a furniture store. That’s the stuff that’s important to us, because otherwise we’re just another furniture store.
Sense of Place
I love places that are full of history—Hong Kong is very special to me, both because of its distinct British background and its uniquely fast-paced environment. I like bars that are tucked out the way down an alley somewhere, or hidden above street level with a terrace to kick back on. Hong Kong is dotted with these little gems, but you have to know where to find them. I’m not a party person. I’m not a foodie, either—I’ll remember the place more than the food. The chairs are important, the ambience.
In London, I’ve always loved the V&A and the British Museum. It’s got an amazing collection, because we Brits were ruthless.
I’ll always do the flea markets, too: the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen in Paris, and a couple of the big ones in the UK. I never walk away without something. We’d buy a whole sofa just so we could take the studs off, and then we’d give the seller the sofa back.
Packaging is the only thing that I really detest because I hate waste. We used to wrap all our furniture in blankets—you stood there like an idiot waiting for your blankets to come back! But now I see the consumer and us paying four times the price and all this packaging ends up in a bin somewhere. We’re definitely going to take a lead on packaging. Aside from the environmental dimension, it’s simply wasteful—it’s money down the drain. The product has to arrive in perfect condition, everyone gets that, but I’m sure there are other ways to achieve the same aim.
You can learn to love pieces that sell. That’s the ruthless person in me! The Wall Street armchair is probably my favourite piece in this collection, just the lines of it. It’s not a piece I would normally love, actually, because it doesn’t have vintage materials anywhere near it. But I like it; it’s sleek, you look at it twice.
I try to have the same salvaged desk everywhere. I’ve managed two so far in Hong Kong and in Gaoming, Guangdong, where we have our workshop and showroom. On it I have my books, my computer and my Bose speaker.
I want to get twin dogs and call them the same name. I would have one in China and one in Hong Kong. I’d drive with one to the border, say “Bye, Bobo,” then get across the border, pick up the other one and say “Hi, Bobo.” It’s the same thing as wanting the same desk everywhere I go.