Sean Sutcliffe is one of the UK’s best-known and most respected furniture makers. His business, Benchmark Furniture, employs some 59 designers and craftsmen at its operations in Berkshire and Dorset and has a turnover of around £4 million. From its early days the business has expanded into a full service design studio and furniture showroom, working not just with wood, but also bespoke metalworking. Some 75% of Benchmark’s work is now in the commercial sector and the team works with many of the world’s top architects and designers on a range of projects, fitting and furnishing offices, hotels, bars, restaurants and public buildings. Among its most high-profile commissions have been the iconic 30 St Mary Axe (better known as The Gherkin), the Eden Project and the Vodafone World Headquarters. What he really yearns to do next, however, is build a wooden bridge and spend time with the woodworkers of Kyoto. Alison Dewar finds out more
Sean Sutcliffe is co-founder and managing director of Benchmark Furniture, which has its headquarters in Kintbury, near Newbury. The son of an army pilot, he spent his formative years living overseas, including a spell in Alabama, USA, before returning to boarding school in England. By the time he left aged 18, he knew the more traditional careers of lawyer, banker or accountant were not for him and it was only when he spent a day actually “making something” that he knew he had found his vocation as a craftsman. He set his sights on attending the world-renowned Parnham College of Furniture Makers, a centre of excellence for furniture design, and spent the next three years “getting his hands dirty” by running his own small carpentry business, fitting kitchens and making cupboards in London, while he saved enough money to pay his college fees. Having achieved his goal of attending Parnham, the college not only gave him the skills and business foundation for his stellar design career, but it also introduced him to his future business partner Sir Terence Conran. The rest, as they say, is history. Sutcliffe is married with six sons – one who has just joined the business as an apprentice – and lives in Wiltshire.
Sir Terence Conran has clearly been a major influence on your career. Tell us more about how you set up the business
We met when Terence came to do a talk at Parnham, we got on well and he asked me to work for him. He had an old stable block on his farm at Kintbury which had been the original Habitat HQ and we turned it into a workshop with an investment of £6,000. To start with I was working on prototype furniture designs for Terence’s businesses – Habitat, Heals, the Conran shop in the Fulham Road. It was the heady days of the mid-80s so he was very busy, but we spent every Saturday working together in the workshop and he became a very good friend, which he still is today. After a couple of years, I decided I wanted my own business, but Terence said “this is your workshop”, so we shook hands over the table and with a shared ownership agreement Benchmark was born in 1984.
What was the most important lesson he taught you?
Do what you want to do and always do things to the best of your ability. If you do it well, then success and money will follow.
How did you take the “next big step”?
Terence asked me if I wanted to work on Bibendum, his famous restaurant in London, which was a wonderful opportunity. It was my first step into commercial woodworking and from there, given that the restaurant world is quite small and everyone knows everyone, quite quickly I began getting other commissions for restaurants and hotels and built my reputation. I never had any great business plans, I was always more interested in making things rather than making money, but the business just evolved from there. Of course, I did have to learn that if you don’t make money then you don’t have a workshop and you don’t have a business, but I always regarded profit as a bit like electricity. As long as it is there, I don’t notice it, I have a modest lifestyle and as long as I have enough to invest back into the business in new machinery or new buildings, then I’m happy. Apart from the original investment everything else has come from our own resources, we’ve never had to draw down any additional money. I spent the first 10 years earning a pittance but I didn’t have an expensive lifestyle and I was very happy. Today it’s great that many of my team have been here in the long term. Steven Huzzey, who’s my right hand man, joined as an apprentice at 15, as did several of the others. The nature of being a craftsman means it’s a long-term career and now it’s great that my son Joe has just started as an apprentice and is showing a real passion for the craft.
You have an amazing client list. Is there one commission that stands out for you and why?
It’s very difficult to pick one. Bibendum will always be special to me because that was my entrée into commercial furniture, I call it my jewel because I made everything with my own hands. More recently, I loved 30 St Mary Axe because it’s such a fantastic building. We did the reception desk, libraries, meeting tables – effectively everything which wasn’t a standard desk and chair. When I’m in London, I still go in there today to look at it. We also did the lounges for the International Olympic Committee at London 2012, which was brilliant.
Much of our work is in London and overseas, for example we supply furniture for all of Burberry’s stores worldwide, but it’s always nice to do local projects too. Vodafone’s World Headquarters at Newbury was a super job and we’ve also worked for The Forbury Hotel in Reading, The Quince Tree near Henley, Runnymede Borough Council and the Kindersley Biodiversity Centre at Lambourn, among many others in the Thames Valley.
What makes your work so exciting?
Every job is different, it has to be interesting and challenging, both technically and spiritually. I loved doing commissions such as the Eden Project and the Woodland Trust headquarters because of the ecological aspects. And in London we can boast some of the best architects in the world, their level of creativity is just amazing and I love working with them.
You have to keep doing something new all the time. We’ve been exhibiting at designjunction and Decorex as part of the London Design Festival and I’m really excited about a new research project which we’re involved in with the Royal College of Art, among others. It’s looking at life cycle analysis in furniture manufacturing, real cutting edge stuff which involves proper scientific analysis of sustainable manufacturing, so this is more than just an interest, it’s a real passion and we’re at the sharp end of it.
For me, it’s about finding a way of making things which are good for the business and good for the world.
You have a passion – and have won awards – for sustainability. Why is it so important to you?
I’ve always been a bit of an “old hippie”. When I was younger I met Jonathon Porritt and I was really quite influenced by him, I always say he put the environment on my agenda. It was long before anyone was talking about climate change or global warming, but what he said had a real resonance with me and sustainability has always been at the heart of everything we do.
Do you still spend much time designing and creating?
I’m in the workshop every day and I get involved in the design side, but I don’t get my chisels out these days.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions or a dream design you would love to create?
I’ve always had a passion for bridges, so I would love to design and build a really nice wooden bridge.
The real pinnacle of my career however, would be if I was commissioned to do some work in Kyoto. It’s the spiritual home of woodworkers, the Japanese have an amazing and extraordinary resonance with the wood and to work with them would be something very special – an absolute thrill.
Details: Benchmark Furniture website
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