British Furniture Designer Timothy Oulton Talks About His Unconventional Success

The luxury furniture designer goes against the usual business trends to continually grow the success of his brand

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In a day and age where luxury, across all mediums, is struggling to survive around the world, British furniture designer Timothy Oulton cut the red ribbon for his New Delhi gallery – he refuses to call them “shops”. Soon, a restaurant designed by him will open in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Hong Kong; and by Q3, we can expect a 20,000sqft member’s club in Singapore designed to house restaurants, spas, co-working space, a cocktail bar, a yoga and pilates studio, an outdoor terrace and bar, and event spaces.

Yet, his success strays far from the conventional model of pushing business online, which, for Oulton, includes a website that currently serves as a communications channel for his work rather than hitting sales numbers. It’s understandable, given that one of his many edges is a bespoke service which tailors everything from the shape to the type of leather stitching.

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So if forward isn’t the way to go, Oulton heads ‘sideways’, by adapting his furniture into different environments to showcase its versatility in the experiences they can offer, from, commonly, a F&B setting, to something as extravagant as his 2014 invention, the Dome Home – an energy-saving living space that can be picked up and relocated anywhere in the world. 

“It’s never just about great-looking pieces. A beautiful sofa is great, but it feels alone. If you pair it up with the right coffee table, however, it changes how you look at the sofa,” said Timothy Oulton.

His Hong Kong Gallery on Gough Street, for example, was deliberately designed to look like an apartment to show that his bulky pieces work even in the city’s notoriously small homes. And prominently featured in the shop are his 2017 collections, the more glamorous Hosted Living collection and its casual and rugged counterpart, the Ultralounge collection. The latter sees signature pieces like the Alto refitted with a cup-holder and an extra flap for remote controls.

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“Furniture is for relaxing and entertaining, and though the brand has always been about comfortable designs, we’ve added simple details that completely change an experience and how it’s used. So rather than Alto just being a sofa, it can now perform throughout the whole weekend; people can lounge on it without having to move one finger and they’d have everything just next to them,” he said.

Ironically, this forward-thinking process began during his time working in his father’s antique shop. Though their perseverance of quality and design fascinated Oulton, they were what he considered to be “dead people stuff” that lacked any “creative process”. Inspired by the then Belgium movement of mixing antiques from various eras and geographies into room, Oulton and his brother eventually took over the family business. However, his real breakthrough wasn’t until a decade later, when his textiles made an amazing impression in the 2004 China Import and Export Fair (also known as The Canton Fair).

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“Back then we brought fake business cards because we didn’t now whether it was going to go anywhere. We arrived at the show that week, and by Monday we were getting orders. By Wednesday we had a fax machine set up, an apartment that we were working out of, a registry and even employees,” said Oulton. As the only foreigner at the Guangzhou-based show, his portfolio eventually expanded to vintage cigars, trunks and eventually, furniture.

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One trend Oulton does follow is migrating his business to China; to a city called Gaoming in the South, but not for reasons of cost-saving, but rather for quality and efficiency.

“I can probably make my furniture cheaper anywhere else, but there’s no one place in the world that can make all my collections. My team in China gets things done, they’re not afraid, and they understand quality.” Aside from a fully staffed workshop, Oulton’s Gaoming base also serves as a showroom for up-and-coming projects as well as a training-ground for all of the brand’s staff from around the world.

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For a business that relies so heavily on the touch and feel of its products, Timothy Oulton knows mass production isn’t the way to go (though he admits he’s currently eyeing for a potential partnership in Japan); so the challenge drills down to how far they should extend the brand without jeopardising its essence.

“Our consumer message is very obvious. So the question becomes how we can align the brand with these experiences on a broader scale. Is it just F&B? Or are we venturing into co-living, co-working, even? Nobody knows.”

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