Until now, he’s been content for clients to call the shots, but this year Matthew Hilton has decided to see what life is like on the other side. Henrietta Thompson talks to the publicity-shy furniture designer about being ‘on his own’.
With its soft leather, deep seat and iconic curves, the Balzac chair pretty much defined contemporary furniture design in the 1990s. It made its manufacturer, SCP, famous, and earned a reputation for its designer, Matthew Hilton, as one of the UK creative industry’s most prolific talents. Alongside the Dualit toaster, the Juicy Salif orange squeezer and perhaps an Alessi kettle, the Balzac could be seen in every upmarket showhome on the market. And alongside Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and Ron Arad, Hilton became one of the godfathers of a burgeoning London design scene.
Ever since then, Hilton has been busy creating widely acclaimed designs for many international clients, including Authentics, Case, Ercol, Driade, Livit and Montina, as well as SCP. He was head of furniture at Habitat between 2000 and 2004 and he has won numerous awards. Hilton’s work is in permanent collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Design Museum, and he was awarded Royal Designer for Industry in 2004 by the Royal Society for the Arts.
And this September, Matthew Hilton is launching his own range, under his own name. ‘At last,’ he says.
The hotly anticipated ‘Matthew Hilton’ range will include ten pieces – including furniture and accessories – and will go on show for the first time at this year’s 100% Design. The idea behind the new brand is two-fold: to further develop his repertoire of high-quality durable, desirable, modern classics, and to do it ‘on his own’.
The range –which includes furniture for bedrooms, dining rooms and reception areas – uses high-quality solid woods, teak and paramara from managed forests. Exclusively, for the launch items, he has also collaborated with Laura Lees on an embroidered leather patchwork. Since the Balzac, Hilton’s work has generally become stylistic and more functional – his long-held ethos is that furniture should be something people love to live with, and this collection is no exception.
Hilton started work on the range in April 2006, but he has been ‘thinking about it, raising money, deciding whether or not to do it’, he says, since he left Habitat. During his tenure at the furniture retailer, he’d been working there three days a week, and his own design work suffered a huge deal as a result.
Although Hilton is renowned for his modesty, and has long shunned the celebrity status thrust upon him in an age where we can’t move for ‘starchitects’ and ‘spinterior decorators’, this move to create his own label will come as no surprise to many. He’s made no secret of his hankering for freedom in his work situation. ‘That’s what I hope this will give me,’ he explains. ‘That’s what was the real driver. It’s not that I don’t like working for other people – it’s just a real pleasure to be able to set my own criteria. Any restrictions that I face will now be due to my own finances, things that I organise.’
Given that all the design decisions are now up to him alone, however, is he confident that he knows his market well enough? ‘This will be a test,’ he says. ‘I think I know it. Just as, until now, I have been working with other people who think they know it. This time it’s just me.’ The proof will be in the sales, but for now his target market consists of who he knows best – ‘People who know and appreciate design; people who shop at Habitat, Heal’s and SCP; people who hopefully know a bit of design history, who know my work. I think I have a readymade audience,’ he says.
While Hilton is still designing for all other companies, the difference with his eponymous range is that the designs can only be made in small numbers. Not to be confused with limited editions, he explains, it is all about hand finishes, taking more care over the details – things like difficult dovetail jointing, and carefully sourced raw materials. ‘If I go to the factory I might stay there for three or four days at a time – it’s a much slower development process,’ he says. ‘While Case might put an order in for 200 tables at a time, I might do 20.’
With no outlets confirmed at the time of going to press, the plan is to sell 50 per cent of the furniture on-line and 50 per cent through retail – both channels, according to Hilton, are very important and the price will be the same through each.
Known as one of the UK’s darling home-grown designers, one would think that Hilton might want to capitalise on that with his brand and manufacturer the range close to home. Instead, he chose a factory in Sri Lanka. Hilton did, however, scour the world before he settled on this location. ‘I looked everywhere for the right factory,’ says the designer. ‘I went across England, to Slovenia, Italy, Latvia and Bulgaria, but I struggled to find the right balance of small- to mid-scale production that I needed. Ultimately, Sri Lanka seemed to be the best solution.’
But it’s not perfect, and Hilton, clearly, is something of a perfectionist. ‘It’s a long way away, for a start,’ he says. ‘Flying out and shipping are obviously very expensive. It’s hard in terms of communications, and they have different ways of doing things, it can be very hard work.’ The advantages are, for him, purely cost-based. ‘For now it’s definitely the right thing to do. It enables me to start the business,’ says Hilton.
And it’s this, he says, which has been the biggest challenge so far – finding a way to do it, what size, whether to do it with a partner and so on. But now it’s under way, the manufacturer is on board, and it doesn’t matter if the manufacturing process is slow, there’s no stopping it.
In terms of where we can expect the range to go from here, however, we’ll just have to wait and see – something even Hilton himself is resigned to doing now. ‘I can’t see past September at the moment,’ he exclaims. Hopes and dreams for the future do, though, include covering all areas of furnishings– textiles, ceramics, glass and so on – but he admits, ‘I love making furniture, that’s all. I want to have fun with it.’