Russell Pinch’s latest incarnation, as the chief of his own furniture design company, is the result of much navel-gazing, but if his new range of armoires is any guide, it was a risk worth taking.
It’s not his first foray into furniture. For the past two and a half years, he’s been designing for Heal’s, SCP, Case and Conran. And yet, just three years ago, he was group creative director at branding consultancy The Nest.
Pinch studied furniture and product design at Ravensbourne College in the early 1990s. His first job was working directly for Terence Conran at his company Benchmark. ‘I was Terence’s design slave,’ says Pinch. This mainly involved making models of Conran’s sketches.
He soon moved to London, not only as Conran’s design assistant but as assistant to all the Conran Shop’s buyers. ‘I was immersed in retail and loved it, the apprenticeship of a lifetime. I was working across categories, learning what a margin is.’ By the time he left five years later, he was in charge of the seven-strong product design arm of Conran Studio.
‘Conran Studio was like a branding agency. It was set up because people wanted the restaurant thing [that is, contemporary, highly branded eateries like Mezzo] applied to their brand,’ says Pinch. While there, he worked on the worldwide rebranding of Lancôme, from logo to in-store furniture.
In 1999, together with Conran Shop colleagues Rachel Marshall and Alex Willcock, Pinch quit to set up The Nest. ‘We did what the Conran Studio was doing but in our own way.’ The business grew very quickly. But ‘although I was earning loads of money, I wasn’t doing any design work any more. One day I drew up a list of all the things I was good and those I was bad at and realised I was doing all the things I was bad at. I wanted to do furniture design. I was 30, but it was like a mini mid-life crisis.’
The minute he resigned in February 2004, he booked a 25m2 space at that September’s 100% Design show. He then designed some furniture and visited as many manufacturers as possible. ‘The next year, I went back to 100% Design with Benchmark and had more space. I designed a small range, a sofa for Liberty and a Twig bench. This was a make or break year,’ he says.
And it paid off, with commissions from SCP, Case, Heal’s and Conran. Pinch’s wife Oona Ballon then joined him from her role as account director at Bloom brand consultancy, bringing ‘a lot more business to the business’.
Pinch says that ‘since finishing that show we haven’t stopped’. As well as more pieces for the retailers, there’s cutlery for Aspen International, which supplies John Lewis, some sculptural seating for Neal’s Yard Remedies, two ranges of upholstery with Designers Guild, and a step stool for John Lewis.
‘While this is all wonderful, it’s so hard to make money out of furniture design,’ he says. ‘So we’ve looked again at the skills we have and the years of branding and strategy, and it seemed crazy that I wasn’t doing it for myself.’
Hence this range of branded Pinch furniture, launching in March. There’s a gap in the market for free-standing furniture that’s more than a wardrobe, he says, describing the pieces as flexible and bespoke. ‘There will be different styles to suit different interiors.’
It’s like starting all over again, he says, what with investing money, and keeping fingers crossed that people will like them. The plan is to sell the armoires directly from his Brixton home, though he can’t say yet what they’ll retail at. ‘We sold 40 Wave cabinets in the first year that way. We want to give people that same level of service.’
‘There’s no point in me trying to compete with Ikea or even SCP because of the volumes they buy at. Our designs should be heirloom pieces that will last several lifetimes,’ he says.
With the Pinch brand, it’s all about attention to detail, with each piece to be numbered, and even the paper lining in the drawers to be considered. Next up might be dinnerware or a light or rug. ‘I love working for SCP. But the Pinch brand is for our freedom pieces, it feeds our need to be as creative as possible,’ he says.