Come up smiling

Hannah Booth meets design entrepreneur Thorsten van Elten, who aims to inject a bit more offbeat fun into the British furniture market

Thorsten van Elten has returned from his second Milan furniture fair a touch worse for wear. Nursing one of those oxymorons – a summer cold – he is tired and run-down, but the first to admit that these hectic first years are a rite-of-passage for a young entrepreneur like him.

He laughs, and sneezes. ‘Yes, it was extremely busy and I didn’t get a chance to look round the fair at all. But the feedback I got on the products was great, so it was worth it.’ His small stand, situated in the hallowed off-fair destination of Superstudio Più alongside the likes of Moooi and his former employer SCP, was buzzing when I passed. I put it down to a combination of van Elten’s sunny, engaging personality and his products, which bring a smile to even the most fair-weary faces.

Van Elten isn’t a designer. He sources interiors products – ‘desirable items’, according to his blurb – and furniture from young, hopefully up-and-coming designers and manufactures them. New to Milan include the neat Reader Table by Richard Shed, which incorporates a fold to store books and magazines, and the eye-catching Antlers by Alex Taylor – a simple, wall-mounted coat-hanger that is, unsurprisingly, shaped like a set of branched horns.

He is attracted to products with ‘a bit of English wit and a bit of Scandinavian skill’, although most of the designers he works with are UK talent. He works with young designers – often recent graduates – and says he doesn’t want to ‘keep’ designers to himself and would rather they worked with other people. That is, surely, until his first real star emerges.

‘My main selection criterion is that the product makes me smile,’ he says with well-rehearsed patter (this is what his press release says). ‘Well, for example, I’d love to bring over some top quality, hand-made cuckoo clocks from Germany and manufacture them here. They’re so kitsch, but completely hand-made and traditional. I think they’d go down very well,’ he elaborates. He’s half-way there: he launched Stag Clock by Fly Pitcher in Milan, a digital cuckoo clock.

Van Elten is a confirmed European, born and raised in Germany, but resident in London for 13 years. He firmly believes Germany and the UK share more similarities than any other two nations in Europe. Apart from our love for cuckoo clocks, perhaps.

True to his European roots, he also acts as the UK agent for several companies, including Germany’s Roomsafari, Details, Artificial and Kaether & Weise, Istanbul’s Derin and the loose Czech Mania collective that includes design group Olgoj Chorchoj, among others.

His main aim, and the thing that’s giving him dark circles under his eyes, is to open a retail space in London. He’s a couple of months away from signing on the dotted line for ‘the perfect’ space near Warren Street Tube station. This would mean relying less on other retailers, particularly as he has no e-commerce site – he says there’s no point without a physical space to back it up. He is currently squashed into a basement in Caledonian Road but, tripping over piles of boxes as I walked in, I could see he’s outgrown this space.

Van Elten cut his buying teeth at SCP, which he left in 2001 to start Thorsten van Elten. A few months later, he went to Milan for the first time, but insists this is his first year ‘as a proper company’. Prior to SCP, he worked as a retail shop manager for textile designer Christopher Farr, after studying interior design in London.

His first product as Thorsten van Elten was Pigeon Light by Ed Carpenter. Now a ‘bestseller’, according to van Elten, it comes in pink, orange, white and grey. This was followed by Sam Johnson’s 4L table range and his Light Reading. The latter is a book-spine-cum-light in Perspex called Secret Sign. Van Elten met Johnson and Carpenter while at SCP and persuaded them to come on board. Does he miss designing himself? ‘No, but I do help some of the designers develop their ideas. I’m enjoying designing my own company, actually,’ he says.

Once the first retail space is opened, his longer-term aim is to open ‘two or three’ stores in the UK. ‘I don’t want to become too big; I admire smaller, independent retailers and manufacturers,’ he says. ‘And there aren’t enough of them in this country.’ Not yet, at any rate.

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