PUBLISHED: 15:15 08 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013
Ian Brown, founder of I & JL Brown in Hereford, talks to Hilary Engel about buying and selling furniture around the world. Photographs by Shaun Thompson.
"In the beginning I used to drive around the countryside in my old Ford Consul looking for antique chairs," says Ian Brown. I have come to meet the founder of I & JL Brown, at the company's vast new emporium, an Aladdin's cave of furnishing delights, just outside Hereford. I want to know how he built up his furniture empire; and he tells me that it all started with chairs.
There are dozens of different styles of country chair, he explains, many originating like Ian himself in the north of England, each with its own name, distinctive shape and ornament. He shows me for example the 'Billinge' chair, the Lancashire Spindleback, and the Liverpool. "Word soon got about among dealers that I was the man who would buy their chairs; and we were selling them as fast as we could buy them."
Then he moved into tables. He started travelling around France, buying up container loads of neglected farmhouse tables, bringing them back to Hereford and restoring them. These too sold rapidly, to the same customers who were buying his chairs - many of them in America.
How could there be so many tables? "It was because of the Napoleonic Code," Ian explains. "French farms were constantly being divided up into smaller farms for all the children in a family; and then each one had to have its own table."
Ian got to know his regular French sources well and they saved their best tables for him, much to the dismay of his rivals, who would be told there were no tables left because "Monsieur Brun est pass." Ian still visits some of these original suppliers, and observes that his success in business has been "all about building relationships".
"We brought these tables back to life in our restoration shop," he explains. "They'd been kept in damp farmhouses for so long: the first thing we had to do was dry them gently in our kilns. Otherwise, in a modern centrally-heated home they would shrink and crack. We applied logic to the problem."
"We then often had to lengthen the legs. You can assume that a table loses an inch in height every hundred years: the bottom of the legs would rot on the damp farmhouse floors. So we restored them to bring them back to a conventional height. We had to get the knee clearance right, and the overhang, to make a usable, practical table for a modern setting."
Ian hasn't always sold furniture. He and his wife, Joyce, were both teachers for a while. He came originally from Liverpool, but trained at college in Worcester and then taught at a secondary school in Hereford. But the regime of teaching didn't suit him. He says: "The staff and pupils were wonderful, but it was like missionary work fighting the bureaucracy."
He has always been a man of enormous energy. In their spare time Ian and Joyce ran a market garden, and sold dog food, as well as dealing in antiques. Having given up teaching they opened a warehouse and workshop in Widemarsh Street, and then bought larger premises in Commercial Road.
"We were selling our chairs all over the world," he tells me. "But then the customers - especially the Americans - started complaining that the old chairs weren't big enough. They wanted something sturdier, more comfortable, to suit their size."
In response to the demand he embarked on making reproduction furniture. "That was when our son Julian, who was at the Cathedral prep school, started telling people, 'My Daddy makes antiques,' " recalls Ian.
As with everything he does, Ian was determined that his reproductions would be the best, not only in the way that they were built but most importantly in the way that they were finished. Using his understanding of how the originals were made, he and his craftsmen were able to design new pieces, and to finish them, so that you couldn't tell the difference. "We are very proud of what we make," says Ian, "and the quality of our finishing is our unique selling point."
Ian is also immensely proud of his workers. "There are phenomenal artisan skills in Herefordshire," he says, "and we've benefited from that." The company has trained many craftsmen over the years, and has always encouraged apprentices. "We are one of the very few companies left who are still making rush seated chairs by hand in a traditional cottage industry manner," says Ian. Some of the sons of his original workmen are now coming into the business. He knows them all well and knows how important it is to look after them. "They're our biggest asset," he tells me. Many of his staff have been with the company for more than twenty years. He sees himself as a tough, hands-on boss: he calls the workmen his "boys".
The business expanded rapidly. "Americans would come to the UK and look for furniture in the Cotswolds, but the prices were too high, so they would come to us," says Ian. Not that Brown prices were cheap: they have always been at the top end of the market. One of Ian's favourite aphorisms is: "If you buy something good it only hurts once."
In 1978 the company opened its principal showroom on the King's Road in Chelsea. It was producing more and more for the American market, and Ian spent more time getting to know customers in the USA, going to furniture shows like High Point in North Carolina, 'the centre of the world furniture industry'. "They know more about me in LA than they do in Hereford," he says. The company now has 12 agents selling its furniture in the US.
Ian's son Julian joined the business in 1997 and his daughter Jill and son-in-law, Simon Hilton, the following year. After 22 years in Commercial Road the company moved in 2001 to its huge new purpose-built 54,000 square-foot showroom and factory at Whitestone, just outside Hereford, where it now employs 40 people. In the showroom you can find every conceivable kind of furniture and accessory - sofas, lamps, glassware, fabrics, rugs, mirrors - as well as the company's own products.
Ian proudly showed me round the high-tech workshop, explaining what everyone was doing. "We've tried to take the drudgery out of the work," he explains. The temperature is carefully controlled to protect the wood, and extractor fans take away fumes. Waste wood is used to fuel a state of the art heating boiler. Ian showed me the company's full range of 123 different table legs. He explained some of the qualities of different woods, determining which is suitable for making what - sycamore inhibits bacteria, so it's good for kitchen surfaces; elm is poisonous, so you shouldn't use it for kitchen worktops; ash has a high tensile strength, so it's ideal for chairs, and so on.
Increasingly the furniture that is being made now is in a 'transitional', modern, style, rather than traditional. There is a great demand for pippy oak, made from hedgerow trees with a distinctive knotty grain, which is hard to find and awkward to work.
Four years ago the company set up workshops in China, and began training sub-contracted workers there. Ian takes a positive view of this, as of everything. "Employment costs in the UK are very high, and it adds to the price of goods. Our industry is being sacrificed on the altar of compliance to petty regulation. There was a demand for lower prices, especially in the US. In China of course we can produce things more cheaply, but we are still doing all of our prototyping here, and our custom build projects. We told all of our UK staff about the planned Chinese operation - there was nothing secret about it; and the Chinese products are now stimulating demand for the furniture made in England."
Ian and his son Julian now expect to visit Asia eight times a year, even if it's just for two days. They insist on checking the quality of any products bearing their name - including every single item that is produced in Asia. Ian sees this as vital to their reputation, especially in the US, where I&JL Brown is known as a family business that pays attention not only to its most prestigious commissions, but also its more "price conscious" collection of furniture.
Ian is optimistic about the future. "We're always looking ahead," he says, "you can never stand still. We've got the best possible crew here, and we're always looking for ways of utilising their talent. We are creative. I always say to customers when they want something special, 'You hum it and we'll play it'."
Design and build
I & JL Brown offers a custom design and build service which can create new design solutions or originate a really special piece of furniture. A recent project was undertaken for a well-known golf and country club in the United States.
The brief was to design and produce a dresser to enhance the club's existing interior, which already had 'Gothic' elements. There was an initial meeting to discuss the customer's ideas of scale, function, construction, design and finish. The dresser was to be ten feet high and designed to travel in parts for on-site assembly. I & JL Brown then produced the design, including intricate detailing such as linen fold panels, barley twist turnings and a drop-down secretaire section at the front.
Computer-aided 'three dimensional' drawings were prepared from initial sketches and presented to the customer for discussion. Once approval was given, final specifications were drawn up and the dresser was produced. Labour intensive hand finishing, with every pane of glass being individually cut and puttied into the central glazed section, has resulted in a unique item of furniture, made in Hereford, and now a dramatic centrepiece in one of the most prestigious golf and country clubs in America.