House & Garden

Restoring old values

Clarke & Reilly is known by the design cognoscenti for its subversive ‘up-cycling’. Jenny Dalton talks to the ‘non-interior decorators, non-designers’ about their modern take on antiques.

October 16 2010
Jenny Dalton

Inside the two-year-old Clarke & Reilly interiors store at the time of our interview, half a McDonald’s sign hangs rudely on the plaster wall. In this particular context – a couture-ish, draped 19th-century chair on one side, a trio of 19th-century chairs bound together with textile and ribbons on the other and a collection of antique children’s shoes over the mantelpiece – the hefty fast-food half-sign could be mistaken for an art piece. Indeed, earlier that week a visitor to the shop had remarked on how a client of his had a collection of similar “pop art” at home.

“It’s genuine vintage now,” notes the languid, blonde Bridget Dwyer – 50 per cent of Clarke & Reilly – with her tongue firmly in her cheek.

“Should we light it up?” muses David Grocott, the other 50 per cent, who when I meet him is wearing dishevelled hole-ridden Chinos, and knotted, not tied, shoelaces (such details matter).

“Yes, but it might be a bit too Sue Webster/Tim Noble,” fears Dwyer (in vintage floral YSL). Grocott concludes they should put an elaborate 17th-century Italian frame around it – cut to fit.

Subversive 20th-century “classic” meets rarefied handmade Italianate antique: this could sum up the meeting of minds that is Dwyer and Grocott’s Clarke & Reilly, which uses their mothers’ maiden names to sound “like we could be anything. We could be selling sweets. Or we could be undertakers.”

But the contradictory and controversial are not entirely new to Grocott. A former dealer of 18th-century Irish and English furniture, he made his name with Plinth – the insider’s secret studio based in south London that made reworking antiques into fashionable interiors pieces, well, fashionable. In the process, he helped to spawn that English iconoclastic reborn/repainted/reworked antiques-as-modern-furniture trend of recent years. The story goes that Grocott had taken Plinth as far as he wanted to; he met Dwyer, one-time co-owner of the Yasmin Cho fashion boutique in Soho and then a buyer at Liberty, and a synthesis of aesthetics, minds and hearts was born.

Five years on, and serious or not, such “What do we do with it?” conversations and leisurely debates are commonplace between the two self-titled “non-interior decorators, non-designers”. Thus, at their low-key HQ – a little (work)shop in Porchester Place, yards from Tony Blair’s Connaught Square home – a very quiet design revolution is taking place.

Janet Fischgrund, a well-known fashion PR consultant and a Clarke & Reilly client, describes the duo as having “impeccable taste. I think David is a true artist, but Bridget has something about her; she’s a realist, and has this true appreciation of beautiful pieces and exquisite fabrics. The two working together leads to incredible creations that are very understated.”

It’s a taste being exported far beyond their W2 postcode, particularly to the US – most notably Los Angeles. And yet definitions of exactly what it is they do are hard to come by. For Clarke & Reilly is absolutely not your average furniture outfit. Take, for example, the so-called shop with its wonderfully incongruous floor-to-ceiling front door that dates from the 1850s and was originally housed in a French castle. (They had to apply for retrospective planning permission when the local planners saw it.) It is not even really a shop, notes Grocott – “in that nothing in it is for sale right now”. And those pieces that are within – a shapely sofa destined for Liberty upholstered in muted, vegetable-dyed fabric (£9,500) and the group of 19th-century chairs “bound” together (£4,200) – look intriguing, but don’t initially seem like they would cost thousands of pounds and be on the shopping list of the great and the good of the Los Angeles film and art scene. But they are.

Grocott and Dwyer insist they don’t design. Nor do they make anything themselves. Nor do they “do” people’s houses – except they kind of do (including incredible timber kitchens which have ranged from £4,000 to £100,000) if they like the project enough and it’s not about telling people what colours to use. “There’s nothing we enjoy less than telling people what colour to paint their walls,” says Dwyer.

Nor do they wish to be jumbled in with the “new vintage” brigade (hence the McDonald’s “vintage” jibe). “Because,” explains Grocott, “that insinuates that we just happened to stumble across something on the street or at a car-boot sale, painted it and then tried to sell it for lots of money. We’re not interested in such fakery; using fake stitching or making a fabric look old.”

Here Grocott gestures towards a scrap of early 19th-century, heavily embroidered Chinese textile that at some point would have been part of a large wall hanging. It has been repaired again and again, and will somehow be used once more on a new piece of reconstituted furniture, worked on by a small army of specialist makers and artists. “The fabric is in that condition because that’s how old it is, not because we’ve forced it in some way.”

There are other Clarke & Reilly “don’ts”. They absolutely will not sanction the use of the word “quirky” to describe their work. “We hate it. Hate it,” says Grocott. “It’s an ugly word for starters, and it says absolutely nothing about longevity and seriousness.”

Nor, despite making what is being marketed in LA as “collectable art to live with”, courtesy of design store Blackman Cruz, are they the slightest bit interested in being deemed “design art”. This list of negatives may begin to make the duo sound unduly difficult and obtuse. Rather, Grocott insists, their work is very firmly grounded in the practical – as are the pair’s respective backgrounds. Dwyer was brought up just outside New York with a builder father who took her and her sister to the city’s more unusual museums (she recalls a thread factory) to educate them more widely. Meanwhile, Grocott left behind his south-coast-of-England, strict Catholic schooling as soon as was possible.

“The idea that someone would create furniture that is art that you can’t sit on, I just don’t understand,” he says. “I make something to be used as a chair, because how it’s used and evolves is as interesting to us as how it looks. And it’s not just about how it looks now, but how it will fade and look in another 10 years, or another 10 after that.”

Luckily for Dwyer and Grocott, we are entering a phase in design and interiors when there is growing consumer interest in just the same things – where not just skilled work counts, but provenance and a respect for history too; where an interest in romance and storytelling collide. So Clarke & Reilly’s themed seasonal collections – of just 20 pieces each – resonate with, in particular, their Los Angeles customers. The most recent theme was “bound”, while the next one will be based on the idea of an abandoned country house, the furniture covered in white dustsheets. Neither knows beforehand exactly how the idea will come to fruition, because it is always based around their furniture and fabric finds.

To the art and furniture collectors of LA, this is pure catnip, explains David Cruz, one half of Blackman Cruz, who represents them exclusively in the city, where their profile is arguably greater than in the UK. Highlighting their transatlantic popularity, Cruz mentions that their last “collection” sold out in less than three weeks in LA. (One of their customers, notes Dwyer, ordered several pieces from Blackman Cruz, just to discover she lived mere streets from their home patch in Porchester Place.)

The appeal of their furniture to that particular market, explains Cruz, is that it’s “so dramatic, which fits in well with the fact that Los Angeles is a storytelling town. There’s a lot of history attached to every piece and our customers seem very intrigued by that. We’re a modern town, and the handwork of the Clarke & Reilly pieces – the antique textiles, hand embroidery and traditional upholstery – is something that stands out.”

However, the storytelling and history wouldn’t count for much if it wasn’t for the sheer fineness and quality of the work too. From the Irish antique chair stripped of its upholstery, exposing an interior with the thick leather straps of industrial machinery nailed to the frame, that has been painted by fine artist Edward Kay; to the Chinese reading cabinet (£12,000) with its burnished interior, complete with an antique velvet cushion inside; to the reclaimed English organ pipes that were welded together to make a screen (which now sits in the loft space of Blackman Cruz’s LA manager Christopher Kreiling), all pieces exude a level of detail rarely seen in design today. “It’s finer, a lot more precise,” confirms Grocott of the progression of his current work from that of Plinth. “It’s more edited. We can be really picky about what we buy now, because we know we have an audience for it.”

The resulting look is not for everyone, says one of their London-based clients, a senior banking figure. “It’s not to everybody’s taste and I know that when I come to sell, most buyers will want to rip it out and make it look like every other central London flat. But some small number will fall in love with the detail, the feel, the use of colour and textiles, and to them it will be a dream.” The client also notes that one of his own children described the apartment as Serbian chic – “Which I like, somehow.”

Janet Fischgrund – who began with a sofa and ended up with a Modernist chair covered in a red-and-white striped fabric originally from a butcher’s curtain, and a dining table and chairs found in a Darby and Joan club in the north of England and all painted a single colour bar one chair – believes, “You’re going to appreciate it immediately or it’s just going to pass you by. Personally I knew I’d stumbled onto something special.” Not least because, she observes, “each piece can be worked on by something like up to eight people. They really are like works of art, which sounds pretentious, although they’re not. But knowing the provenance of each piece, and, for me, the fact that they’re ecologically produced, makes it very interesting.”

Ah, yes, the band of Clarke & Reilly people. Dwyer, in particular, admits to seeking out unusual talent and like-minded people. During our interview there’s a delivery of a squab cushion – covered in a buttoned 18th-century velvet that’s worn in all the right places (and a little torn too) – that’s been handstitched (and visibly so, for this is part of the Clarke & Reilly aesthetic) in a thread of the same era by one of their team of talented upholsterers, who apparently relishes the Clarke & Reilly commissions and wishes there were more of them.

There’s Uli Schade, the London-based German photographer who (as seen here) shoots their finished furniture and projects, and has bound several images in a handmade book. And Chris Cox, the north London metalworker, who created the antique organ-pipe screen.

Then there’s Edward Kay, the fine artist, who paints much of their upholstered and semi-upholstered chairs, using a palette knife to create the layering you’d associate with historical oil painting. At the time of writing, he was covering the inside of the antique Chinoise reading cabinet with graphite (ie, pencil) and hand-burnishing the interior with a teaspoon. It had taken about two weeks to date – and was still not finished.

When so many people are potentially involved in a single piece of furniture, and the furniture and fabrics cost several hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to acquire (the scrap of antique Chinese tapestry, for example, is pegged at around £300), it’s not surprising that Clarke & Reilly can charge serious prices for their work (one-off pieces have ranged from £2,000 to £48,000). They are unapologetic, because they believe in offering their clients something completely different; and they believe somebody needs to be doing what they do, in true 18th-century “made-to-measure” style. In any case, they frequently take pity on true devotees who clearly cannot afford their work, and are apt to give it away. “Well, anyway, David does. Quite a lot actually,” laughs Dwyer affectionately.

But despite the freebies, Clarke & Reilly “is working”, confirms Dwyer. For although they admit to not yet making “big” money, the business is growing in profit at an impressive rate. Since they began trading in 2006, the company has notched up an annual growth in turnover of 20 per cent. Their exhibition pieces are supplemented by an increasing number of individual to-order creations for clients (such as Fischgrund), who will invariably order more than one piece. And now that their profile is growing, they’re being asked to take on art-directing projects too.

“We’re just total control freaks. We have to be able to control the whole environment around our pieces.” This not only means that in one new client’s home – for whom they’re producing a number of sofas – they know exactly where the furniture is to be placed, but also that in the Blackman Cruz store, they alone curate the space in which their work is shown. “One of our clients calls us Stalinist decorators,” says Dwyer, laughing. “But I think it’s important to have a point of view, to be definitive. Otherwise, we’re just like everybody else.”

It is such control-freakery that will, predicts Dwyer, prevent the duo ever getting really big. This is both a plus and a minus. A minus in that most of us won’t get to experience much of Clarke & Reilly (although they do do affordable, says Dwyer, when it’s possible). A plus in that their work can’t be watered down for commercial gain. “It’s not physically possible to churn them out,” she says of their limited-piece collections where the furniture or textiles are one-offs and can’t be re-sourced. “Anyway, we’re really enjoying what we’re doing right now. We feel incredibly lucky to be making money doing what we love.”

“They’re never going to be a household name,” says Janet Fischgrund, “that’s just not what they’re about. But I do think they’ll last the test of time. Their work has evolved and continues to evolve, but it’s all in their understated way.” And, for now at least, that’s just how Grocott and Dwyer like it.

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