boomtown bravura

Alasdhair Willis brings Brit design to New York. Can Established and Sons crack America?

Alasdhair Willis, 37, sips a cup of camomile tea in a hotel in London’s achingly trendy Hoxton district. We have not been followed here by paparazzi. This is a bit of a bonus, since Willis and his wife, fashion designer Stella McCartney, do sometimes tend to engage the attention of the celeb-snapping fraternity. Particularly since the couple are expecting their third child. “Is that known?” Willis asks in seemingly genuine surprise when I offer my congratulations. “Yes, we are”, he then admits, looking slightly shame-faced. “It’s due on New Year’s Eve. We always wanted more children. We just didn’t think – um – that it would happen just seven months after the last one was born.”

We’re here in Hoxton not because of Stella and the two, soon to be three, children – though they loom large in the conversation and are, he happily admits, the most important thing in his life – but because of the big success that Willis is enjoying on his own account. Established and Sons, the modern furniture and design company with a tongue-in-cheek name that he set up in 2005 with Sebastian Wrong, Mark Holmes and Tamara Casperz, is already one of the world’s coolest – and fastest-growing – labels. When Established throws a party – and they do lots – it’s the place where everyone has to be.

Next month, (October 4) he launches properly in New York, with his eclectic range of pieces by everyone from Zaha Hadid to Jasper Morrison on display in design guru Murray Moss’s SoHo store. It’s very simple: if you convince Moss, then you convince America’s design-conscious elite. Moss is the gatekeeper and moreover, he’s just opened up in Los Angeles, too. So Willis has assiduously courted him since Established’s conception, and finally the long courtship has paid off. “It’s a massive seal of approval,” he confesses, “When Murray finally puts his arm round your shoulders.”

Established and Sons, led by Willis, has ambitions to be a world-class design and design-media company. The first part of this strategy is to be an innovative producer of high-design furniture, made in the UK, by a mix of famous-name architects and designers and up-and-comers. Two years down the line, their collection – and the buzz around the business – is growing to the point where it would now be perverse for Moss NOT to stock their range.

It is a deliberately eclectic collection. “We have no house style”, says Willis. There are relatively low-budget items, such as the slightly postmodern pressed-metal “Fold” lamp by Alexander Taylor, or Sebastian Wrong’s “Convex” mirror, a wry take on an automobile rear-view mirror that might just be a reference to the way the company uses specialised automotive factories to make much of its product.

At the top end of the price range there are tables and couches by Hadid, and fellow British architect Amanda Levete, in daringly swooping style. There are relatively conventional bar stools by Michael Marriott, and separate shelving systems by Marriott and by the young design collective Frank. There are chairs and sofas and the high-gloss “Zero-In” table by rising stars Barber Osgerby. There’s one of the unexpected successes of this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, Sebastian Wrong’s “Font” clock, a wall-mounted digital timepiece that displays all the usual time, day and date info – but in a random, changing selection of 12 different typefaces.

It’s clever, and different. Balancing this novelty-object approach, designers such as Sam Hecht of highly-regarded product designers Industrial Facility are now bringing gravitas to the Established stable – in his case with the “Beam” lighting range. Using spun metal and blown glass, Beam cleverly blends directional and ambient light, in what Hecht calls “an illustration of light itself”. No question, this is real, thoughtful design. Not just attention-seeking.

In all, there are now about 30 highly individual pieces in the collection, many of them becoming ranges in themselves, so there are many more when you count all the variations. Plus – and this is one of Willis’s ingenious moves – there are his limited-edition pieces – sometimes luxury versions of products form the main range, sometimes one-offs such as Hadid’s astonishingly complex “Swarm” chandelier. The limited editions sell at art-market prices, part of a growing trend “In some ways, the excitement around British design at the moment is like the Britart scene of the 1990s,” says Willis – a reference to the shock-tactics of artists such as Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, both now household names, who burst on the scene a decade ago and never looked back.

If there’s no house style, what connects all the disparate pieces of Established & Sons? It is very English in the way it uses wit as a selling point – something else it shares with the BritArt generation. Take Jasper Morrison’s “Crate” – a simple wooden side-table based, as its name suggests, on a wooden wine crate. This created outrage is some quarters when it was launched in 2006 because, well, it was just a crate, albeit a well-made one. Was it a joke? No – Willis always insisted that some markets – particularly Japan where they get minimalism – loved Crate. And he and Morrison have kept the faith, have expanded Crate into a complete range of ultra-simplistic, well-made furniture.

Call it stylish eccentricity, if you like. It’s what sets Established apart from the functionalism of Dutch and German furniture-makers, the Scandinavian obsession with lightness, the craft-based techniques of the famous Italian manufacturers, or the analytical approach of mid-20th century American design by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames. From that period, the American designer who would most accord with the Established take on things would be, perhaps George Nelson. The slightly offbeat one (think of his cartoonish clocks) who was nonetheless a formidably talented designer for Herman Miller and others. Willis puts it thus: “A piece has got to have a story. People have got to be able to talk about it at a dinner party, say. We make a narrative for them.”

The way Willis tells it, Murray Moss took a bit of convincing that he was for real. “Murrray was pretty dismissive at first. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to meet me. I think he felt – who are these guys to come along and start jumping around in my back yard?” But I kept sending him notes, kept on his radar. It wasn’t until this year that he started to show an interest. Now he’s a big supporter, and we’ll be going with him to the new L.A. store as well.”

Moss wasn’t the only one to have his doubts at first. So did we all. We Brits like to sneer at sudden success. Was Willis what we’d call a “Flash Harry”? After years of the Blair government, we’d had our fill of spin-doctoring, and at first Established looked very like a creation of spin. The suspicion was that Willis – who had enjoyed huge success as founder publisher of Wallpaper* magazine, working with editor Tyler Brule – was trying just a bit too hard to make an independent name for himself. People pointed to the McCartney connection. The products – a mix of pieces by famous names and up-and-comers, the “Established” and “Sons” of the title – were interesting, but then again there was the ultra-professional marketing drive and simultaneous online magazine. In the febrile, backbiting world of the London design community, Established seemed much too confident for its own good.

If you meet Willis, which I’ve done a couple of times, these doubts tend to dissolve. As he says, apropos of his schooling in the North-East of England: “I’m not a posh kid.” Nor is he a Flash Harry, believe me. I’ve met a few, and he doesn’t fit the description. He’s neat, casual, clearly driven, friendly yet slightly diffident. Clear-eyed and open-faced, slim, dressed when we meet in blue jeans, white shirt with a faint check with the cuffs left unbuttoned, loose black tie over the open collar and black lightweight jacket. All this is very Hoxton, very creative-industries. It’s a touch sharper than most – given who kisses him goodbye in the mornings, how can he not be well-dressed, after all? But it’s subtle stuff. With his fringe of beard, he even anticipated the current rehabilitation of facial hair as acceptable in the London design business.

Still, he passes unnoticed in the throng, speaks softly, makes no undue demands of waiters, queues to pay his bar tab like everyone else. This man knows all about holding a party, mind you, and the Established launch events are famously over-subscribed. A design-journalist colleague of mine returned from this year’s Milan design fair shaking his head in wonderment. “People were fighting to get into the Established party,” he reported. “Really fighting. Punches were being thrown. What was all that about?” And that was just the party. The real catfighting came with the after-party.

Willis understands the power of the launch. “Yes, it did get a bit much,” he says. “The riot police had to come and cordon off the road. People were body-surfing over each other.” I suggest that he may have learned a trick or two from his fashion industry connections when it comes to staging to-die-for soirees. He politely demurs. “We held some amazing parties at Wallpaper,” he reminds me. “Tyler did those things well. Though he did spend a bit too much money on some occasions.” There speaks the businessman. Then again, given the money that Wallpaper was making at its peak – that was as much as £1.4m clear profit per issue, Willis recalls, plus the then Time Warner had scented success straight away and came in with heavyweight financial backing – the cost of a party was never going to be a big consideration.

However, Wallpaper – and its spin-off consultancy, Winkreative, which the pair went on to pilot in 1998 after Time Warner bought in – were both associated principally with Tyler Brule, who these days is back in the publishing business with his ultra-upmarket all-purpose cultural magazine Monocle. During the years of their association, Tyler was the front man, Willis the back-room boy. So he was ready to strike out on his own. But by then Winkreative had yielded one particularly valuable and unexpected dividend.

“I met Stella on June 30, 2001,” says Willis. “It was an 11 a.m business meeting at Brown’s Hotel. I remember it vividly. We’d started Wink Media, and one of our clients was Stella. She was starting her own label with Gucci after leaving Chloe. Our job was to work on developing that label.” He pauses. “We literally have not been parted from that day.” They married in August 2003 in the private Roman Catholic chapel at Mount Stuart House on the island of Bute off the west coast of Scotland. It was never going to be a private affair, however – not with the world’s press camped out to see the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Moss and Madonna, not to mention Sir Paul McCartney, arrive for the ceremony.

As he’s ready to admit, there can be a downside to being married into the Beatles dynasty. “What should be perceived as the success of me and my team can get lumped into the world of celebrities,” as he puts it. But both are grounded. Both are the products of moderately rough-and-tumble state schools. Sir Paul McCartney commendably did not believe in sending his kids to one of Britain’s fee-paying “public schools”, bastions of our entrenched class system. Meanwhile Willis was born and bred in North Yorkshire, youngest of four children, offspring of an entrepreneur father and a sports-physiotherapist mother.

Shortly after our interview, the Willis household was about to head off for Long Island for a traditional McCartney/Eastman family get-together (Stella’s mother was American photographer Linda Eastman). Their London home is in the happening urban enclave of Notting Hill. Plus there’s the 250 acre country retreat in the bucolic Vale of Evesham, 100 miles north-west of London, where Alasdhair, Stella and children – two-and-a-half year old son Miller and eight-month old daughter Bailey – get to most weekends.

When I ask him straight how useful the McCartney thing has been, he comes right back with this: “Has Stella helped my business? Of course she has, on every level. Even just talking over dinner about relationships with designers, say. But the biggest use to me – I don’t mean to get soppy about this – is that I met my life partner. That changes your perspective on life. It means you’re going home to your wife and kids at the end of the day, and they’re all that matters. It frees you from that need to feel you have to achieve. They mean more to me than anything, by a million miles.”

But Alasdhair is a natural achiever. He’s made his own way in the world. Sure, he’s a salesman. Ever since he got his first job selling ads for Maxim magazine (he sounds slightly embarrassed to recall this early, lad’s-mag phase of his career), he’s been good at that. But it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He studied painting at art school, with a side-order of French political theory. This was the early 1990s, when the influence of Baudrillard and Derrida was at its peak. He wanted to be an installation artist. “After college ended, I was in my studio. I was going to be the most successful artist on the planet. But money became an issue. I had to start working.”

The commercial side of magazine publishing was a school of hard knocks, and it worked. “What sales did for me – having come from the protected world of the art school where you can do what the hell you want – was to teach me how to operate in an area where it was hard to earn a crust. That transition is absolutely key to who I am now. I can sit down with a world-famous architect and designer and talk about their creative process – and then go and sit on the board of a company – mine or Stella’s – and sort the business out.”

One of the main planks of the Established strategy is that its collection should be both designed and manufactured in Britain. “I thought it was a bit weird that everyone always gets so excited about the talent over here, and then they have to go somewhere else to get anything made,” he recalls. So he thought laterally. Britain is the world centre for racing-car design and manufacture. If you can form the complex, highly-engineered forms of a Formula 1 car, then surely you can make a table by Zaha Hadid or Amanda Levete? .Willis established a partnership with Angad Paul of the Caparo Group, which is expanding fast in British high-end manufacturing. It worked – though some of the product now coming out of Established, such as the minimalist “Crate” range by Jasper Morrison – requires joinery skills of a more traditional order.

They struck lucky – or showed extreme prescience – by signing up
Hadid right at the start. She was becoming internationally prominent. Her “Aqua” table for Established was effectively the launch product for the company and the start of a partnership that has now yielded a whole Zaha collection. “I still think Aqua is the best piece of furniture Zaha’s done,” says Willis. “Prior to that, I don’t think she’d captured in furniture the essence of what she does in architecture.”

No account of the rise of Established is complete without a mention of the fact that a prototype Aqua table sold at Philips de Pury in New York for in December 2005 for $296,000. It became a leitmotif of the new “design art” trend, something capitalised upon by Willis with his limited-edition pieces which run alongside the more mainstream ranges. He ploughs the money from the limited editions into product development for other items – such as the DLWP chair by designers Barber Osgerby, a highly-engineered, big-investment chair with a deliberately 1930s feel.

Where next for Established? Designing and building houses is one thing – they’re in deep discussions with partners over how and where to do it. Getting back into the design media is another, “whether it’s television or publishing”. Design consultancy, of course – he’s done that already. The overall aim is “To be a design company rather than just a furniture manufacturer,” as he puts it.

So, I ask – who do you most admire, Alasdhair Willis? He stops and ponders. “Well, Steve Jobs of Apple – you can only have admiration and respect for what that guy has done with his brand. Angad Paul, definitely, for what he’s doing in manufacturing. And Ben & Jerry.”

Text © Hugh Pearman. The writer’s cut of the profile/interview first published in the New York Times, September 16, 2007, as “The New Establishment”. Photo of Alasdhair Willis (left) and team © Peter Guenzel. Other photos courtesy of Established and Sons.


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The New York Times cut: