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furnishing flair

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Sheridan Coakley, founder of East End furniture business SCP and a member of the advisory board of 100% Design, to be held next month at Earls Court, says his and SCP's success is down to common sense, instinct and enthusiasm

Sheridan Coakley says he still regards himself as something of an amateur in the furniture business. Surprising, really, for someone whose name has become synonymous with British contemporary furniture during the past 20 years.

His company, SCP (Sheridan Coakley Products), has been manufacturing and selling contemporary and classic furniture designs since 1985, but he says his success is really down to common sense, intuition and a genuine enthusiasm for what he does.

Coakley's interest in furniture began in the late 1960s when he ran a stall in Camden Market in London. In the beginning, he was buying and selling mainly old photographs and books, with the odd piece of secondhand furniture. 'It was the perfect alternative lifestyle that enabled me to earn a living without the nine to five, ' he says. His interest evolved and he started visiting auctions to buy and sell pieces, and found that he was acquiring a specific interest in early 20thcentury design.

Eventually, he opened a shop in Fulham, but says: 'It wasn't about collectors' items in those days; it was simply second-hand furniture. People bought it for different reasons then, because it was cheap and well designed. And they bought it to use it.' As the years went on, it became more difficult to source original furniture, particularly 1930s tubular steel pieces by designers such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Coakley, though, found that it was relatively cheap and easy to reproduce these designs and began making a range of re-issues.

In the mid-1980s, he visited Philippe Starck's Café Costes in Paris. 'I had never seen anything like it. I knew that this was the kind of stuff I wanted to sell.' He called the furniture manufacturers and within weeks opened a new showroom with the UK's first ever Philippe Starck exhibition. Shortly after, Coakley was introduced to graduate Matthew Hilton, who, along with Jasper Morrison, designed SCP's first collection - which was launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1986.

By now, Coakley was leasing a ground floor space in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, an area he chose at the time for its central location and wealth of furniture factories, workshops and local craftsmen. 'Shoreditch was the UK's furniture capital then and had been for a good many years.'

Over the years he has seen first hand the extent of regeneration in the area. The developers have moved in and the craftsmen have moved out. Warehouse space is at an absolute premium and much of it has, of course, now been converted into loft apartments, trendy bars and chi-chi restaurants. But Coakley was particularly sad to see one of the last Shoreditch institutions shut up shop a few months ago.

Parry Tyzac, a family hardware business that had supplied the furniture trade since the 1840s, had to close its doors.

'It got an unbelievable offer on the freehold that it simply couldn't refuse, ' he says.

However, SCP is one of the success stories of the East End property boom. In the mid'90s, when wealthy city types first began to move into the area, they subsequently sought to furnish their designer lofts with designer furniture. SCP, which had previously only supplied to trade, found that there was more and more demand from the public to buy its furniture. 'We were one of the few places where people could buy a Saarinen table or Panton chair - before that, you just couldn't buy pieces like that.'

Now SCP has large concessions at Selfridges in London and Manchester - and soon in Future Systems' Birmingham store.

Its retail business is doing 'very nicely' and the business divides roughly equally between contracts, retail and manufacturing.

Was there ever a business plan? 'What's that?' Coakley laughs. 'The way we have always run the business is through instinct.

We've grown in a very unstructured and organic way that has allowed us to be flexible and perhaps take routes we otherwise wouldn't have been able to.' There is no doubt that much of SCP's success is also down to clever timing. 'I have waited 17 years to become fashionable - I suppose anything becomes fashionable if you wait long enough, ' he jokes.

Despite its success in retail, the company still launches a new range of furniture each year at the Milan Furniture Fair. 'It's important for us to stay true to what we do - the whole business has changed so radically in the past decade.' Coakley commissions the cream of British talent: Jasper Morrison, Robin Day and Terence Woodgate to name a few, although the signature piece is undoubtedly Matthew Hilton's Balzac armchair, of which SCP sells about 700 every year. The chair is featured with other SCP pieces in the 1990s room in the Geffrye Museum and has been hailed as an antique of the future.

Coakley is passionate about the UK design scene, and maintains that the UK has the best furniture designers and design schools in the world. 'I do think there are too many furniture designers but there are more opportunities now than there has ever been, ' he says. 'The UK is regarded internationally as a hothouse for furniture design. Italian manufacturers scour the fairs and shows for new talent.'

Coakley has been on the 100% Design advisory board since the London show's beginnings. 'We have to police who's allowed to exhibit and who isn't, ' he jokes. 'How do you justify choosing one design over another? A lot of the time you just go with your instinct.'

Asked about his plans for the future, he seems happily nonchalant: 'I suppose we should open a shop in west London, but the important thing is that we carry on making and selling quality furniture that will still be around in 20 years' time.'

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