When you see a hugely successful business, it’s easy to imagine it’s all down to the founder’s meticulous masterplan. But more often than not, you’ll discover that these untouchable entrepreneurs are just mere mortals somewhat winging it.
In some respects Sheridan Coakley, the founder of Shoreditch furniture store SCP and international design tastemaker, is in this camp. Locating his showroom in ‘outer nowhere’ (AKA 1980s Shoreditch), Sheridan set up shop with no business plan and nothing to lose. But what he did have in spades was a genuine passion for modernist design (especially 1930 steel tubular furniture), an open mind and the confidence to go against the grain. Quietly getting on with sourcing and selling pieces that he really believed in, soon collectors ventured to the badlands of Shoreditch just to buy from him, albeit with a taxi waiting outside.
Modestly brushing off his success as being “in the right place at the right time”, Sheridan was quick to spot a niche for contemporary designs informed by the modernist masters – an antidote to the ‘bombastic’ aesthetic of the late-80s. Giving young grads Matthew Hilton
, Jasper Morrison
and Konstantin Grcic
their first break, SCP quickly grew into an international brand, known for its sharp taste and eye for talent. SCP still champions hot new creatives, recently launching a collection by Canadian designer Philippe Malouin
and exhibiting the work of ceramicist, and long-standing SCP designer, Reiko Kaneko
Side table by Jasper Morrison
What was Shoreditch really like when you first moved there in 1985?
Desolate – the only trades left from the Shoreditch furniture district, as it had been for the last 100 years, were on their last legs. But at the same time the prospects were very exciting for everybody who legally or illegally moved into the area. It felt like a parallel London. The few customers who ventured to my space on Curtain Road thought they were in outer nowhere – they would leave their taxi outside, running on the meter, for fear of never returning to civilisation.
Tell us a little bit about those first days of SCP, it must have been a challenging climate in which to start a furniture business…
I never had a business plan. The rent was cheap, the shop space was amazing and it was a great place to be. As long as I could get on with what I was passionate about, making a living in the process, I was happy. I suppose my expectations were relatively low.
How did you make the leap from dealing in 20th Century furniture to making your own designs?
In my mind, it was a seamless progression through my earlier incarnations. I was getting a lot of original 1930s tubular steel furniture re-chromed – most of my customers wanted to use the pieces as furniture and were not collectors. I then started to make some re-editions at the same local workshop (Electra Plating on Rivington Street – now Lee Broom’s emporium). Around this time Jasper Morrison who was still at the RCA used to come into my store and we would chat and then Matthew Hilton who had recently graduated was told about my shop by Joseph Ettedgui. And as it happened both Jasper and Matthew’s early designs were in tubular steel. So, my urge to produce new designs was solved. It was then that I found out that if you wanted to sell modern furniture you had to exhibit in Milan. So I did my first fair in 1986 and luckily people liked it.
Philippe Malouin Group cocktail chair
Why did you decide to risk collaborating with little-known designers (though now household names), like Jasper, Matthew and Konstantin Grcic?
I was young like the designers and I don’t think any of us thought it was a risk. We had nothing to lose. It was something I wanted to do. My interest and love of the modernist period was equal to my dislike of a lot of the bombastic contemporary design at the time. Memphis came along like punk and I saw that it was possible to do something different.
He offered. He used to come into my first shop in Westbourne Park Road and suggested I needed a logo and house style – all he wanted in return was a 1930s Pel desk, I think. I looked at the record sleeves he designed and agreed.
What do you think would be different if you were starting out today?
I know it’s easy to say that things were different then, but they were. There was so much newness happening, as well as so much to rebel against. London at the time was good at rebelling against the establishment in music and fashion. In furniture design Italy was still dominant, the great designers from the 1950 and 60s were still designing and little was changing. But in the UK a small movement was getting started by those who weren’t in the shadows of the great Italian establishment, mainly designer-makers like Ron Arad
, Tom Dixon
, André Dubreuil
and of course Matthew Hilton
and Jasper Morrison
. I just happened to be around at the right time and in right place. Having said that, it could all be happening now with a new generation – but I’m just a part of the establishment and too blind to see. I hope so.
Vitra Miniature Well Tempered Chair by Ron Arad
How has Shoreditch’s changing demographic affected SCP?
We have a lot more customers, which is good. I can’t moan about how it’s not like the old days as I’m a part of the reason it’s changed. Put it this way, it’s a lot better than it could have been. London changes and areas considered beyond the pale thirty years ago have now become London proper and so it goes on.
You still champion emerging designers – how do you know whether someone is going to be right to bring into the SCP fold?
Apart from looking at their work, talking to them and getting to understand their sensibilities and what we have in common. Making a product is a two-way thing.
Are there any business decisions (or products!) that you regret?
People have always said that I could’ve been more business-like and successful. No doubt I made stupid decisions but we all do.
SCP celebrated its 30th birthday in 2015, what do you think the business will look like in another 30 years?
Ask my daughter Freya as she has been working with me for the last two years.