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Entrepreneur Gives Italy A Run for Its Money

Britain's Sheridan Coakley helps create a taste for modern furniture with SCP Ltd.

You might be forgiven for wondering - just for a second - if you have stepped back a few decades when you walk into the furniture showroom of SCP Ltd.

Back to the 1950s, perhaps.

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Or even the '30s.

Indisputably modern furniture is displayed on every side. But there is an indefinable touch of the past about it.

A closer look, though, and you know that this furniture belongs firmly to today. It is simple, a bit severe, rather impersonal, but sometimes quirkily punctuated with touches of humor or charm. What it does not have is a trace of '80s post-modernist extravagance or artsy-craftsy expressionism. It is sensible, economical-looking and yet is not short on quality.

On inspection it shows itself to be exceptionally well made, using quality materials. Its manufacture ranges from cabinetmaking to industrial and computer techniques. Its emphasis on lasting quality differentiates it from '50s postwar modern furniture, as well as from much '30s modernism. It is also in a different league from today's modern-design budget furniture. It is modern, yet not inexpensive; modern, yet made to last 100 years; modern, yet - without imitativeness - a tribute to the past.

That, as the 20th century closes, tends to be the strange thing about "modernity." What was once anti- tradition now has inbuilt tradition. It is possible for '90s furniture to be modernist and yet oddly historical.

Yet SCP - which stands for Sheridan Coakley Products - is no antique shop. And although Coakley, the remarkably successful but unassuming patron and producer of this modern furniture, started out as an antique dealer specializing in tubular-steel British furniture from the '30s, he is far from that today.

After his antique days, he moved into making and marketing re-editions of modern classics - some of which he still sells.

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But it is his quiet, pervasive influence now as an innovator in the world of British furniture design that has brought him worldwide recognition. Alice Rawsthorn, a British design journalist, has written: "SCP is one of the few British companies with a consistent commitment to contemporary design." His success has also brought attention to Britain as a place not to be ignored in terms of new furniture.

His company is still much smaller than he eventually intends - it has a turnover of under 1 million ($1.5 million). Only a decade old, SCP is increasingly perceived as a spearhead of furniture design - which just happens to come from Britain. Its market grows. The second largest market, after the United Kingdom, is the United States (selling through Palazzetti Inc.), and after that France, Spain, and Germany.

SCP is credited with having launched two of the British designers who, in Coakley's words, "have influenced the furniture world enormously" - Jasper Morrison and Matthew Hilton.

He suggests in a typically understated way that these two are part of what "is almost a movement of very creative people" in furniture design "coming out of Britain." He likens this to a similarly original input of British fashion design into the fashion world. And he points out that "London is now one of the leading places for restaurants" - for "modern well-designed restaurants."

It was, in fact, the design of a restaurant that decisively shifted him, in 1985-6, into the activity of commissioning and selling new modern furniture. This restaurant was, however, in Paris - the Cafe Costes, the work (in 1984) of French designer Philippe Starck. Starck remains, and not only in Coakley's assessment, simply "one of the great postwar designers."

So enthusiastic was Coakley about the Cafe Costes that he organized the first exhibition to be held in London of Starck's work. This in turn attracted the young innovators Morrison and Hilton, and SCP was born. But if SCP launched these two designers, they also effectively launched SCP. Although both designers also do work for many European companies, they remain loyal to SCP as two of the five designers currently on Coakley's list.

It is a measure of SCP's status that some of its designs are now established classics - "they still hold their own," Coakley points out, after 10 years. Morrison's 1988 formal sofa looks to be one such classic. It retails for $4,940. One of a number of SCP sofas, it is even becoming a challenge to long-established classics of modern design. Although popular as a domestic sofa, this Morrison sofa is also proving its worth in "soft-contract areas: It is used extensively as a statement sofa in reception areas. Traditionally you used Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe's 'Barcelona Chair' [1929] ... but recently people have been trying other designs" such as Morrison's.

SCP occupies an old upholstery factory in Shoreditch, an unassuming district east of London's financial center. This was once the furniture district and still has connections with the industry. A number of cabinetmakers have moved back in. A nearby chromeplating company has gone, and the mattress factory opposite closed, but "one of the best veneer companies is still just down the road, and one of the best hardware and tool shops in the country."

All of SCP's furniture is manufactured by subcontractors in the UK. Coakley says that Britain has an infrastructure of manufacturers that "enable you to make anything you want." Budget furnituremakers go to the Far East, but not SCP, for which "the quality is paramount, more important than the cost." Though, Coakley adds, "we don't go out of our way to make expensive furniture."

Certainly SCP furniture, even though its output of individual pieces is comparatively small, is far from the kind of expensive individual artworks that some '80s furniture designers produced. "What we are trying to do is produce fairly unassuming furniture at a reasonable price," Coakley maintains.

Ironically, Britain's furniture industry has a diehard history of conservatism. In the '30s, the furniture that Coakley, Morrison, and Hilton admire today was a minority taste with a tiny market, opposed by most of the industry. And attitudes among the buyers and retailers of furniture in Britain have remained stick-in-the-mud ever since.

But things have started to change in the last year and a half. Coakley believes that at long last some of the mainstream stores are beginning to take notice of modern design in furniture. Several large chains and a big London department store are turning to people who once worked for Habitat, "so I presume something is going to happen." A number of new design-led furniture stores are opening in London.

IKEA's presence in Britain is playing its part in not only attracting buyers of modern furniture, but - since it now has about 10 percent of the market - in forcing other retailers to finally admit that modern furniture sells.

And "at our level," Coakley says, "I suppose we have our own influence."

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