Sheridan Coakley opened his furniture company SCP in 1985 with the mission of producing well-made and honest designs. Thirty years later, he’s still at it simply because he loves the business. At its inception, SCP (shorthand for Sheridan Coakley Products) went against the grain of exuberant postmodern design. Today its principles of functionality and integrity have become widely embraced.
Never resting on its laurels, SCP continues to find new ways to express its values through furniture, textiles, and accessories. The brand got its start producing the early work of Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, and Matthew Hilton. And while it still maintains those relationships, it also finds ways to share the voices of younger designers like Fort Standard, Lucy Kurrein, and Bec Brittain.
Coakley spoke with Co.Design about lasting three decades in the business, material innovation, collaboration, and the mark of a truly good design.
Co.Design: Is the SCP of today much different from when you started 30 years ago?
Sheridan Coakley: In its essence, it hasn’t changed very much. But if there was a difference, it’s more to do with having experience and learning how to run a business. We’re still a small company, we haven’t expanded massively, we still have the same core principles. In a way, the world has changed around us. When I started, people weren’t buying modern furniture. They were buying antiques. We were a small business and there was a parallel design world.
I came from a background of selling or dealing secondhand furniture, which was early 20th century, late 19th. But the thing I really liked was the purity of the modernist period. When I started in 1985, we were kind of rebelling against the designs of the 1980s. It was a decade of excessive style. It was appealing to rebel and we just kind if carried on with that.
What do you make of the retread of Memphis—the 1980s design movement in Italy—that’s happening today?
Memphis happened when we started our business. We were doing our own rebellion, doing it our own way. We didn’t have the heritage of Italian design weighing on us. Memphis was kind of a punk thing. It wasn’t meant to be a success, but it became a success. But looking at it now, we kind of do things in cycles. There’s probably just as good reason to come back now and use it decoratively and it’s relevant. It’s the right time to have a look at it. But in looking back, you mustn’t be nostalgic. You have to look back and think about what’s good—it’s not about getting the look.
Throughout SCP’s history, you’ve worked with a lot of different designers, both emerging and established. How do your collaborations come about?
It happens through osmosis. It’s a little incestuous, but the design scene is small in Britain. You hear about people through friends and colleagues. It evolves from there. There isn’t an origin from a school of design so much as a school of thought that hasn’t been broken. It’s what was happening when Jasper Morrison, Tom Dixon, Ron Arad, and I were coming up and that line is still being followed.
Which pieces from SCP’s history best embody its core principles?
The Balzac armchair, the first piece of furniture we did with Matthew Hilton is really representative of the brand. The thing about armchairs or sofas is that if you’re going to make a chair you want to sit in, it’s going to look like something you’ve sat in before. Matthew managed to produce a sofa that’s ergonomic, that does what you need it to do, but he brings a modern perspective to it. A lot of sofas look sculptural but they’re uncomfortable. The design lead us to open our own upholstery factory. We physically make the stuff ourselves.
Also working with Donna Wilson for the knitted poufs. What was interesting with her collaboration is she’s an established designer and I took her out of her comfort zone. That changed our business. It was 2005 to 2006 and it was a catalyst to work with a whole bunch of new designers and producing furniture that’s a bit more accessible—prices that someone in their thirties could afford. It changed our direction to include more accessories, textiles, and ceramics.
Innovation and major design breakthroughs in the furniture industry usually happen when a new material or a process comes along. It’s quite difficult to make a chair that’s different. No one made a cantilevered chair before bent tubular steel. Before bent plywood, there wasn’t a shell.
I work in a much more traditional area with materials. The classic piece is the Jasper Morrison bar stool. It was the first thing that he made, and we relaunched it this year. We sold more this year than when it was first launched. And people look at it and have no idea that it was designed 30 years ago. That’s the mark of a good design.
Can you tell us about your working with Michael Anastassiades—an established lighting designer—on his first piece of furniture?
He’s a good designer and a demanding designer. We met in passing, then we had a dinner. A few months later, we showed him around the factory. Making upholstered goods is interesting. It’s one of the few objects where it’s a real collaboration between the maker and a designer. With a steel table, you can specify the dimensions and it gets fabricated to those parameters. With upholstery, the designer thinks about what’s on the outside and the inside is between the frame maker and the upholsterer. It’s a hands-on process. He gave us a design that was pretty challenging to do. It’s very precise piece clad in wood. He recognized that a sofa is more than place to sit at home and and watch television. They’re for conversations, part of public spaces, a place to work with your laptop.
What do you think is the most challenging to the furniture industry at large?
Furniture has always been expensive. When someone invests $5,000 or $10,000 in a dining table or a sofa, it’s not a whimsical thing. There’s a huge responsibility in ensuring something you sell has longevity. The risk is—and it’s been tried by a number of fashion brands when they thought furniture was sexy—thinking it’s like frocks, like “this is the sofa of the season.” Furniture isn’t throw away. Keeping on top of that [will be a challenge]. As a manufacturer, being responsible in not making a novelty.