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Choice Words

Whether it was destiny, fate or nominative determinism, the name given to the first furniture range designed by Paul Islip proved indicative for his career ahead.
 
"It was called Spectrum, and it was a range of hotel and pub furniture that had interchangeable seats and backs that could give it different looks, remembers Mr Islip, now joint md at North Wales sofa maker Westbridge Furniture.
 
Having completed first a bachelor of arts in furniture design and then a master’s degree, Spectrum earned him his break into the furniture industry, when it was spotted by Peter Keen, the chairman and owner at Hypnos.
                                                                                                   
"He liked the collection and I was fortunate enough to walk straight out of college in High Wycombe and into a design job, he says."
 
From Hypnos, he moved to the Christie-Tyler group in South Wales where, after a spell with Action Furniture, became design director at Deeside Furniture in North Wales, before co-founding the modern Westbridge business.
 
Throw the word spectrum into a thesaurus and it will launch back at you synonyms such as range, scale, scope and variety — all words familiar to today's sofa maker, and none more so than Westbridge.
 
"We are unique in being able to design and produce for all areas of the market. We supply everything from a £399 sofa all the way up to a £4,000 design at the top end, through our Spirit brand.
 
"The increase in complexity has been one of the biggest changes over my time in the industry. The end user is demanding more choice in terms of fabric , leather , sit , scale and design features.”
 
He says the company was probably the first to do mass-produced customisation when Marks & Spencer — Deeside Furniture`s original customer — first started selling upholstery in the 1980`s.
 
"They offered every fabric and every leather on every single shape. Now, that's becoming more the norm. Most customers are offering far more choice.
 
"It's a real production challenge, because in an ideal world manufacturers would love to have big production runs of one product. But that's not the way it has evolved. You have to learn to cope with the complexity challenge which is then compounded by the trend for decreasing lead times. We currently have over 100,000 options within the business, available on a four–five week ex-works lead time."
 
More new designs and innovation are also in the offing, with planning well underway for new launches at the January Furniture Show.
 
"One of our key strengths is that we have the largest design and development team in the UK with our own highly experienced fabric and shape designers. We have had great success by mixing  together fabrics and leather stories with different sofa comfort levels. We launched Artisan last year — our new fabric and leather collection — and you'll see an exciting advancement in that area , along with dramatic new models to move the Spirit brand onwards."
 
"The NEC is the main showcase we have for our independent customers, but it also means that we get to meet all our group customers over the same period. It's a great chance to discuss opportunities and they can see the trends that are coming through in our Elements , Westbridge and Spirit collections"
 
 
Quick Questions
 
Who in the industry do you admire: Ercol. I think they've done a really good job in re-positioning themselves to become more current without losing their heritage. For newer companies, I'd say Loaf. They've grown in a very measured and controlled way, with a very distinctive look and remained true to their design roots.
 
What trends do you see in the industry? Among manufacturers, further consolidation at one end and more launches of small , niche , internet based businesses at the other. In terms of products, the trend for smaller houses and renting is influencing design. A good example of that is Marks & Spencer's Loft range, which is very keenly priced and compact in scale.
 
Where do you get inspiration? Exhibitions, obviously, but also more and more we work directly with the fabric mills and component manufacturers to develop new designs and product innovations.
 
Your favourite furniture? The first designer that really inspired me was Charles Rennie Macintosh. I love his very high-back Art Nouveau inspired pieces such as the Argyle or the Hill House chair. They are very distinctive, ahead of their time. I'd love to own an original one of those one day.
 
And furniture you do own? I've got a Sofology Richmonde sofa at home, it is large-scale and provides deep-seated comfort. It's perfect for relaxing with a large glass of red at the end of the week!