With so much of our time now spent indoors, many of us have put more effort into surrounding ourselves with the things that bring us joy. Whether it’s pieces of art or memories of travels to far-off places, creating personal, comfortable spaces within our homes has never been more of a focus than it is today.
At LLM – Luxury Lifestyle Magazine, we are constantly on the lookout for makers who are, not only producing beautiful pieces, but are also supporting artisans that may have been hard-hit by these challenging times.
Harry Grenfell, co-founder of Gottoman, the bespoke ottoman company he started with friend and former Sotheby’s colleague, Joshua Lumley, said: “As a specialist in English furniture, you realise and appreciate that the level of skill in this country has been second to none for hundreds of years, I wanted that for the Gottomans!”
Sourcing antique textiles from the Far, Middle, and Near East, the team at Gottoman artfully combines these unique traditions with impeccable British craftsmanship to create bespoke, one-of-a-kind works of art.
Lumley said: “We both have a deep interest in eastern textiles, rugs and kilims, and in their use in Western settings. We have also both grown up and worked with British and Irish furniture and love the way the two handmade traditions can complement one another.”
LLM writer Ina Yulo Stuve speaks with the pair about the launch of their new business and why a Gottoman should make it onto your holiday wish list this year.
Going into business with friends can be a tricky one. How has it been so far and what are the specific roles each of you play in running Gottomans?
Harry: Working with Josh has been terrific, we’re both very much on the same page with the direction we’d like to go in. We also present different points of view and we respect the other’s opinion, meaning we’ve challenged each other, which has buoyed Gottoman in general.
We’ve also collaborated with a joiner and an upholsterer, who have each added their own insignia to the Gottomans. The concept was initially mine, I loved the idea of introducing beautiful and interesting textiles to furniture. Josh has a wonderful eye and so when I told him about it, he got it immediately.
I designed the frames and legs, which Ben, the joiner, beautifully interpreted. Josh is ‘on the ground’ with Nicola, the upholsterer, and Ben sourcing the textiles and I deal with design, clients, sales, marketing, social media and press.
Josh: Working together works well with a natural delineation of duties: Harry is the furniture designer and I’m the textile specialist. In addition, Harry is responsible for dealing with clients and marketing, and I work behind the scenes keeping an eye on the manufacturing process, project managing each piece.
Who is your typical client?
Harry: I’d say people with creativity and vision. For the most part, the business is bespoke, we’ll only have a few in stock for showcasing and retail sales. So the people who will appreciate Gottomans will understand that these textiles are rarer works with their own unique and inherent beauty and that the joinery and upholstery is of the finest quality.
Josh: Our ottomans look best in country houses where there is an informal mix of styles, colours and periods. Our clients are looking for rugs and furniture that have a natural elegance but at the same time an understated beauty.
You made the decision to create pieces that are completely bespoke. What was the reasoning behind this?
Harry: The textiles had a lot to do with this, they are unique and not made-to-order. The latest works are mid-20th century, there is no production line here. I think it’s great and it adds to the works. We have to respect these weavings and showcase them in their best possible light and so there always had to be an element of bespoke, we’re just running with it.
Josh: Every antique textile is unique, as is every client! Furthermore, we are only going to produce a very limited number of pieces of furniture and want no two pieces to be the same.
The art of repurposing and reinventing is evident in your brand ethos. Was sustainable design something you always wanted to highlight?
Harry: Yes, a lot of what we’re doing is about bringing these fantastic works into the modern setting. The antique trade is, by its nature, a sustainable one and I think has to be encouraged in any way.
Josh: The antiques business has always been one of the greenest around, with reinvention and re-use always one of the central tenets. Furthermore, our wood comes from sustainable sources and we reuse wherever we can; for example, all our castors are 19th century.
With so much time spent at home recently, many people have started redecorating and playing around with interior design. In your opinion, is a Gottoman an investment piece?
Harry: I don’t think anyone should buy something they want to live with as an investment, if it turns out to be, then lucky you! I really believe you should buy something because you love it and it brings you joy. Gottomans have certainly done that for me; my hope is they do for many others, even more so given the year we’ve all had.
Josh: A Gottoman isn’t the perfect investment piece, you are far better off buying property or gold or even contemporary art if you want something that may appreciate rapidly in value. But our ottomans are made to last generations, and we try wherever possible to maintain the value of the textile by avoiding cutting and reducing the size of the original piece if we can.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned whilst at Sotheby’s?
Harry: Almost too many! I went straight to Sotheby’s after my degree at St. Martins and worked from front counter up to being a specialist and project manager. Trial by fire every day, but it gave me a depth of character and a certain ‘roll with the punches attitude.’
Josh: I learned so much during my auction career at Bonhams, Phillips and Sotheby’s, not only about my field of rugs, textiles, and tapestries, but also about many other specialities as well. I also made lots of friends amongst my colleagues, many of whom I have worked with subsequently on all sorts of interesting projects.
If you had to pick an item that you won at an auction that you are most proud of, Josh, what would it be?
Josh: I actually get the most satisfaction from placing things in auction. It is very exciting to find something rare and early that is unrecognised and mis-catalogued and then see it realise its potential in an international auction.
Living and studying in the Far East must have been an exciting time for you, Harry. Is there anything about the culture and architecture of that part of the world that surprised you the most?
Harry: China and its scale. My first port of call was Beijing. It’s huge. I marvelled at the size of the city, the size of the palaces, how small you were in comparison to the ancient culture of the place. I loved it. It was utterly mad and I really thought the people were delightful and accepting, which actually could be said for everywhere I went. I love the East and want to go back desperately.
I think probably the most impressive though in a way was the creativity of the Vietnamese people, again friendly and kind, but so imaginative in how they made and fixed things. To this day one of my favourite possessions is a bottle opener made from a 20 cm-by-1 cm pine stick with a bolt and two nuts in it with an inscription from the mechanic. He noticed my friend and I were desperately trying to open a couple of beers after a 10-hour bike ride, so cool.
What are your favourite cities for: 1 Food, 2 History and 3 Design
Harry: Food – Take me back to the East! Vietnam in general, but I suppose Hanoi for atmosphere, energy, heat, both temperature and Scoville scale, character and freshness, which surprised me. History – Beijing. I marvelled and am still blown away nearly 10 years later when I think about it. Design – London – it’s easy to forget when living there, but there is such a diverse range of architecture and design. I particularly like Georgian and bonkers Victorian.
Josh: Food – Cadiz or San Sebastian, I love how the Spanish eat fish. History – Istanbul, for the amazing fusion of Roman, Byzantine and Islamic architecture, and Design – London, for its museums and dynamism.
What are your favourite London spots for 1) An intimate dinner 2) Good quality drinks 3) A group feast
Harry: For an intimate dinner, I think it could be anywhere with character, but I would say Frantoio on the Kings Road or A Wong in Pimlico. Drinks is a tricky one, remembering mainly, I actually am not too fussed about cocktails but do think atmosphere is key and I love the blues so I would say the Ain’t Nothin’ But on Kingly Street. Or for more sophistication, nothing beats a martini in the American Bar in the Stafford Hotel. For a group, then Tian Fu, Sichuan Chinese in Shepherds Bush, proper Chinese food you get there, and the hot pots are great!
I’d also say there is such diversity and range in London that all three of these questions could be answered differently depending on what mood you’re in or who you are with.
Josh: I moved to the countryside in 2004 and my knowledge of London restaurants is embarrassingly out-of-date. I can recommend some good country pubs, however!
Photography courtesy of Barney Hindle Photography