Home run: meet the county’s master joiners and cabinet makers fraternity
Guest Writer Paul Farley explores the abundance of talented craftsmen in the county, who have turned a hobby into a successful business.
With its abundance of rich, natural surroundings and creative energy, it’s little wonder East Sussex is home to a thriving community of quality furniture-makers, joiners, and woodworkers.
“We find we can regularly form teams of consultants from our doorstep. Lewes, in particular, has a wealth of makers and experts with whom we regularly collaborate, but also within easy reach are a range of sawmills and locally grown timber, and a large base of architects, engineers, designers, specialist suppliers, craftspeople and builders.”Studio Hardie
Meet the county’s furniture making fraternity
And there’s unprecedented demand for their expertise right now. Supported by help-to-buy schemes and low interest rates, the past years have seen home moves reach record numbers, with many migrating from the cities to the more affluent countryside or seaside areas – and these relocations have sparked the need for fresh, sustainably crafted interiors, from bespoke kitchens and joinery to new home offices, outdoor spaces and furniture.
At the same time, many of those staying put have adopted a ‘don’t move, improve’ mindset. Successive lockdowns and new hybrid working patterns have drawn our attention to the space around us, further fuelled by a wealth of reality TV programmes promoting the pleasures of refurbishment, renovation, natural materials and simple domestic pursuits. With house prices rising, there’s a growing appetite to add value through home improvement, and the county’s cast of skilled craftspeople have been working overtime to sate it.
Nationally, these businesses are generally small operations, states the Furniture Industry Research Association (55.7% of the sector’s manufacturers operate at turnovers below £250,000), and there’s a greater concentration of them in the South East than anywhere else. So, apart from a growing number of wealthy customers, what is it about East Sussex that lends itself to this craft?
"Our location is very well connected,” says furniture designer and maker Ben Fowler, who has worked with some of the biggest names in retail, and now operates from a sizeable 1950s workshop in Newhaven. “There’s a variety of skilled associated industries – wood turners, metalworkers, glass suppliers, etc – within easy reach, while national firms regularly deliver to the area.”
"Business at Fowler & Co is good", says Ben: “We’re thriving. Lockdown caused people sitting at home to reassess their priorities, and among these is making their home environment more pleasant to spend time in.”
For Studio Hardie, the Lewes-based operation led by William Hardie (of Channel 4’s Amazing Spaces fame), which tackles some of the nation’s most challenging bespoke projects, this easy access to skilled experts is invaluable.
“We find we can regularly form teams of consultants from our doorstep,” says William. “Lewes, in particular, has a wealth of makers and experts with whom we regularly collaborate, but also within easy reach are a range of sawmills and locally grown timber, and a large base of architects, engineers, designers, specialist suppliers, craftspeople and builders.”
Indeed, while the nationwide home improvement boom has sometimes been held back by material availability, the county’s abundant woodland means timber is never in short supply.
“East Sussex has a lot of woodlands, so we find sourcing timber relatively easy,” says William. “There’s a selection of local timber mills, plus numerous local fabricators and specialist manufacturers – failing that, Kent and West Sussex are close by, and we’re able to source from suppliers from all over the country, as well as Europe.”
William says there's a general feeling that “both public and private clients are keen to start new projects” – the biggest challenge being juggling so many competing demands!
"With enough business to go around, the high number of makers based in East Sussex has its benefits", says Alex Moran, whose expanding joinery workshop, Cab, is also based in Lewes.
“Our main timber suppliers are all based near Purfleet docks, importing timber directly and able to sell at high volume and low prices,” he explains, “and, with four other woodworking companies based on the same site as us, the lorries that come are often making deliveries to more than one company, as well as other local firms.”
For Willow Tree Interiors, a kitchen remodeller with a workshop in Hailsham and a new shop in Heathfield (which was secured with the help of Locate East Sussex), the principal benefit of the location is its straightforward access to clients.
“Our customer base is all over the South East,” says MD Luke Stanger, “but being on a main A-road makes it far easier for clients to find us.”
Staffing, too, is generally straightforward. Cab’s proximity to Lewes and Brighton gives Alex Moran access to “a large pool of people with relevant skills and experience”, and both Ben Fowler and William Hardie acknowledge the various local colleges which train bench joiners and cabinetmakers.
“As a growing business, getting more help means I can spend more time working on the business, rather than for it,” says Luke Stanger.
Yet perhaps the biggest reason these professionals take such pleasure in their work is the sheer quality of life they enjoy working in East Sussex. Whether close to home, nestled in rural surrounds or vibrant cultural hubs, their workshops are the perfect settings for creative industry.
“We work hard, and it’s often noisy and at times stressful,” says Alex Moran. “Being in a green and peaceful rural setting provides a very welcome counterbalance. Dogs can be walked during breaks, and in the summer we can even wash off the sawdust with a swim in the River Ouse after work.”
William Hardie concurs: “The quality of life here is very high. Lewes is a cultural and making hub quite unlike other rural market towns, and is also a great place to live, with fantastic schools, beautiful countryside (both woodland and Downs), and the sea close by.”
For these talented makers, and many others across the county, East Sussex offers the perfect combination of income and location, boasting all the materials and manpower needed to craft great British furniture and joinery solutions for homes and businesses across the region, and beyond.
“It’s close to London, without the London overheads,” notes William Hardie, reminding us that a business can still make hay while enjoying a little breathing space – and the more we seek to surround ourselves with individual, exclusive and ‘Instagrammable’ environments, the more the county’s bespoke makers will flourish.
Fowler & Co, Newhaven
Fowler & Co offers a complete furniture design and manufacture service: from bespoke joinery to consultancy on architectural projects and product prototyping.
William Hardie Studios, Lewes
A passionate design and manufacture studio that fuses art, design, engineering, architecture and craft. Inglis Hall
Willow Tree Interiors, Heathfield
Willow Trees' aim is simple; to create spaces to cook, live and enjoy. They create unique, handmade English kitchens for homes across London, Surrey, Sussex, and now all over the UK.
Claremont Interiors, Seaford
Claremont Interiors has been creating beautiful bespoke kitchens for over 30 years. Their family-run company design and install modern and traditional bespoke kitchens, handmade in the UK by skilled craftsmen.
CAB makes precise, high-quality work by finding efficient and economic solutions to bespoke requirements. Their practice includes the design and construction of architectural projects and elements including bespoke joinery, cabinetry, and furniture pieces.
Inglis Hall, Lewes
Our kitchens, and everything else we produce, are designed from scratch and handmade in our workshop for the way you and your family want to live in them.