Be Relevant or Be Dead
An interview with designer Timothy Oulton
By Shelley Black
Timothy Oulton’s beginnings in furniture started in the late ’70s at a small antiques shop that was owned by his dad. Profoundly influenced by his love of antiquities, his father’s military background and an inherent affection for British heritage, Tim has spent the past few decades handcrafting his iconic furniture and design brand—a coalescence of old and new. Homefront caught up with Oulton after the recent opening of his flagship London store, in the historic Bluebird Garage on the storied King’s Road in Chelsea.
Q: How did starting as an antique dealer influence the style of the furniture you design today?
Timothy: I’ve always loved antiques, but design has to be relevant and with antiques there’s no creative process. With our designs, we borrow ideas from the past but we give them our own point of view, and that’s what makes them modern and relevant. Everything is handcrafted using traditional methods and authentic materials—hand-distressed leathers, reclaimed timbers, pieces that are built to last and materials that actually get better with age.
Q Is your fascination more with what’s old or what’s new?
Timothy: What I’m really fascinated by is the colliding of old and new—those two worlds should come together to make something fresh and exciting. Vintage never dies because it has a story and that’s what draws people, so it will always be a big influence for us—whether it’s in the design or the materials. Our signature is to put our own modern twist on whichever piece we are working on.
We borrow ideas from the past, but we blend them with a modern sensibility. Our pieces are reconceived from a modern perspective using only the best traditional techniques and fabrications. I like to talk about Gyro Crystal, a rococo chandelier.
As pretty as it is, a chandelier is boring on its own—but whack it in a cage and it becomes something else. Design has to be relevant and interesting for today.
Q You’ve created a Passivhaus Dome Home, and an office space in a refurbished factory inspired by a camera shutter and a Chinese lantern. Do your clients or the space lead your ideas?
Timothy: It seems to depend on the project and what we’re given to work with. With the Dome Home, our aim was to create a prototype for a modular building that could be transported anywhere in the world. For the office, we wanted to infuse the owner’s effervescent character and humour into the space, so we came up with a lantern-like private office suspended in mid-air, with a door inspired by a camera shutter.
Truly, it always comes down to creating a visceral experience, whether we’re designing a piece of furniture or an entire space. Luxury is not about “things.” Rather, it’s about exploring experiences and giving them meaning and connection. That’s what we always focus on.
Q You now have more than 40 stores internationally and recently opened your new headquarters at the famous Bluebird Garage in Chelsea. That must be exciting.
Timothy: Certainly! The Bluebird was originally a celebrated Art Deco legendary innovator and racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell, so it’s got stories! I’ve always loved the building, so when the opportunity came up we knew it was the perfect place.
We’d been looking to take on a London landmark for our flagship for a long time and we plan to become part of the community here. Chelsea has such a rich heritage of art, culture and design—you think of the King’s Road and you think of Sid Vicious, Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood—everyone used to talk about the King’s Road. They still do, so we expect the Bluebird to be not only a great furniture destination but also a unique backdrop—a new place to connect with people or host a fabulous party.
QYour design portfolio is extensive and growing. How do you work with your design team?
Timothy: Working with my team is a collaborative effort between a group of great people who are extremely passionate about everything that we do collectively. My daily time is usually spent between the design room and the workshops, where I oversee all of our production.
Q Why do you work a lot with vegetable-dyed fabrics?
Timothy: With our Noble Souls range, we wanted to create a sofa collection using only pure, natural materials. Everything is made by hand, at human scale, using simple, time-honoured techniques. For me, it’s all about rediscovering and understanding how the things that come into our lives were actually made: The effort, the passion and the beauty.
In this case, the dyes we use are extracted from plants through a simple fermentation process andthen mixed with water. It’s an ancient practice and completely natural. We use indigo for the blue tones—one of the oldest plant-extract dyes in the world—and we use gallnut to create the grey hues. It’s a past-meets-present approach.
Q What gives you the greatest satisfaction?
Timothy: Talking to people who have loved one of our designs enough to take it home and make it part of their everyday life. We once had a couple who both fell in love with our Shabby sofa. The man said he proposed when he realised they’d never fight over furniture like most couples do! I love to hear stories like that.
Q Does London still excite and inspire you, or do you look elsewhere?
Timothy: I get inspired everywhere! In London, I’ve always loved the V&A and the British Museum—they’ve got amazing collections. I always do the flea markets too, as they’re a huge source of good ideas—the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen in Paris, and there are a couple of big ones in the UK that I like to wander through. I never walk away without something; I’ve bought a whole sofa just so we could take the studs off. (After I’d done that, I turned around and gave the seller the sofa back. He must have thought I was mad!)
Really, in our world, inspiration can come from so many places. It could be an LP cover: Those Pink Floyd designs and Rolling Stones covers are iconic.
Q Many of your designs are based around entertaining: Dinner parties or games nights. What’s a night at your house like?
Timothy: I love to entertain, but the mood is always very casual. Of course, you should have great food and wine, but for me and the brand, it’s more about the people, the atmosphere and engaging all of the senses—and when the senses take over, you’re done!
Some of my most enjoyable dinner parties have been with our customers. We’ve done a few in New York and LA. Often, it’s just a small group—people from all walks of life, swapping different perspectives across the table. And we also get together regularly at the Lychee Garden, which is near where the design team live. If we are at home on the weekend then I love to do a roast dinner. Hosting is really at the heart of everything we do as a brand.
With an inherent affection for British heritage, Tim has created an authentic, visionary brand with the deepest integrity and a passion to deliver the extraordinary. Handcrafted with only the best
traditional techniques and fabrications, each Timothy Oulton piece is inspired by the past, but reconceived from a modern perspective, producing uniquely authentic collections that push the boundaries of furniture design.
Shelley Black’s career has spanned a unique range of editorial and corporate roles with Flare and Maclean’s. She enjoys writing about all forms of design.