Balzac Celebratory Logo by Farrow Design

Balzac 30

In Conversation with Matthew Hilton & Sheridan Coakley

To mark the 30th Anniversary of the Balzac armchair by Matthew Hilton, SCP are celebrating throughout the year. To start it all off, SCP’s Editor Duncan Riches talks to designer Matthew Hilton and SCP founder Sheridan Coakley about how it all began.

Beginnings 

Having a conversation with Sheridan Coakley and Matthew Hilton about the beginnings of the Balzac armchair is a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle. We know what the final picture looks like; it’s a curvaceous club chair, usually seen in tan leather, that became something of a motif for SCP. Finding all the pieces to tell the story of how it was created, and more importantly, what the atmosphere was like at the time, is more tricky.

Sheridan explains. “The problem really is that it is thirty years ago. Okay, we weren’t that young, but we were young. We didn’t have the kind of backup people have now, where you have studios and assistants, and I would have a marketing team and a prototype department. Nothing was ever filed, we never made any notes, we just did stuff, and that is the difficulty trying to remember it, as there is no formal process that was ever written down.” These days, it’s all a formal process, and it’s all written down. Every new SCP product is discussed at length, rendered, photographed from endless angles, corrected, perfected and made with future proofing in mind. Everything now is done very much on purpose, but whether things have any more purpose, is another debate entirely.

Before undertaking this interview, as a small something to jog their memory, I sent Matthew and Sheridan a scan of an article from April 1991’s Blueprint Magazine, in which SCP and a first sketch of the Balzac armchair feature. Nigel Coates’ remarkable trousers, Jasper Morrison’s geography teacher inspired style and Matthew’s very own white trouser fleece combo are a good place to start our conversation.

Four Easy Pieces article in Blueprint Magazine April 1991. Featuring a portrait at SCP Curtain Road of Nigel Coates, Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton and Sheridan Coakley.

NOTE: SC (Sheridan Coakley), MH (Matthew Hilton), DR (Duncan Riches).

SC

That article came out in April 1991. Milan, I think in 91, was in September. To be honest, do we know if we took the Balzac to Milan? Did we go to Milan in 91? I was going every year. That looks like it is a sketch before we even made one.

MH

Yes, because we took the back cushion off didn’t we. In that sketch there is a back cushion with a button in it, but it was taken off because it was difficult to make it.

Early sketch of the Balzac with the back cushion that was later removed.

DR

Can you remember what the first stage in developing the Balzac was?

SC

I wanted to make upholstery and I was talking to Craig Allen, who at the time was the buyer for the Conran Shop. We were selling him other products, like Matthew’s Bow shelving. I feel like we must have had a design, because I asked Craig if he knew anyone who could make upholstery. There was a guy on the Lea Bridge Road in East London, who made a few things for Conran at the time. So we first went to see him.

MH

I had a full size drawing, the sketch and the model and we just took it to the guy. We then went back and looked at it, and asked “can you make it a bit thicker here, a bit thinner there…”, and we had a back cushion on it, but we struggled to make the back cushion look right. So we said, let’s just not have one.

SC

It was a small workshop. Very quickly after that we switched to two guys out in Norfolk (also suggested by Craig Allen), who we were working out of a chicken shed on a farm.

The two guys working out of a chicken shed were the founders of a small specialist upholstery company called Thetford Designs Ltd, who SCP would go on to work with for over a decade before eventually buying the company and incorporating into SCP in the mid 2000s. As the Blueprint article observed, at this time Sheridan was operating “much like a French or Spanish furniture “editor”, buying the services of small manufacturing companies as he needs them and using several suppliers to make elements of the same piece.”

The reality was, if you wanted to make contemporary furniture in Britain from around 1985 onwards, there were not many other ways in which you could do it. However, working with a small upholstery company, making things to order, allowed SCP to start the journey towards being an independent specialist manufacturer in its own right, and the Balzac, was the first product on that journey.

An early version of the Balzac armchair on show at SCP Curtain Road in 1991. Featuring Sheridan's daughter and a friend.

DR

Was the first Balzac in leather?

MH

I think we probably did it in that furry Divine fabric that everyone used to use.

SC

Divina Melange?

MH

Yes. I am pretty sure Sheridan said let’s try leather, and had found an aniline leather to suit.

SC

I saw this leather up at the factory, and asked them what it was for, and they said it’s for making Chesterfields and it’s unfinished. They used these untanned hides, so they can then stain them. If you look at those reproduction Chesterfields, they stain them in the folds black, so it looks old. When I saw this leather, this completely natural untreated hide, I instinctively felt that was exactly what the Balzac should have, and we have never changed it since then. We developed our own leather eventually. So the leather we use now is specially made for us (by Sorenson), but at the time we used this completely natural untreated hide.

Early 90's image of the Balzac in leather.

"I wanted the whole thing to look smooth and almost featureless."

Matthew Hilton

DR

The double saddle stitch on the arms? I seem to remember discussing this with one of you in the past and that it took some time to develop.

MH

I can’t remember exactly when we did it, but that seam couldn’t have much detail on it, because it had to remain flat. If you do top stitching on one side, it makes a kind of a bump. We couldn’t do any piping, we didn’t want to do anything like that. I wanted the whole thing to look smooth and almost featureless. I think that is where that came from. It was stitching down both sides of the fabric, to keep them in place, particularly around the front of the arm, where it tends to pucker a little bit. I think it was because of that, it was the best way to stitch that form.

The double "saddle-stitch" on the arms gives the design a continuous smooth outline.

Exposure

Getting the form and finish of the Balzac resolved was just the first part of the story. The next was about getting it in front of the right people to make it a success. To his credit, Sheridan always seems to have understood that where you show your product, and who gets to see it, are totally crucial to its success.

 

DR

How were you promoting SCP products at this time?

SC

We did Cologne and Milan every year, as far as I can remember. You used to show your prototypes in Milan in September, and then by the time you went to Germany in January you were making it properly and that’s when you started to sell it.

MH

Terence Conran came to the SCP stand in Cologne, it was probably a year and a half or so after we developed it. He wanted it for the Conran shop.

Konstantin Grcic, Matthew Hilton & Terence Woodgate on SCP's stand in Cologne, 1992.

DR

Can you specifically remember what happened with Terence Conran himself?

SC

Conran buying it was the biggest kick-start for the Balzac. I remember him saying it was his favourite chair, “the best chair he had ever seen”. I think Craig Allen was also a big fan. He used to go around the fairs with Terence. In those days there would be a whole process of buying. Craig would get samples into Conran, and there would be a big meeting where Terence would walk around and make the decision. I think it was a bit of a given, since Terence had already seen it at a fair. Then it just went into the Conran store, in leather, and sold constantly. It went on for years and years. We did a deal with Heal’s when Conran stopped selling it, and they have just continued selling it. It has never not sold. Matthew has earned royalties on it every quarter since 91.

MH

Quite good really. I was really pleased that it went to the Conran Shop. For me, the Conran Shop was a proper design shop, it was a great place then. That made me really quite happy. Then there were little things along the way. It was adopted by loft living people in Shoreditch, which happened when people had a bit more money in Shoreditch, in the mid-to-late 90s. It was then in the BA Concorde lounge at Heathrow, and then Adam Brinkworth put it in all the Karen Millen stores that he was designing. All these things helped give it exposure.

"Conran buying it was the biggest kick-start for the Balzac. I remember him saying it was his favourite chair."

Sheridan Coakley
The Balzac photographed behind the scenes at an SCP shoot in Dungeness in 2015.

The Anatomy of a Design

DR

Going back to the original idea for the Balzac. Where did it come from? In the Blueprint piece, it mentions that it was a departure from your previous work. What do you think they meant?

MH

It was pretty early days to make any kind of judgement like that. I didn’t have much work in production at the time. Maybe three of four pieces with Sheridan.

SC

That was the first piece of upholstery.

MH

Exactly, there was nothing else to compare it to in upholstery. It comes more from the cast aluminium work really. It’s got that kind of sculptural feel about it. The steel things we started with were that way because that’s the way you make things in steel. It’s to do with materials and what works and what is appropriate. The Balzac comes from a sort of ergonomic plot really, someone sitting in an armchair and then drawing a line around it.

"The Balzac comes from a sort of ergonomic plot really, someone sitting in an armchair and then drawing a line around it."

Matthew Hilton
Matthew Hilton with Balzac drawing, 1991.

SC

At the time, minimalism was the vogue, chairs and sofas being made were not being designed for comfort.

MH

There wasn’t a lot of comfortable modern furniture around. Modern furniture wasn’t that great for ergonomics.

SC

That was something we did at the time. We did talk about this being an English club armchair and all that goes with that, which is mainly to do with comfort. It’s kind of enveloping you. It went against the grain in that respect, as it wasn’t like anything being produced by the young designers around at the time. Everybody was designing much more non-functional forms.

MH

There was a very kind of Bauhausian sensibility at the time. Upholstery was quite hard and kind of fighting to not look soft. Everything was very geometric and proper.

DR

Two other cultural aspects that seem relevant to the Balzac are the fact it was introduced around the same time IKEA came to Britain (1987), with their famous “chuck out the chintz” advertising campaign, and that it then found success in the time of new Labour and the whole “Brit” movement, in design, art, fashion and music. These things seem to me have had an influence on the success of the Balzac as a cultural item.

SC

It was the first time that the public started to understand that modern furniture was acceptable and you didn’t have to have inherited vintage furniture.

MH

There was a whole shift in the early to mid 90s. It was when all the design magazines started. Blueprint had begun in the 80s, and then Elle Deco in the early 90s.

Balzac advert in Blueprint in November 1991. Designed by Pentagram.
Elle Deco April 1995, with a Balzac sofa featured in a piece entitled "big softies".

SC

It was really different then. Professional people didn’t tend to buy modern furniture. Conran was a big part of the change that made it acceptable. We were around at the same time. Or course upholstery would be bought by architects to put into their modern projects, but the high street and magazines didn’t show contemporary furniture. It was extraordinary really.

MH

There was a tiny market at the beginning.

SC

You’ve got to put it in perspective really, it still is. We’ve always operated at the niche end of the furniture market, that’s why DFS never did a copy of the Balzac. It’s always been expensive because we made them to order, and not everyone is going to want to buy it. There’s also a bit of a Marmite thing about the Balzac. Some really don’t like it, but we’ve always had people who say that they have saved up to buy a Balzac, and that it’s their favourite chair.

MH

That’s so nice. When I put the Instagram post out about it being 30 years of the Balzac, I got so many nice comments, from people saying “this is our family’s favourite chair”, or “our dogs ruining ours but we still love it”. It’s been great.

A Balzac being re-upholstered at SCP's factory in 2020.

SC

The fact that we are still re-upholstering Balzac’s that people brought in the 90s is another accolade for us. Not just in how it is made, but more in the fact that it has kept its style. It’s always been a bit of a maverick chair really.

DR

It’s actually very positive how the landscape around sustainability in design has changed so greatly since 1991. I guess it would have been difficult to imagine at the time that Balzac’s would be getting re-upholstered 30 years later in new more sustainable natural materials.

MH

I don’t think I would have guessed or had any hope of that at the time. We just kind of made the chair we wanted.

Balzac in Paul Smith fabric for their Milan store, 2001.

"It's always been a bit of a maverick chair really."

Sheridan Coakley

A big thank you to both Matthew and Sheridan for their time. This is the first part of a series of content we are producing this year to celebrate 30 years of the Balzac and the virtues of good design.

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