It is probably fair to call Christopher Guy’s furniture company an empire. His glamorous designs are popular on both sides of the Atlantic, throughout Asia and beyond. One of his pieces, a hand carved headboard, shown later in this post, is consistently amongst the most viewed products on Modenus. His signature, Chris-X, crossed leg chairs are found in glamorous locations just about everywhere.
When we took BlogTour to London’s Decorex we were very excited that Christopher Guy himself agreed to meet our group and talk to us about his story, his vision and his business. Interestingly, his preoccupations seemed to be more about the business of building his company than about designing furniture. But he did talk about both. So here are the thoughts of the man who has created a luxury brand that is recognized throughout the world.
“I have no design background. I built my first house when I was 16 years old – I was with my step dad – we washed our clothes in a concrete mixer – but I wanted to learn.
I started 20 years ago when I used to live in London. A friend of mine was reproducing Chippendale furniture and I was amazed by the level of craftsmanship that went into his pieces. I ended up getting into manufacturing myself within one or two years focusing mainly on mirror frames. Mirror frames were a hole in the market and I thought it was going to be very easy. Mirror frames, four pieces of wood, how can that go wrong? – Well, it did go wrong.
I could see that design and manufacturing were not enough, I had to get more involved in the distribution. And once I was involved in distribution it still wasn’t really enough. We have to go further than that. I am looking at other ways.
I took over the US distribution. When you are a manufacturer you are very smug and you think you know everything, you wonder what people are complaining about over there – but when you become a distributor you say ‘now I know what they are complaining about’ so gradually we were learning about the industry.
I could never have developed my line without Asia. 20 years ago I could see the writing on the wall with Italy, they were relying on marketing, which was the strong point of the Italian collections.. But if you wanted handcraft you had to go to Asia.
So, one day, a long time ago, with my girlfriend, I went to Asia for the first time. I thought they would be able to make everything and I would live happily ever after. But it didn’t work out that way and after 20 years I am still at it.
When I am in China I see our stuff everywhere – unfortunately, much of it isn’t my stuff! We are copied everywhere. What do you do? We go over in China and we sell very well, but we are heavily copied as is, for instance, Barbara Barry. Now, we realize we have to find different solutions for the Chinese market. Their wealth is still a new wealth that they like to show off. The Chinese market is very different, a bit like the Middle Eastern market used to be, lots of heavy carving, lots of gold. The Middle East has meanwhile become very sophisticated, as has the Russian market but China is still too new to appreciate some things.
When you move from a mirror collection which is about individual pieces, individual jewels, to a lifestyle collection, everything changes. When I started moving into lifestyle in 2007, it took some adjusting to do it. When you make a mirror frame it has to be the single centerpiece of that room, but with a lifestyle collection you need a centerpiece as well as everything else. You have to have a special piece with everything else supporting its statement.
There is a science in the amount of pieces you put into a collection. Baker, for example, have an average 150 – 200 pieces in a collection. Around 70 – 80 furniture pieces. The impression is that there is much more. Other collections like Nathan Smith have 10,000 pieces in their collections. How can there be a need for 10,000? Now, I think if you do a lifestyle collection with 200 pieces and get the balance right, that is including accessories and bits and pieces – you have a very successful collection.
Locations and credibility
My strategy for location is Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is glamour, the film industry. The film industry is like a global royal family, it gives you credibility for being in the US market. For structural organization – in Asia, it is Singapore. It is highly organized for the Asian market, the Switzerland of Asia. We have plans for New York, opening in January. You have to be there, you have to be in Paris, you have to be in London.
Credibility is very important , for me it is about being in the right locations. If you are looking for a single store that will give you credibility it’s Harrods.
We are doing so many things in the United States, we just opened a new showroom in Los Angeles,10 thousand sq foot, about six weeks ago and we are opening 20,000 feet in the New York Design Center, which will be open in January, a big undertaking, and a lot more expensive than I thought. (laughs).
The showroom in New York is going to cost about four and a half to five million dollars to put together. Could that money be better spent? Arguably yes, but I couldn’t do without New York. The space became available. They were going to break it down into little units. I thought, well you can either take a chance on a little unit. But I thought, lets go a little bit bigger, a little bit bigger, a little bit bigger – and I ended up with the whole space. Sometimes you think, I think I can do it, lets go for it. It’s a limited time to put that in place. I think this year I may have taken on too many jobs (laughs) .
There has to be something in addition to just doing a show. Maison et Objet was two and a half thousand foot which cost us $750,000. And then you bring people over, you put them up in hotels. Then there is the building of the stand – it has to be significant in the way that it looks. Then there is the transportation of all of the furniture. You start adding it all up… If you don’t have the back up, with a great web site, the sales representatives, you just loose that investment. I see the most professional market as still being High Point. When people go to High Point they go with a purpose. A lot of people go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.
Ten years ago if you went to Highpoint you would see everyone writing orders, you don’t go to a show today and see anyone writing orders, that means shows have become a marketing tool. Those who are displaying must have to have a strong back up. If you go to a stand and they don’t get back to you, you just walk away. Being able to follow up, follow up and follow up and having an international reach, is very key for companies.
The Decorex Stand
If you look at the stand we made, we carved everything out of Styrofoam, it is an excellent R&D tool, you can shape it in miniature. The display took 270 pieces.
What inspired the design? Harry Potter. There was a room full of furniture piled high – so yes, I was influenced by Harry Potter.
This is marketing, it is not for sales. It is very different. If you have a sales team they want to show you what sells best. But this is about promoting Christopher Guy. It is not about selling pieces of furniture.
Marketing and going online
What I found is that we still have a missing element from my business. And that is how to distribute and market efficiently.
If you are doing an advert in Architectural Digest, it costs you about $35 -40 thousands per month, per page – is that the way to go? Who can afford that? And that is only for the US edition, for one month. You have the China edition that is fast becoming as expensive. You have China, Italy , Russia – to get your brand out. So we are working on something that is too early to reveal, but we see that there is a need for a global approach to marketing and to interior design. It is a project we have been working on for a year, you won’t hear anything about it until 2014, but it will be headquartered in New York.
Blogs play a very important part. If a message comes from an advertiser then ‘yeah sure’ but if it comes from a blogger it has a lot more credibility.
I think the need to travel for a designer is so important. We had a competition in LA and brought the three winners from design school over to Paris and over here to London. We want to open their eyes – to see what is possible. So travel, travel, travel, and travel. You can’t go wrong with travel. I need Europe, I need the United States, I need what Asia brings. All those combined can give me a fuller picture.
I am British, but I am international. Every culture has brought something to the table.
On Trends and Elegance
I like to work on elegance – because elegance is understood. When I worked with Marco, in Harrison & Gil, I was 31, she was 21, very elegant and Spanish. And when I travel to any country they recognize what elegance is. If you go to Indonesia, they may not speak your language, they may come from a small village but they recognize elegance. Elegance is understood throughout all cultures. Take for instance Audrey Hepburn who would be recognized as elegant anywhere.
One trend, right now, is the colors you see in this show – the vibrant colors. Something is happening in London and Europe, the 1950s are coming into fashion again and it is reflected in the colors. If you go to Design Junction it is a very different look there. It is also aimed at a different audience. The trends will change in two years again, but elegance doesn’t change. It always remains.
When you look at resorts in Asia, especially Indonesia, Bali or Java, there is one designer who inspired me more than any other called Jaya Ibrahim. He is Indonesian, he worked in London for 20 years, and he is responsible for a lot of great resorts.
One day, in 1988, I went into his resort in Jakarta and left thinking to myself ‘Chris – you’ve just got to go back to the drawing board – because what you just witnessed is true elegance. Beautiful lines, no gold, no onyx. It was a surprise because there was always an assumption that Asia wasn’t elegant – it was rattan and bamboo, but that taught me what elegance is.
Traditional European elegance still has to be redefined in the same successful way as has happened in Asian resorts, and often these resorts are designed by western designers working with Asian designers, and interpreting it in a way that is just so beautiful.
I am 52 now. What changed at 50? I thought before that my glass was half full, now I realize it is half empty and I realize the urgency of getting things done.
I had a serious accident about two years ago. And just before the accident I was writing my first will, obviously not knowing that I was going to have an accident. I said to myself, I would only have two years of the existence of the company without me at the helm because I am involved in so many areas. After the accident I set about structuring the company in a different way. I was modulizing it. I thought if I had a designer to do a Christopher Guy collection they wouldn’t understand it. So I decided to break it down.
I always think when you are climbing, never look down. I never think I have achieved a lot because I am thinking where I need to climb to. It is not success that drives you forward. It is the fear of failure. Success is nice but failure tastes horrible. There is never enough time to accomplish everything we feel the need to accomplish.