FOSG: Jon, as you know, I have been asking you for absolutely ages how Scumble Goosie got that name. How it came into being, and how it has grown to what it has become today. I know you are naturally reluctant to brag, but you have a great story, and we all want to hear it!
Jon: Well, in 1989, when we started, Scumble Glaze was very in vogue for its use in decorative paint effects and we used it a lot in our paint finishes.
FOSG: You’re quite a past master at naming businesses with funny names, aren’t you. Am I not right in thinking you had another one with a funny name before you set up Scumble Goosie?
Jon: Sheepishly…Do you mean “Sitting Pretty”?
FOSG: That was it. What line of business was that in?
Jon: Still rather shyly…I sold designer loo seats from France!
FOSG: Loo seats?!!
Jon: Yes, loo seats. There was a huge demand for these in the early nineties – it was a time when the choice was normally white, black or pine so the idea of having colourful bright designs and images of sand or floral and fauna was quite a shock to the nation. It went rather well.
FOSG: That’s fascinating – what an amazing idea to come up with – I’d love to hear more about that, but in the meantime that has set me wondering what the Goosie is or did!
Jon: Doesn’t answer!
FOSG: Alright, we’ll come back to that!
FOSG: How did you get into designing in the first place?
Jon: I qualified as an architect, but designing and manufacturing furniture interested me more than buildings, so I thought I would specialise in that instead.
FOSG: So when did this passion begin for you, Jon?
Jon: When I was a schoolboy in Guernsey, I saw woodwork ‘O’ level as at least a partial opportunity to escape some of the academic tedium of the more serious subjects on offer. I really enjoyed it and managed to get a good grade to boot!
FOSG: So then?
Jon: Well it became a bit of a forgotten hobby when I went on to study architecture and design at Brighton Polytechnic.
FOSG: So how did it resurface?
Jon: DIY needs of my own – no more glamorous than that. My first house needed major renovations to turn it into the bachelor pad I strived for.
FOSG: So it was after that?
Jon: Yes. I became an architect in private practice, but with each house I bought later, I depended on my DIY skills all the more. I loved the stylish interiors I read about in the books and magazines of the day, but having spent so much money on the bricks and mortar, there was simply not enough money left to kit these houses out with the sort of furniture I felt they deserved.
FOSG: So how did you get around that problem?
Jon: Well, I dusted down the books I had on furniture construction and set about making some pieces from scratch. In the late ’80s and ’90s, the Gustavian style was enjoying a new found popularity, and was not only the subject of several coffee table books, but articles about it were also starting to appear in magazines like Homes & Gardens and Country Homes & Interiors.
FOSG: How did the construction go?
Jon: Well, it was really my lack of true carpentry skills which led me to the simpler and less ostentatious designs of the Gustavian style – frankly, they were a lot easier to replicate. I wasn’t prepared to start learning to carve, not was I interested in copying ornate pieces of cabinetry (even had I had the necessary skill!).
FOSG: So Gustavian then?
Jon: Yes, Gustavian was the one. And I loved the Shaker look too, which was also very much coming back into favour at the time. But there was another reason…
FOSG: Which was?
Jon: I thought the Gustavian look – and indeed the Shaker look – were more practically suited to modern living. Simpler and less pompous, frankly, than many alternatives – but, at the same time, having a timeless classic feel.
FOSG: Really, a long term view of what would stand the test of time?
Jon: Absolutely. I mean, that is not to say that I did not love the Cherry wood oval boxes, and impossibly delicate chairs, but it was the rather more robust looking Gustavian tables and other pieces that appealed to me – and especially so when I saw them painted in the amazing chalky hues of the 18th century palette.
FOSG: So you started making pieces like this for yourself. I would love to know at what stage this turned into a business, and when you started it.
Jon: In 1989, right at the end of the boom, when the country was just about to enter the last recession!
FOSG: And now we are in another one! That must have been tough. But I suppose you didn’t realise that it was right round the corner. How did you start it?
Jon: I wanted to make some of this classic furniture and sell it, as I had been asked by a number of people to do this for them. They wanted classic designs and they were prepared to pay good money for them. They were just getting ripped off on the pric es otherwise available in the market place. So I did something about it, and that is really how the company was born.
FOSG: And you love it?
Jon: Absolutely. Designing furniture for me is like being asked to choose your favourite sweets!
FOSG: I am beginning to conclude that Jon is something of an eccentric creative genius, who loves his products and customers, and hates conventional furniture, pricing and manufacture and its plastic look and supply system, and has decided on a collaboration with his loyal and enthusiastic customers. I decide to probe further…..
Tell me more.
The Seeds are Sown
Jon: Well, I was asked by a girl called Pia Taylor – an interior designer whose shop was opposite Verity and Beverley Architects in Long Street, Tetbury, where I worked – to produce a simple Gustavian table to use as her reception desk. I was eager to rise to the challenge and produce something which was commercially viable, and not just fun to make.
Jon: And, I think I must have been at least reasonably convincing as she did not bat an eyelid when I told her – on that Monday – that I would deliver the table to her the very next Friday (five days later!). Little did she know that until that time I had never actually attempted to make a Swedish table – let alone paint it!
FOSG: So a little bit of a nail biting week?
Jon: Totally! By the end of the week, there were far more Gustavian table legs in my wood burning stove, than on the piece itself! But, I persevered, and on the Friday it was with real satisfaction that I delivered it to her.
FOSG: And was Pia pleased?
Jon: Yes, I think very, but I was just a touch upset, after the stresses and strains of the week, when she told me she had decided not to give my table pride of place straight away, as she hadn’t had the time to empty and dispose of her existing reception desk during the week (perhaps thinking that this architect cum chippy was most unlikely to come up with the goods in anything like the near future!).
FOSG: How very disappointing.
Jon: Yes, it really was – then, but not later! She asked me to pop my showpiece in her window over the weekend, and said she would sort it all out on the Monday.
FOSG: Come on, tell me more. I am beginning to rather enjoy this interview, and so it seems, is Jon too….
Jon: Well, that’s when a whole series of happenings and coincidences started to fall into place, and they started immediately that piece was in Pia’s window.
FOSG: Go on.
Jon: Well, the then Editor of Homes & Gardens was weekending nearby and saw the table, beautifully lit in Pia’s shop window, on the Sunday night, as she window shopped her way back from a Tetbury restaurant. On the Monday morning, Pia rang to tell me that she had received a call from Homes & Gardens about the table, and would I mind if she passed my details on to her?
FOSG: Presumably you didn’t mind?!
Jon: Well I did think about it for less than a second before telling her that would be fine!
FOSG: So it could be said that this was a bit of a turning point?
Jon: A huge one. It was the start of a full on roller coaster ride. The editor’s assistant rang after a nail biting two days. “Mr Madeley, we rather liked a table which we understand you provided to Pia Taylor, and wondered if we could borrow one for a shoot next week?”
FOSG: And you said?
Jon: Well, the Pia Taylor table was the only one I had, but I didn’t want to let on, so I said yes, and went and asked Pia if I could borrow it back for a few days. Bless her, she was only too happy to oblige, so I took it up to London the very next day, desperately hoping it wouldn’t get damaged as I had promised to return to her a few days later.
FOSG: Was it damaged in any way?
Jon: No, thank God not. It came back in pristine condition.
And then….I waited for nearly three months (I hadn’t realised how long the delay usually is between shoot and publication).
I was actually beginning to think nothing was going to happen when I suddenly realized the phone was ringing a great deal more than usual!
FOSG: What were you doing at the time?
Jon: Well the recession was starting to bite, and there was very little architectural work for me, so I had started the new business by making and selling blanks.
Jon: Sorry – a very unexciting name I am afraid – these were trays and screens and waste paper bins and other small items like writing paper holders, wooden holders for tissue boxes and so on. I made these out of MDF – the new miracle material on the market – and one which people could easily personalise by adding their own finishing touches later.
FOSG: How did that go?
Jon: Well it was quite successful, but the downside was that I had to work most days, until the small hours, in a totally unheated, Cotswold stone outbuilding, breathing in MDF dust. I have to be honest, the architectural practice began to take on a renewed attraction for me just as soon as there was some more work around..
FOSG: So what happened when they rang?
Jon: Well they kept talking about the Pia Taylor table, and asking if they could buy one like it. And so then I needed to make more of them – really a lot more – and then they wanted to know if I did bedside tables to match, and “can you do dressing tables?” and “can you alter the sizes at all?”.
FOSG: What did you tell them?
Jon: Well, basically, yes, yes, yes!
FOSG: It must have been a very exciting time.
Jon: It was – it really was.
FOSG: So how did you handle this new monster that was starting to spawn itself?
Jon: Well, I set up my own brand of “mass production” making as many as 12 tables at a time. I was up to my ears in work, sawdust, and a few angry customers whose orders for a tray or two had been rather pushed to one side as this new, and frankly far more exciting, development took a hold.
FOSG: Very exciting.
Jon: Yes, but there was much more to come. Within a week of the original Homes & Gardens article coming out, other publications began to call me – stylists and editors were asking for images (which I did not have) and for the loan of products (which I had yet to design and make) for yet more photo shoots. This was all fantastic and I did my level best – with some failures it must be admitted – to fulfill them.
FOSG: Is there more?
Jon: Yes! Late one Friday afternoon the call came which would lift the business to a whole new level. Inspirations, a leading home interest magazine at the time – which, sadly, later on, failed to survive in an increasingly competitive market – phoned me up and said they had read – God knows where – that Scumble Goosie “produces a wide range of ready to paint furniture and accessories” and “could a good selection please be delivered to London early next week for a major spread in a forthcoming feature on the subject?”
FOSG: What did you tell them?
Jon: “Of course”. I practically shouted it down the phone. I can remember the moment as if it were just now. And, then I thought, Omigod, where is the ‘good selection’ this time? – perhaps I was about to wing it once too often!! Frankly, I got into a bit of a cold sweat, but I eventually calmed down and set to work over the weekend designing and making a limited selection of pieces – I decided to call it ‘The Naked Collection’.
FOSG: Well, there’s another of your wonderful names – but why?
Jon: Because, back then, the vast bulk of all that I made was only available in unpainted form for people to finish themselves.
FOSG: So what did The Naked Collection consist of?
Jon: There was a wall shelf, a variety of tables, a few of my accessories – the blanks – oh, and yes, a bookcase.
I’d been sketching and thinking of some of these pieces for a while, but the pressure of day to day business had prevented me
from getting on with them.
FOSG: The usual challenge of day to day busy-ness getting in the way of business development.
Jon: Yes, exactly that. But I knew I had to put my “mass production” briefly on hold and concentrate on creating some new pieces which I hoped would appeal to my growing list of customers. I managed to create eight new pieces in four days from the call from Inspirations, and deliver them to London in my father’s pick up truck. Luckily it didn’t rain!
FOSG: And did they like them?
Jon: The girls at Inspirations seemed absolutely delighted with the goodies I had brought for them. When I said goodbye, it was like waving to my children on their first day at school, and I drove home wondering if it was all a bit of a dream – although this was peppered with a sneaking confidence that I was going to make an impression with this lot.
FOSG: So then the usual dreadful three month wait?
Jon: Oh, yes, that painful wait – until one morning I got my complimentary copy in a plain brown envelope, looking like something you might order from Amsterdam! The rush, once I had started to open it, nearly destroyed the front cover! I did a quick scan to see if any of my pieces had been used in the shoot – and I couldn’t find anything! Just lots of articles on decorating – and I remember vividly – step by step pictures of rag rolling which had become the new way to impress your friends when they came round.
FOSG: So they didn’t use your stuff in the end?
Jon: Wait! I turned the page and both it, and the opposite page, were plastered with my Scumble pieces in their full naked glory, and just to add the icing to the cake, the next two pages were also. Four pages in total. Four consecutive pages. Shouting about my wares. A four page spread and I had only just started. It proved to be an incredible boost.
FOSG: Amazing. You must have been so thrilled.
Jon: I was more than thrilled. I thought I had become a celebrity.
And the calls came quicker and quicker – requests for catalogues, orders for pieces, people asking for quotations, calls from stylists at Elle Decoration, Bella, and loads more magazines. We had reached a momentum, and now, all we had to do was to sustain it – which meant a great deal of hard work to produce the goods, while, at the same time, continuing to grow the collection.
FOSG: How did you handle the increased demand?
Jon: Well, my father had recently moved in nearby, so I press ganged him into working for me – sometimes until 2.00 or 3.00 a.m. – helping me to assemble pieces in our little slither of a workshop that was colder than my freezer. Thank God for Heinz Cup-a-Soup! We lived on it.
FOSG: And what about getting out catalogues?
Jon: We produced those on a photocopier we found at a local auction – the damn thing nearly bankrupted me every time the bulb in it blew (which was very frequently) but it did the trick and kept our customers happy. It was really the only way to do it, as the collection was constantly being added to. The repair man seemed to think that such a sensitive machine should not be housed in a freezing outhouse in mid winter, but, at least the heat it gave off helped us survive those long winter nights. It makes me laugh when I think about it now!
FOSG: I bet it does.
Jon: My father was not looking for a full time second career, and I was left as buyer, chippy, salesman, switchboard operator, secretary, administrator, accountant, PR man etc etc. It became quite quite clear that very soon something would have to give.
FOSG: And what was that something?
Jon: Well, alongside the above list of roles, I also used to attend endless craft fairs – then a very important source of new clients and revenue – which left me with even less time, so I was lucky enough to bump into a couple of local, and very talented, guys who were tiring of their current employment of repairing caravans. At first, they very tentatively agreed to make our blanks, alongside their more profitable day jobs.
FOSG: But a start on the real mass production road?
Jon: Yes, really, it was exactly that. They were sympathetic, at least conditionally, to this out of work architect, no doubt thinking it unlikely that he could make a decent living out of these – at least to their eyes – rather strangely shaped pieces. I felt so grateful to them for freeing me up to design new pieces of furniture as I was getting fed up of making bins and trays myself – lovely though they were once made!
FOSG: How did it work out?
Jon: Well, I think within about a couple of months they were beginning to see for themselves that the orders were coming in thick and fast, and I was beginning to need help with more than just trays and bins and the like. They were absolutely great. They trusted me, and took the plunge, and set up a workshop making almost our entire range.
FOSG: So you were finally free to work on the business rather than just in it.
Jon: Yes, and it worked well that way for several years and our designs flourished. But the biggest change was really a need to move away from the rather sharp angles of MDF.
FOSG: What made your mind up to do that?
Jon: Well, as I think is so often the case, our customers really told us that is what they wanted. They were beginning to really want finished pieces of furniture made from real wood that would last for many decades, and we were starting to get imitators at that stage, many of whom were High Street names, although they did not tailor pieces like we did – and incidentally still don’t!
FOSG: Did this competition worry you at all?
Jon: If I am honest, it did a little bit, but only to begin with. Our loyal customers kept telling us that we were producing pieces which were refreshingly different from what our competitors sold. And what they were selling were really items which just did not look real, were mass produced, and mostly had that horrible, formica like, spray painted finish.
FOSG: So you had, and I presume still have, a serious point of difference?
Jon: Yes, I really think we have. We are a niche business. We are not, and never will be, into vast volumes. By remaining lean and keen we are able to continue to produce a big range, with variations, and even bespoke pieces of a high quality, and at affordable prices.
FOSG: Jon, some would argue that the furniture trade is a graveyard for business. Would you agree?
Jon: No, I think that is a huge generalisation. It may be the case for mass producers, but I don’t think it is the case in a niche like ours.
FOSG: What do you think your secret is in having weathered the last recession – effectively in Scumble Goosie’s infancy – and appearing to be doing increased business in the current one?
Jon: I think the reasons are that our customers like our designs, our quality, our prices and our service. They like the fact that we can customise pieces for them, and indeed paint them for them if they want. They also like the fact that we are always adding to our collection – and indeed many of our additions come from designs which our loyal and enthusiastic customers brought to us.
The Indian Connection
FOSG: What about keeping prices competitive?
Jon: Good point. I eventually decided that we needed to take our designs abroad. I knew that lead times on bespoke items would lengthen a little, but the majority of our customers are happy to wait for the right product. I felt that we could stay even more competitive at the same time as making everything in a hardwood rather than MDF.
FOSG: Where did you find your new manufacturers?
Jon: In Rajasthan. There are some wonderfully intelligent, kind and talented craftsmen in this lovely desert part of India.
And they use fruitwood trees (mango in fact) as their key material.
They ticked all the boxes for me – and still do – indeed ever more so.
The use of mango, once its years of fruit production are over, is very sustainable, and it is a great material to work with.
Working practices are good, we pay good money and they love having our business.
FOSG: And the quality?
Jon: It is as good as it has ever been, and is continually getting even better. Our pieces have an individual look – this is probably our key USP. We do not rely on cheap, man made, raw materials and so our pieces should last a lifetime. Our customers love our affordable prices – particularly so in the raw – In short we now have a steady stream of simple, well thought out, pieces which will not date, and which can be fully refurbished when the time arises.
FOSG: So this is the formula which has brought you twenty successful years of business, and a track record you can be justifiably proud of?
Jon: Well that is kind of you, but I think, yes, that is right. You know, I really love this business and feel so lucky to be in it. I am so happy with all the relationships we have forged over that time – with our customers, our manufacturers, our employees, the press, suppliers and so many others who have been part of our story over that time.
FOSG: Any other things to it?
Jon: Well, we are not a frills business. We are a simple business. We keep on doing the same simple things quite well, I think – at least that is what our customers tell us. We are not a fad or fashion driven business. We are not a short term business. We do not have borrowings, we have no institutional shareholders, we have very few employees and only one showroom – so we are therefore able to maintain a very sensible cost base, and reflect that in the prices we charge our customers.
FOSG: Is that it for USPs?
Jon: Well, there is one more – I don’t want to show off about it, but I do think that our customers both like and trust us. I don’t think any business can be more fortunate than that, do you? Our customers are very loyal.
FOSG: No, that is a huge asset for any business, and a hard earned one……..Jon, I have one final question.
Jon: I think I can guess what it is.
FOSG: Go on then?
Jon: “What is the Goosie part of the name?”
FOSG: You got it!
Jon: Well sorry if it’s a bit of an anti-climax – it is simply my ex-wife’s nick name!