George Smith
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Discovering George Smith’s Pre-Loved Range

Josh Sims discovers George Smith’s beautifully upholstered masterpieces that are in search of a fresh start…

Pay a visit to some of the most prestigious hotels and bars around the world from The Dorchester and The Lanesborough in London, to Gleneagles in Scotland, The Grand Bellevue in Gstaad, and The Greenwich Hotel in New York – and if you find yourself sitting comfortably, then you can thank one George Smith.

Based in Cramlington, in the North East, it’s arguably the leading manufacturer of seriously well-upholstered classic furniture, from grand armchairs to Chesterfield sofas. It is one of the last too.

“It’s certainly a challenge for any business like this to bring in new talent,” concedes managing director Jim Athey, who works with a number of local educational institutions to drive the company’s apprenticeship scheme.

“The fact is that nobody is sitting at school saying they want to be an upholsterer. But the work is actually very fulfilling – you’re using your hands to make a traditional product, working with the best materials, and given the time and space to do your best work.

“You’re not working hurriedly to some quota. When we find the right people they tend to be exceptional. But then you need the right attitude to make the antiques of the future.”

Indeed, George Smith’s products – there are over 200 designs – are not just likely to last many years, but to go through the generations – much as the artisanal handcraft is at the company now, from father to son or daughter.

Built to last, recovering pieces can restore them to a like-new condition. In fact, the company has recently introduced a ‘pre-loved’ service, providing renovated second-hand and sample pieces at more accessible prices in the range of a few thousand, rather than potentially tens of thousands.

George Smith: The Art Of Comfort

George Smith

It is an opportunity both to buy an heirloom made using mostly traditional furniture-making methods the likes of top-notch joinery, burlap-wrapped steel coiled springs, cotton felt, jute webbing, duck down and horsehair padding – that is increasingly hard to find, and find a new, cosy home for your behind.

“We can produce more contemporary pieces – often that’s down to the choice of finishing or materials – and a lot of our work is bespoke, but we’re never going to be operating in the same space as Italian furniture makers the likes of Minotti, and the kind of designs they make don’t offer the kind of space or forms that allow for our kind of making (with a solid wood superstructure, fully sprung, and so on),” says Amanda Barrett, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

“But what’s very important to us is comfort,” she adds.

“Personally I wouldn’t see the point of investing, say, £15,000 in a sofa – which is a huge investment – if it’s not extremely comfortable. So we always try to encourage our clients to just sit down.”

In part that is because such furniture is increasingly a rarity, the market given to more efficient, cheaper mass-production methods that may make for visually- arresting designs but not necessarily the most functional – which is to say, good to sit on – or long-lasting.

Or, as Barrett puts it, it’s not always “the kind of furniture that is really special, and which really has to be if its owner is going to enjoy sitting on it every day of their life”.

Timeless Treasures

Indeed, a George Smith Signature scroll armchair is the sort of chair one needs to quickly take unspoken ownership of, shooing off dogs, children and spouses as necessary.

And yet – as those famous names of the hospitality sector suggest, not to mention George Smith’s many private residential clients – there is strong demand, even in the face of an interiors market that ties to fashion, with a faster turnover of styles. That there is this demand came as something of a surprise to the company’s founder when he launched George Smith only 38 years ago.

Kings Road antiques dealer Richard Godson found himself increasingly specialising in upholstered furniture, some a few centuries old, so successfully that demand began to outstrip supply. Consequently he employed a manufacturer to start producing his own chairs and sofas to the standard he was familiar with through his antiques.

In light of this, Godson – who would go on to sell the company to American private investors in 2002, one of whom is actively running the US arm of the business – named the company after the leading Regency period furniture and cabinet maker and “upholder extraordinary to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales,” as he proudly described himself – of the same name.

George Smith’s products would be recognisable in their manufacturing methods to its namesake were he around today. The idea that the company has a showroom way beyond the new colonies of America, in Los Angeles, may be somewhat more strange.

George Smith And Longevity

George Smith

“It’s unusual these days to see much made with a view to it still being around in a hundred years,” says Athey.

“Even though buildings constructed 400 years ago are still going strong, it seems that current constructions lack that same intention. It’s about being faithful to old techniques, about making in a ‘proper’ way and not just using elastic webbing and shoving a few staples in to hold everything together.”

This isn’t to say the company is stuck in the past. Now, chair legs use CNC lathes, for example, for safety reasons and because it reduces any possible inhalation of wood dust, but also because, simply, it makes for a better, more consistent chair leg.

“It’s about using the best methods available when they’re still the best,” notes Barrett, making an important point in a world in which the idea of the ‘hand made’ is often afforded a kind of mystique it does not necessarily deserve.

“In part that helps with certain hospitality projects in which they can’t wait six months for a sofa,” she adds.

“But it’s also because what matters for clients is the quality of the finished piece of furniture, and not so much the making techniques. What they want to know is that it’s been made with the knowledge (that is inherent to George Smith as a group of people) – in the choice of the right kiln-dried hardwood, or in the application of the varnish, and so on.”

Solid Ground

In other words, it’s the culture, rather than the machinery, that gets passed down, from master to apprentice, and which ensures George Smith furniture gets to be passed down too, albeit that its 19th century-era crafts may require a more 21st century refresh.

“So much modern furniture just doesn’t last. It gets to the point where it’s beyond economic repair. You just have to write it off,” laments Athey. “A piece of George Smith furniture is solid.”