There aren’t many companies that can trace their history back to the 1700s. But the story behind Fleming & Howland began in 1780 when Solomon Howland turned his hand from cordwainer to upholder (archaic term for upholsterer). At the time, changing professions was not an unusual move. What was unusual, was the application of an antiquated colouring technique formulated for shoes, ingeniously transferred across to the patination of leather chairs.
Solomon’s vision, over 200 years ago, was beautifully simple. The fashion houses of London were turning their attention to larger, more luxurious articles for their private clubs and households. And if a hand-made bespoke pair of shoes was popular amongst the up and coming bourgeois, why not apply the same principle to a chair?
These values still exist today. What makes Fleming & Howland entirely unique is their belief that a chair or sofa should be tailored to a client’s height, weight and taste. Their bespoke service includes modifying the frame, the cushion interiors and decorative detail to ensure the article is a long-term investment, not an off-the-shelf purchase.
If a client selects one of Fleming & Howland’s ‘Hand-Coloured’ leathers, the hides are specially selected for their size and natural hallmarks, which means each piece will be unique. Patterned up, cut and sewn, the hides at this stage are still in their raw organic state which is a silky cream colour, unsealed. Once the chair or sofa is upholstered, the real transformation begins. The antiquer will apply layer upon layer of dyes, polishes and wax to build up a luxuriously rich patina. With drying periods in between each layer, this colouring process can take up to 2 weeks…a technique inherited from Solomon’s cordwainer days, over two centuries ago.
Fleming & Howland’s unique approach to designing and building a chair or sofa for the home will not suit everyone. It’s an extremely laborious process. Each sofa takes around 40 hours to complete. There is also a long waiting list which means a customer will wait on average 3 months before receiving their sofa. And then there is the fact that even the most basic bespoke design will cost in the region of £4,000. If you think about it though, it is a relatively small price when you consider it is built to last over 20 years.
The bespoke process is not a quick chat over the phone. It begins with an invitation to the factory floor to meet the upholsterer, antiquer and cutter. You’ll be shown the leather room where huge 50 square foot cow hides are stored and sorted (the aroma is amazing). Elements of the design, comfort and colour will be decided…and that’s just the beginning. Ergonomics such as sitting height, weight and proportions will also be considered. Once the measurements and aesthetics are out of the way, what F&H call a ‘working prototype’ is manufactured and delivered to be tried and tested at the home. The service doesn’t end there…a 60-day trial period is enforced to allow for any seating adjustments ensuring the comfort is just right.
What is quite astonishing throughout the whole design and build process is that, apart from a couple of machines, such as the compressor and button-making press, the entire procedure is done by hand. “This gives us the ability to work with the client to the finest detail. A business model like no other.” attests owner, Paul Fleming.
It’s not all bespoke of course. Fleming & Howland’s standard collection of sofas and chairs will suit most buyers and the same attention to detail applies. Recent innovations have included a departure from leather into wool, linen and velvet, reinterpretations of classic furniture shapes using brightly colour leathers, and new sofas inspired by the company’s vast archive of designs.
To view the collections, a good starting point is to request the free brochure pack. Without a doubt though, a visit to the workshop is an impressionable experience, if not a rare insight into the traditions that makes this respected family firm what it is today.
Live Magazine, July 2018