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Deadgood designs on success

Thursday 22 November 2012 8:00

Elliot Brook and Dan Ziglam are building a North East reputation for progressive furniture and lighting design, taking other young creators with them at the same time.

The paradox is hard to ignore, making your way along Market Street in central Newcastle.

There stands Chapman’s respected furniture store, fated to shut down soon after 165 years.

Yet in a Carliol Square office block just behind, up four breathtaking floors of stone stairs, Elliot Brook 9pictured) and Dan Ziglam combine their studio ingenuity, pursuing their vision to develop “the most dynamic design brand of our generation.”

This, Elliot amplifies, will embrace an eclectic collection of 21st Century furniture, but also lighting and interior products for “an international niche of style driven consumers and cutting edge commercial projects.“

Don’t look askance. Their four-year-old company, Deadgood Trading Ltd, has already had the BBC and Google as clients, the latter both in London and Madrid, and with which Deadgood is now also negotiating over a project in Dubai.

The designers’ initial orders were delivered to the British Council’s offices in Sudan, and into upmarket retailer Heals in London.

They first attracted an international following when promoting prototypes at exhibitions in London, Paris, Stockholm, New York and Milan.

In those early days they operated under several guises. Inspired by the graduate fairs on mainland Europe that they were able to attend at university expense, they started promoting their own design events in the North East called Launch.

“Every time we came back to the North East we felt we’d had the wind kicked out of us,” Elliot explains.

“There was no scene here. Lots of interesting creators were trying to launch businesses, but no real platform existed to show this region what we were all doing.”

To run Launch and bring regional designers to wider audiences regionally and nationally, they tapped into the Finance for Business fund.

Over three years, it became a leading North East showcase of design, promoting their work and that of more than 50 more emerging regional designers and creative businesses. The annual exhibitions in Newcastle attracted more than 3,500 visitors. Dan and Elliot promoted themselves then as a design studio.

Their second Launch gained them the attention of James Barker, managing director of avant garde furnisher Barker & Stonehouse. New ground was thus broken even before Deadgood was set up.

James asked Elliot and Dan to design a collection for his Teesside firm’s seven showrooms nationwide. The collaborative outcome, the Love Collection, won front-cover editorial space and numerous features in leading industry publications. Further foreign recognition was inevitable.

Elliot says: “The furniture was built for a Barker and Stonehouse audience, and distributed throughout. This continues. Just to be given the opportunity – in 2006, I think – to work with someone obviously prestigious, was great. It was successful for them, too, I believe. They had not worked with young designers in that way before.”

Barker & Stonehouse’s insistence on high standards was underlined again recently, incidentally, when its website was voted Best Online Store in the WebAssist 2012 global awards, organised by the Californian software giant.

You can thus understand Deadgood’s delight at its own connection. You can also see Deadgood expertise in lighting if you pass The Toffee Factory, award-winning landmark building recently completed, scintillatingly, for the creative and digital sector on Newcastle Quayside.

Xsite Architecture had Deadgood create nine big spun hemispheres to light the reception area. Deadgood has now made these hemispheres part of its range. BQ met Elliot on his return from Deadgood’s fourth appearance at the 100% Design exhibition at Earls Court, part of a London design festival.

They had used the key opportunity – 25,000 mainly-trade visitors in four days - to launch a range of lighting, and a stool inspired by charity awareness ribbons. The designer concerned had liked the ribbons’ shape, and it was decided to offer charities at the same time a royalty.

The rotationally moulded plastic stool has a recycled plastic core, with upholstery suited to commercial use. The colour palette of fabrics and finishes is extensive. The lighting has aluminium extrusions and is cost-effective for commercial interiors. “Our products and brand must imply fun, excellence, precision, craftsmanship, taste and innovation.

“This way, we are reaching the most discerning audiences,” Elliot explains. Business can be cut-throat though. They were angered by the numbers of individuals taking photographs of items at their Earls Court stand, clearly to serve as blueprints compensating for their own lack of ideas.

They had already before spotted a lamp identical to one of theirs on sale at a major retail outlet. Their complaint there brought an immediate withdrawal. Deadgood’s progress is remarkable, given that Elliot and Dan had little money themselves to invest, and no business background.

It must speak well too for the entrepreneurial culture of Northumbria University. The two were lucky in being able to spread entrepreneurial wings at a time when public money for start-ups was more plentiful. It required truffling. But Elliot and Dan promoted not only their own work but that of other designers raw like themselves.

They’d graduated in three dimensional design, Elliot an admirer especially of Verner Panton, one of Denmark’s most influential designers of modern times, Paul Smith in London, and Marcel Wanders, the Dutchman hailed by the New York Times as “the Lady Gaga of the design world.”

Their first four years after graduation were spent with a designersin- residence project at the university. They were mentored simultaneously at a hatchery for small businesses. Roger Candy, the enterprise manager at Northumbria University, encouraged them to prepare their business plan.

They did it initially not on the back of the proverbial cigarette packet, but on the back of a beer mat. Then over two years they developed it, amassing information through mentors – accountants, lawyers, journalists – giving them insights.

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Elliot admits. “But now we’re both as passionate about business as about the creative angle. Our long-term aim is to be a platform from which emerging designers can work with an exciting young brand. We work already with about six other design studios run independently.

“We take certain products of their range into our Deadgood brand. We give an agreed royalty. That way we continue to work with other young creatives. That type of opportunity never existed for us. But we want to offer an aspirational brand other young designers we want to work with.”

They’ve already attracted Lee Broom (Designer of the Year at the British Design Awards in 2012) and Max Lamb (Designer of the Future in Design Miami/Basle in 2008). Elliot, 31 now and married since 2006 to Victoria, lives in West Newcastle, where they are raising daughter Molly, aged two, and son Freddie who was 12 weeks old as we talked.

Elliot now designs less himself, concentrating more on creative direction – which designers to work with, types of product preferred, also branding and photography.

“I soon realised I wasn’t the best designer so we leave that to others better than me,” he says modestly, and in contrast to triumphant sounds otherwise from the company’s press release. The partners work apart a lot now, Dan having two and a half years ago moved to London to run Deadgood’s premises opened at Islington. “With that, the business has become a lot more efficient,” Elliot says.

Dan, 30 and married to Danielle since May, shares the London office with Vicki, the firm’s sole employee. She’s a designer who also deals with sales administration and the logistics and supply chain.

A sales representative they had for nine months was lured away by a bigger company. But they also have interns and placements, usually one or two at a time. Dan works closely with in-house designers, and designers favoured by Deadgood. He also has key relationships with their manufacturers, and looks after product development.

Dan is from Long Eaton in Derbyshire, Elliot from Holmfirth, Yorkshire’s paradise for walkers and the setting for TV’s Last of the Summer Wine. Both on graduating had talked of moving to London – “creative capital of the world, with huge opportunity.”

But, says Elliot: “We also felt that in setting up there first we might get lost.” Amid the flurry of money creative industries bathed in between 2004 and 2007, they secured £7,000 from the Arts Council, for initial marketing and prototypes to exhibit at a trade fair in London. That enabled them to win a talent award.

They gained legal advice, and were also advised to contact their regional development agency and Business Link advisory service. The current business sprang up in 2008 with £150,000 of support from One North East and the Design Creative Fund.

This launch-time booster arrived the same week the global financial crisis arose. However, last year they secured £120,000 through Rivers Capital Partners, the independent venture capital fund manager formed in 2009 as a joint venture by its founding partners, Finance Tree and E-Synergy.

They also raised £30,000 more angelically through a second tranche of finance matched by David Cottam, chairman and finance director of Cottam Investments Ltd. and Cottam Brush Ltd of South Tyneside. Elliot says: “While we don’t assemble product ourselves, we do take it to market. We felt David could be very helpful with manufacturing expertise, logistics and distribution.”

Indeed they have recently decided to outsource their warehousing and assembly side, enabling them to concentrate on where they’re adding value. Also through Rivers the partners gained a chairman, Hossain Rezaie.

The Stocksfield multi-millionaire, using his engineering knowledge honed at the polytechnic that became Northumbria University, had early in his career proved ethnic breads could be baked in electric instead of fired ovens.

He then built his Pride Valley Foods at Seaham into Europe’s biggest specialist breadmaker, before selling it to Gruma, the world’s biggest tortilla manufacturer for £20m.

An adviser who can sell brushes to China and an adviser who can revolutionise aeons-old practices, as David Cottam and Hossain Rezaie are, promise powerful support, especially amid confidence expressed by Rivers Capital Partners.

Deadgood’s daily hurdle now, as Chapmans’ managing director John Chapman might affirm, is getting the orders in. Young design talent on one side, big established companies on the other - the latter dominating markets through tie-ins with dealers who have relationships with the clients. “The biggest thing for us is to be seen scaling ladders, to have client confidence that we can deliver and are not just young designers,” says Elliot.

“And we’ve secured some great clients recently - Holland Park School in West London, for example. “About 700 stools have gone in there. We worked to win that over two-and-a-half years. Ours isn’t a quick sell industry. Not just a meeting, a handshake and deal closed. For us it’s more a whole chain of events.”

So do they have to moderate their ideas to satisfy the markets? “We do develop a lot based on feedback. One stool we put out to market drew a great response. But the client base suggested a range of tables to accompany. We’ve produced that. There needs to be a chair too. That’s currently in development. But in concept over all, we just go for it. We’re quite headstrong.” Price-wise? “Very competitive. The education sector we’re involved in is hard on pricing. We have to be competitive, no handcrafted items costing tens of thousands.”

But things can be made to order. A client in Madrid loved a sideboard offered in their Parq Life Collection - its solid brass surface with walnut veneers. For restaurant purposes, though, it had to be smaller and higher. Easily done. To remain a lean, flexible firm, Deadgood outsources extensively but championing British interests.

Elliot says: “We use British manufacturers scattered round the country, including at Washington near here. We also outsource the branding, the marketing and communications. We get a couple of things from Slovenia (timber) and China (mirrors). But a key value for us is to promote the UK in production as much as possible. We’re 95% British and well positioned to do that.”

They believe a turnover of around £550,000 this year could become £5m within five years, with their present portfolio of 40 products up to 150. Elliot says realistically: “Our business is governed by the construction industry. Fewer buildings are going up and furniture is the last thing bought. So if there’s any budget cutting it’s normally the furniture that’s hit. We’ve lost projects due to the climate we’re in. But we are winning others also.”