Hubert Burda Media

Keeping up with Timothy Oulton

The designer’s furniture pieces are daring, fun and quirky — much like the man himself. We learn about his latest adventures.

It is 11am on the second day of the International Furniture Fair Singapore (IFFS) and the Timothy Oulton booth is bursting at the seams with visitors. Amid it all, the man behind the eponymous furniture label is seated calmly by a reclaimed wood table — designed by him, no less — surveying the crowd.

For someone who usually cannot keep still, he is unusually serene. Minutes into the conversation, the reason becomes apparent.

Overhead is a pair of the new Rock Crystal chandeliers, each shaped like a thick “O”, made up of natural quartz crystals. Believe it or not, but they are supposed to help you feel harmonious, calm and clear-minded. It seems their healing properties have cast their aura onto Oulton.

The chandeliers are a representation of what he terms “humble luxury”, where the novelty is in the material — something that he has always advocated in his furniture designs.

“There’s not a lot of beauty in the chandelier; it is [shaped like] a donut. The beauty comes from the fact that you bothered to get 6,800 crystals and pay four guys for two days to put them all together. Who else is going to do that? It’s not easy. We like the not-easy route,” he says.

The crystals are Oulton’s latest obsession, which he favours for being natural and has always been inclined towards using. A walk through the booth and the brand’s showroom at Dempsey Road, and you’ll find furniture fashioned with leather, reclaimed wood and stone.

Uniting them is a style that displays “an inherent affection for British heritage”, handcrafted with traditional techniques and embellished with the finest detail for which Timothy Oulton is known.

Fresh off the boat at IFFS is the design concept Ultralounge, which as its name suggests, places relaxation front and centre. Plush sectional sofas let you sink deep into their embrace, while dining chairs come lined with feather-filled pillows.

It offers an idea of how people live, explains the 49-year-old, where the furniture is the DNA of the experience. “Ultra represents the idea of hosting, having people over to engage and share; and the idea of chilling out and lounging, where they can lie on all weekend. These are the two archetypal experiences they want in their homes.”

But what’s most exciting emerging from Oulton’s atelier is neither furniture nor collection, but an entirely new business division: Timothy Oulton Studio.

It seems a natural progression for the brand to develop from designing items to fill a room, to actually conceptualising its interiors. In time, he hopes to be his own landlord and acquire entire buildings fitted with his furniture as well.

“I’m moving the business to spaces. The conversation started five years ago, but it was always in my head,” he reveals. Although Timothy Oulton Studio has completed projects including Jamie Oliver’s Italian in Hong Kong and the Los Angeles Athletics’ Club, the flagship will be 1880, a members’ club that launches in the third quarter this year in Singapore.

Aspiring to encourage conversations and projects that will have a positive impact on society, the 22,000-sq-ft club offers a members’ lounge, restaurant, spa, grooming facilities, cafe, bar, cinema and co-working space, all of which are designed by Timothy Oulton Studio. Among the highlights is a bar counter in the members’ lounge embedded with 400 vintage teapots, a leather-wrapped DJ booth that looks like a travel trunk, and a reception table made from quartz crystal to welcome all who enter the club.

“Our brand pillars and ethos are similar to 1880. We are all about bringing people together to eat or talk, whether it is on a sofa or at a dining table. These are the centre of anyone’s home,” says Oulton, on why this is such an important project for Studio.

“We’ve taken those same principles and applied them into the context of 1880. Then we asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to use to bring people together?’. The furniture therefore becomes a platform for collision and connection; they are places to support relationships.”

What’s in a name?

The Timothy Oulton brand traces its genesis to 1976 in England near Manchester, when Oulton’s father, Major Philip Oulton, set up Halo Antiques — providing the younger Oulton an early immersion into a universe filled with vintage finds.

After graduating at 18 from Ampleforth College — a boarding school decked out with old English leather furniture and antiques, which subconsciously left an imprint in his mind — Oulton joined the family trade. To reposition the firm, he began crafting collections inspired by the past but that push the boundaries of furniture design. Today it has 40 stores across five continents. Production is done in Gaoming in Guangdong, China, with its headquarters situated in nearby Hong Kong.

When he is not running his empire, one of Oulton’s favourite pastimes is combing flea markets in France and England, where he scours for bric-a-brac that would later inspire entire furniture collections.

The Ivy Sofa is one such example. It was inspired by a 1950s-style couch he’d seen at a flea market. In the end, his version “was way better than the original”.

“It’s a two-seater sofa we made with vintage leather that is first hand-dyed, distressed, then made into a sofa and distressed again — that’s eight hours of distressing the leather. We borrow, improve, modernise and make it relevant.”

But his inspiration is not limited to flea markets. These days, it can strike anytime. “Paul Smith says it the best,” he says. “‘If you can’t find inspiration, look again.’ I know what he means, it’s everywhere.”

He flips his iPhone around and gestures to the shiny metallic surface. “We want to anodise our furniture. I got the idea from phone covers — no one’s done it yet.”

His design philosophy has stayed the same for the past 30 years. “Take great material and create simple shapes. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel too much. Stick with your look, don’t follow the trends too much, be aware of them, but stay true to what you do,” he says.

Longevity is important to him, even though he always has an eye on the latest fads and fashions. The trick, he says, is to balance both.

 “We want to have the brand anchored in the 50 best cities in the world, defined by where culture is being created. These are the great international gateway cities like Singapore,” says Oulton, before revealing plans to open stores in St Petersburg, Taipei and Mumbai.

Indeed, the future looks as bright as those “donut” chandeliers Oulton designed. And if he continues to keep those crystals close to him, you can be certain it will be harmonious too.