In September upholstery specialist Anthony Devine came to daytime TV watchers’ attention via an appearance on BBC1 TV programme ‘Money for Nothing’, in which he was seen working on a reupholstery job using his own photography to create imagery for bespoke, digitally printed fabric used to revamp a sofa.
In partnership with Susie Milner he runs the Ministry of Upholstery in Manchester, which started out in 2010 as an interiors boutique and workshop specialising in handmade upholstered pieces. Now it is the UKs leading upholstery school.
So what does Devine think about the role of large-format digital textile print in this market, and what message is being delivered to his students?
By Lesley Simpson
Anthony, you came to my attention when I saw you on TV working on a reupholstery job for which you designed a really whacky bespoke fabric that you then had digitally printed. As someone who has been immersed in the world of upholstery for many years, when did the creative opportunities afforded by digitally printed fabric first come to your attention?
It was when I visited a trade show at Birmingham NEC about 10 years ago, or more. I was working as a self-employed upholsterer at the time and I was on the lookout for new trends, for something that could allow me to stand out from the crowd. I starting speaking to a man called Matt who fronted what was then a small digital printing company called Digetex. They had a very small stand there and were in their infancy.
At this time the products and offering was limited due to restrictions from the available technology, but I knew then that it was something that would grow and something I wanted to work with in the market. I took Matt’s details and kept in touch with him over the years.
So did that turn into a working relationship? Is Digetex the company you work with now to deliver your bespoke fabric designs?
Having established the start of a relationship so many years ago, when I was trying to establish my own business and Matt was trying to establish theirs, it made sense to stick together, and we have over the years.
It also helped that, although I met Matt when I was living in Derby, we both coincidentally ended up establishing our businesses in Manchester!
Whilst Digetex have now grown into a massive company with clients such as fashion designers, interior designers, architects, hotels, independent retailers and artisan craftsmen, they still pride themselves on the fact that they have no minimum order, which for people like me, creating one off bespoke pieces such as the piece we created for Money for Nothing, they make digital printing accessible! Their service remains personal and that makes me want to continue working with them.
Increasingly, digital print companies themselves are recognising that dye-sublimation printing short-run/bespoke textiles for various interiors applications (upholstery, curtains, carpets etc) is a profitable route to new business. From your perspective, what message would you send to them?
In terms of our experience, we are still able to meet with Matt face-to-face and he is happy to put together presentations for our students, allowing them to visit the warehouse and to introduce them to the technology and possibilities it affords people like themselves.
Our students wouldn’t know this technology exists or, at least wouldn’t make that link between a digitally printed cushion and the potential of using digitally printed fabric on a chair or sofa.
I think it does fall to training providers like us - and/or colleges - to open up the eyes of the future specialists of the country to the possibilities. We have students who have digitally printed their own fabric whilst on our courses and we have graduates who are now digitally printing their own designs to sell through their own businesses.
How do you keep up to speed with what is possible in terms of digital print possibilities for your market then?
That relationship Digetex is key. Matt is always keen to show us his latest offerings in terms of fabrics and design possibilities, so in that respect we are lucky to know such a passionate front man, who wants to share.
Having said that, I think it is the job of a designer to come up with concepts without worrying
about limitations in mind. If you design within boundaries then your work ends up feeling compromised. I never worry about how something can be achieved, I just focus on the end look, push the boundaries then find the solutions that will lead me to where I need to be.
The Ministry of Upholstery runs various upholstery courses. Does digital print feature in those at all?
Yes very much so. We have digitally printed upholstered pieces on display around the workshop and we always talk about the possibilities that digital printing can afford our students. Whether they choose to go down that route is ultimately up to them but we feel that it is our job to ensure they are aware of the technology, materials and opportunities.
Bespoke fabrics can really add value to a piece of upholstery as you well know. What do you think needs to happen for that message to get out to more designers?
Education providers need to move with the times, especially within the upholstery industry. Here we pride ourselves on being a modern upholstery school - we offer on-trend frames and embrace and encourage our students to keep abreast of the current market trends in order to find their place and succeed in the market.
What do you think about the possibilities of consumers using their own images to order bespoke upholstered pieces online?
I think it’s a dangerous and slippery slope once you make it available to the masses. It takes the skilled eye of a designer or specialist to know what works and how to create a piece of value. If everyone starts to slap family portraits onto a chair then the whole cache of having a bespoke piece is cheapened. It loses its integrity, what currently makes digitally printed pieces desirable and high-end.
Do you think customised upholstery will become more prevalent as time moves on, or do you think it will always remain a very small niche market?
I hope, for the reasons mentioned above, that it remains a niche market. It requires design and art elements for it to work, and to afford opportunities for people like our students, who have the skill and vision to be able to use it on the right pieces and in the right way so that a piece retains its edge.