We were thrilled to meet Lucy Mortimer, the owner of Galapagos Furniture and witness for ourselves the before and afters of her beautiful vintage creations that are lovingly brought back to life by Lucy and her dedicated team. Interestingly, we’re neighbours as Galapagos is based barely a mile from our head office – so we were able to see her wonderful operation in action.
The nature of our business here at Layer means that we are, in some way, minimising our carbon footprint. Each preloved piece that we sell means that there is one less, newly produced piece being purchased. There are so many beautiful and timeless pieces of furniture already in the world that have been lovingly made by master craftsmen and built to last and this is something that we are proud to champion.
Lucy, however, takes this ethical approach to a whole new level as she is pro-actively making decisions and building a hugely successful business on an ethos and belief with the environment at its core. We came away understanding the reasons for this as we learned more about Lucy’s background and also feeling that we had just taken a mini masterclass in green issues ourselves.
What did you do before founding Galapagos?
I actually trained as an architect but ended up working for 12 years in sustainable energy on low carbon technology energy finance. Between 2001 and 2013, I worked in the city on various projects which needed finance to introduce low carbon technology to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. A great deal of my work was in India, China and Vietnam. It was really exciting – I spent most of my life on airplanes, travelling and meeting wonderful people but equally I was exhausted at the point I left. I was either going to move to South Africa for work or do something completely different and I chose the latter.
What inspired you to set the business up?
My father ran the South East Asia business for Herman Miller for 26 years so I had an amazing childhood in Singapore in the 80s and I was really lucky because I was used to meeting furniture designers who would often come for dinner, and seeing our furniture at home change every 6 months. I don’t think I recognised how amazing it was when I was young – we swam everyday, we were outside the whole time and it was such wonderful life.
When I set up Galapagos, I was living in a converted warehouse apartment and I wanted to find some furniture that would fit with it. I thought about buying a cocktail chair from Germany on eBay but I struggled with how to get it from Germany to an upholsterer and then I’d have to choose a fabric and it seemed like a long, drawn out process. All of these factors made me think that there was something missing.
A few weeks later, I decided not to go to Johannesburg for work and had no idea what my next steps were. I met with dealers from Germany who had shipped furniture over and we bought 12 chairs. My partner had a house in Woking with a dining room that was empty so we used it as a space for the chairs. We shipped them out to various upholsterers and tried to find people that would do them up for us, we took photographs and launched with 20 chairs on a website – it came about in a very organic way.
As well creating beautiful chairs, we love that you’re very environmentally aware in your work – is this important to you?
Marrying the two things together was really what prompted Galapagos – finding a way to create something that is beautiful without being wasteful was the idea that inspired me. How do you transform an existing natural resource into a current resource that people want to buy? I’m talking about people buying not just for the sake of buying but because you’re making a choice to buy something old. Therefore, you’re not using up new resources like timber, burning fossil fuels, the shipping emissions, etc. In every way that we can, we try to reduce our environmental impact – we do produce new furniture but the timber is from Europe and the pieces are made in the UK using labour that is paid fairly and with fabrics that are British-made.
We champion new British designers, who are growing as we are growing – they want to see their fabrics on our furniture because that’s their vision as creatives. It’s a very collaborative process – we’ll do joint marketing, social media together and events – it’s a fun partnership and brings an element of interest other than commercial retail.
What made you choose this name for the business?
We have a spaniel called Darwin after Charles Darwin and we got him a month or so before Galapagos launched. We’re quite obsessed with the theory of Evolution so when we were thinking about what to call our business, we were thinking about the idea that it’s the survival of fittest in terms of design and furniture. Those that are meant to last will last because they are designed so well, they will evolve and stand the test of time. That’s how we came up with the name ‘Galapagos’ and it sits really well with us and our ethos.
Which designers or periods are you particularly interested in and inspired by?
I’ve always been fascinated by mid century – I love that it’s so elegant and full of fun. One of our first collections we did was with Mini Moderns and as part of that, they asked me to do a presentation with them at Festival Hall launching their fabric. I gave a half hour talk on the history of the down-to- earth side of mid-century design and getting together images for this was so insightful and so much fun. There were amazing images of historic factories and the ethos behind it was to make furniture accessible after the war. Suddenly you had housing being built as open plan design and so colourful – a period of bright, bold and full of nylon coming in. It was such a playful era which I absolutely love.
From which countries do you source the antique pieces that you restore and upholster?
Germany, France, Hungary and Poland is also finding its feet. I love British design but for us, finding supply chains of chair styles that we can buy 20 of rather than just one, so we can design a collection that has longevity, marketability and isn’t solely one-off pieces means we focus on European furniture. We do make one-off pieces too when I can’t resist buying a beautiful sofa or chair, but its important to us and our business model that we have more than one or two of each item if we can.
What was the first piece you ever sold?
The first chair we sold was to Janet Street Porter which was just amazing! I had some experience working with press, so I sent an email to a journalist who writes a column in The Guardian and she replied within half an hour saying she loved the concept. The next day, Janet Street Porter bought one of the chairs. We found out when we were at the pub that we’d made our first sale which was a cause for celebration!
Who is your typical customer?
Our customers are interior designers as well as individuals who have a particular vision for a room. I love working with a customer who is looking for something in particular and find that our clients come back again and again because we offer a very bespoke service. It’s so much fun to have a chat with a customer and offer some insight into a collection that might work for them. I’d say around 65% of our customers are interior designers and 35% are individuals.
What do you do when you are not working?
I’m always working, even whilst I’m walking Darwin! I use the time to think about new collections and plan, but I do take time off when I can. We love having an open house policy, friends come and stay for days, eating and walking the dog. We love having the company round and just hanging out with them. If I could, I would spend much more time diving – my big passion before Galapagos was scuba diving, but its hard to plan to spend two weeks in the sea with so many going on, as its a full on, absorbing sport – you spend the whole day on a boat going out to a site, come back to sleep and then do the whole thing again the next day! My stepson is super keen to learn so I’m hoping he will be qualified before too long and we can be dive buddies…
Is your own home an extension of your business style?
Very much so! We moved two years ago and it was a blank canvas. It was a bigger project than we had necessarily realised especially as we had to live in it during the renovations and it was total chaos with our children and family staying for three weeks. It’s come together now and I’m always buying new pieces that I fall in love with during my work. We have also done a photoshoot at our house as it has a lot of our furniture in situ and it gives a good idea of how our chairs can look in a living space.
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