We met Malcolm at the beautiful Victorian property that he renovated in Maida Vale, and which is currently acting as his temporary showroom. It’s filled with his collection of mid century furniture, lighting, glass objects, and other quirky items, which he’s sourced from places far and wide for his vintage business.
It’s clear that Malcolm is a force of nature so it’s no surprise that we talk quickly and excitedly about his background, inspirations and what led him to pursue his passion.
What did you do before founding Retro Living?
My career path has been quite varied over the years. I have worked in sales for a corporate travel company, and more recently for a modern furniture, lighting and wallpaper agent and reseller. However, the majority of my career was mostly spent in the media department of some of the world’s leading advertising agencies. Applying the transferable skills gained has really helped in managing and running my own business; from sales and negotiation, to successfully promoting Retro Living through social media and direct marketing.
What inspired you to set up Retro Living?
I have always bought period properties that required work and total renovation, which were a lot easier to find, and more affordable 20 years ago than they are today. I really enjoyed the sourcing process to bring these properties back to their former glory and have always wandered along Church Street off Lisson Grove and around places like Alfie’s Antique Market for inspiration and ideas for whatever project I was working on at that time.
Friends have always said that I have a good eye and then finally I was in a position to set up the business utilising the contacts and the sourcing skills which I accumulated along the way.
What made you chose the name: Retro Living?
Good question. It’s actually what popped into my head as an idea straight away. As the company name and URL were available it helped to seal the name further. It suggests that you are living and breathing all things retro, which I am to an extent. At times I have definitely strayed from being purely retro with some of the pieces that I have acquired.
Total purists may have a problem with some of the things that I’ve sourced and sell but as I’ve built the brand it would be difficult to change the name at this point. I have been very lucky to have a friend who owns a creative design and branding agency who came up with the branding. Also my partner knows how to programme and update websites. It has been a lot of work but not too expensive to set up compared to what most good websites cost to develop and upkeep.
What designers/periods are you particularly interested in or inspired by?
I love the 1950s and 1960s, mid-century being my main passion and focus. I really love rosewood, which is very much a wood that encapsulates that era, as you can see from the furniture in my current collection and what I’ve sold in the past. I’m particularly drawn to coffee, side, and dining tables and chairs, plus sideboards. I also love glass, specifically Finnish and Murano, which I originally sourced with my own home in mind before starting to sell professionally.
It’s certainly been a learning process, which is still ongoing and will never stop!
Which countries do you source your vintage pieces from?
European countries mainly but I have sold pieces from Brazilian, American and Australian designers too. In this business you hear some great sourcing stories when all the stars align and you discover a great find with a specific client in mind. It’s rare but fun when it happens. I have two American James Mont lamps at home, which I acquired at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Los Angeles, when I was living there. An interior designer friend spotted them all beaten up and renovated them for me. They’re amazing.
Do you remember the first piece you ever sold?
I was shocked when I sold my first piece! It was a nickel-plated Art Deco candelabra which I bought in Brussels. It was my first eCommerce transaction and the website hadn’t been up that long. I was surprised anyone found the website, let alone buy something from it. I delivered the lamp to the buyer’s London flat personally. I like to deliver items myself when I can as it adds a more personal service and means I get to meet my clientele. Plus, it means I can ensure the item arrives in one piece. I know it’s not the best use of my time but it’s how I like it.
Who would you say your typical customer is?
My customers vary greatly depending on the specific piece. I work with a number of interior designers and other dealers in the trade. I have exhibited the Modern Shows a number of times, which tends to attract a mid-century connoisseur who are generally very particular, knowledgeable and price savvy. This keeps me on my toes to say the least. Most are very knowledgeable about retro furniture which makes it all the more challenging, but also fun.
Is your own home an extension of your business?
Yes. Nearly everything is mid-century. I often want to keep the best pieces for myself but generally end up selling them through the business after a while. However, I do get to enjoy them in my home or my showroom before I sell them.
My home is also the location for several photo-shoots that have been taken for a number of magazines. Everything is rosewood and mid century – it’s a real eclectic mix of stuff – although I could do with double the space to house all the items I’ve acquired.
I’ve also loaned furniture to interior designers and property developers looking to dress show flats or for magazine photo-shoots, which is very good publicity for me. It all works hand in hand, and is an extension of my business.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I like to go to the theatre, cinema, concerts and festivals. As my home is in the Barbican, everything is very accessible. I also enjoy galleries and museums, including the V&A and Tate Modern.
I also like to get out of London at the weekends and travel to different cities. I went to the design fair in Amsterdam at the beginning of February to compare prices with the UK and to look at the different furniture they had to offer. It was wet and cold but very worthwhile.
I also volunteer for a small charity called AIDS Ark, which helps to save lives by enabling access to HIV medication in developing countries. As there are no overheads, 100% of the funds raised goes to those requiring the medication. This year we raised £42,000.
What the most difficult and rewarding aspects of running your own business?
Like most small business owners I do not have enough time in the day to do everything. However, I am getting better at focusing on the areas I enjoy most and are the most lucrative. Sourcing the most interesting pieces at the most competitive price, is challenging but also the most fun and interesting part of the job. Negotiating hard but being prepared to walk away from a deal is quite tough but I’m getting better at it all the time. I enjoy being creative by buying more pieces that require refurbishing and reupholstering to my style and taste.
Crucially I recently invested in a great photographer which has been invaluable in improving the overall look and feel of the website. It also allows me to upload the pieces that I acquire much faster. In the past I was trying to do everything myself to keep the overheads down which wasn’t the best approach when you compare my photography from then to now. I’ve made a few mistakes, but now feel that I am on the right road and needed to go through that painful process to get where I am today.
Overall, what I enjoy the most about Retro Living is being my own boss and doing something that I am passionate about. This gives me the flexibility to live my life how I want within reason, of course.
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