We take a look inside the home of the creative founders of Maker & Son
Despite the picturesque central front entrance and wonderfully rustic path, flanked on either side by some cloud pruned box trees, we are entering through the side door of this property, as is usual in most country houses. We are launched straight into the kitchen – a fabulously bright and airy room, due in no small part to its soaring ceiling and large windows. This is Kemps House, a splendid Georgian farmhouse within the Balcombe Estate in West Sussex and home to Alex Willcock and his family. Alex and his eldest son Felix Conran are the founders of Maker & Son, and Kemps House is a vital part of their enterprise, featuring in much of the marketing and as a showroom for some of the product range.
Maker & Son was launched four years ago, but the family have lived here for the past seventeen. “I know it’s been seventeen,” smiles Alex, “because our son was born within a couple of months of us moving in.”
The house is Grade II listed – “I like to think it was designed by the architect Kemp and that he lived here,” he says, but the fact that it is listed means that it has stayed – and must stay – very much as it was originally built. It was love at first sight when Alex walked into the house, despite the fact that what look like airy rooms with high ceilings means draughts and large windows, leaks and more draughts.
“The previous owner managed to live here for thirty five years without any heating, save for the fires,” says Alex, and even though the fireplaces in between the two sitting rooms are absolutely enormous, it must have been freezing at times. Add to that the fact that the house is on a tiny spur of six properties at the end of the electricity line and prone to multiple power outages – usually through the winter.
Alex points to a huge section of tree trunk by the hearth – hollowed out to make a container for kindling. “A giant elm tree fell across the power lines in a storm. It was lying across the road between here and the station. A neighbour and I, along with a chap from the local sawmill, took our chainsaws and chopped the tree into manageable pieces. I got my old Land Rover and dragged that monumental piece of wood back.” It stays as a memento to the day – and the following four weeks they spent without power through the middle of that winter.
The only room that has changed substantially is the position of the kitchen, promoted from lowly servility at the back of the house to bask in the light and space in the front. In effect the kitchen is now another living room, as so much of the living is done in here. Indeed, Alex’s former father-in-law, Sir Terence Conran, wrote a book entitled Kitchens: The Hub of the Home, long before many people would have considered that to be the case. “Back when the house was built, cooking was a servant’s job and you ate in the dining room. Today the kitchen is a communal space where everything is done.” It’s now hard to imagine that until Alex and his family moved in, there were three big sitting rooms – perhaps excessive, even for a family that has a lot of sofas.
One of the most beautiful features in the kitchen are the tall, slim units on the wall opposite the back door. “I found these ridiculous Georgian shutters, that were originally over ten feet long, at the reclamation yard. I wasn’t sure what I would make with them at the time, they were created as I went along. There was an enforced timeframe when the kids were young, so the kitchen was more or less constructed in a weekend.”
The kitchen at Kemps House has been through many iterations, but Alex’s handmade cabinet, a comfortably well worn butcher’s block and the rustic dining table that sits alongside have been constant companions
The kitchen at Kemps House has been through many iterations, but Alex’s handmade cabinet, a comfortably well worn butcher’s block and the rustic dining table that sits alongside have been constant companions through all the changes. “My mother found the butcher’s block for sale at the butchers in the village. We bought it directly from there. It cost £15.” Alex smiles. Over the years the table next to the block has formed an important part of family life. “It’s made from two large planks of elm from a fallen tree. It’s extremely rough, but has been a big part of the space over the years, with children drawing on and over it and then being re-sanded,” he pauses, “There’s a life well lived through the story of that table.”
The overhead lights have been designed and made by Felix. They are free and sculptural – almost organic in form, the one hanging in the kitchen reminiscent of the poised remnants of a butterfly’s cocoon. They are prototypes but a version of the light in the central living room is now sold by Maker & Son.
The middle sitting room has five entrances, including the front door and staircase, making it quite tricky to furnish (but perfect for staging farces). It is one of Alex’s favourite rooms. “It’s a crazy room with lots of doors – I love that. And its proportions are great – and there’s this amazing fireplace.” The monumental fireplace (replicated on the other side of the wall) manages to be both imposing and homely at the same time, simple and in proportion to the room. A baby grand piano nestles in a corner and a violin perches on the piano stool. Alex, to add another string to his bow, is also a talented musician.
We continue our chat in this room, sitting in ultra comfort on two of the company’s generously proportioned sofas. “I designed the sofas originally for our family,” Alex says. “There is nothing nicer when you’ve got a large family, if, when you’re sitting, you can be extraordinarily comfortable.”
Comfort is key, but this rides on the back of sustainability and responsibility for Maker & Son. “It’s important that they are fully comfortable, made from natural materials, sustainably sourced, and that the people who have made them are an integral part of the process,” he says, adding, “within the four years that we’ve been going these questions are beginning to be asked – what’s it made from, who made it, where was it made?”
Back in the seventeenth century, when the first owners occupied Kemps House – and right up until the middle of the last one – only the most affluent owned upholstered furniture. And it was built to last a lifetime, or longer. “One of the things I’m very, very proud of,” explains Alex, “is the fact that our sofas are built to last. Felix and I like to think that if you owned one, that your children might fight over it when you’re gone.”
Alex also feels that provenance and longevity of materials used to make furniture should not be seen as luxuries, but should go hand-in-hand with good design. This – and Alex’s affinity with wood as a material to make things from – have driven him from the start of his career. “I trained as a cabinet maker designing things as a maker, the details of which are considered very differently to those designing on paper, or computer, in a pre-determined thought.” Alex gets up and fetches a small wooden side table that is about to join their range. “The design comes from me seeing the shape unfold as I’m making it. Form has developed entirely out of function – depending on how it is used. The whole shape of the side table brings a truth to its formation.”
He loves making things from scratch – including all the large wooden candlesticks around the house, hand turned using wood from the nearby Balcombe Estate sawmill. He is also keen on repurposing and finding new life in existing objects. “I love working with reclaimed things. One of my favourite pastimes is going to places like Ardingly really early in the morning, as they’re setting up, with your torch and trolley – and van.” He adds with a smile, “I found the old work bench in the sitting room at Kempton Park Antiques Fair in the pouring rain one morning.”
The impressively wide wooden staircase leads directly out of the middle sitting room. It’s at the centre of the house, aged and charming, its worn treads creaking characterfully with each step, a reminder of all the feet that have walked, run or staggered up and down over the centuries.
Several large bedrooms and a family bathroom are accessed on this floor via a long corridor – each, as the rooms downstairs – elegantly proportioned with high Georgian ceilings, their large windows suffused with natural light.
The main bedroom is, like the big sitting room below, dual aspect. It’s painted a soft peachy pink – Farrow and Ball’s Setting Plaster – and seems to glow in the morning’s sun. The quality of light is very important to Alex. “I’m someone that feels huge gratitude every day of my life waking up in that room – I wake up very early in the morning and I’m a great fan of candlelight and glowing fires. I’ll make up a fire as soon as I wake up and when it’s dark, light the candles early in the morning.”
The pink bathroom (all the bathrooms in the house seem to be pink) is another favourite room. “It has the original wide floorboards and I love the way that you can see how they were sawn by hand – made in a saw pit,” he explains. “We would find it hard to do it for ten minutes and those guys were in the pit, sawing planks all day every day.”
Alex’s daughter’s bedroom is at the opposite end of the house, smaller, paler, but well proportioned – and next on the list for some TLC. “That room has been rather unloved,” says Alex “and needs a major makeover. I want to take up the carpet and paint the floorboards – the bed in that room is an early prototype of the beds that we now sell.” A testbed, so to speak.
Tucked up by trees at the back of the garden is the Roundhouse, which is where the first ideas for Maker & Son were born. It is a simple, circular building that Alex began to make – without plans – by drawing a circle around a stick in the ground, miraculously sourcing the curved window and door only once the walls had been constructed. This iconic little building has been used as a template for the company’s fleet of miniature mobile showrooms – they are basically vans housing a sofa, clad to look like the Roundhouse and to carry the essence of the house too.
“I designed the sofas originally for our family,” Alex says. “There is nothing nicer when you’ve got a large family, if, when you’re sitting, you can be extraordinarily comfortable.”
The impressively wide wooden staircase leads directly out of the middle sitting room. It’s at the centre of the house, aged and charming, its worn treads creaking characterfully with each step, a reminder of all the feet that have walked, run or staggered up and down over the centuries
“People’s values are changing, their priorities are changing,” he says. “We had the vans a year before the pandemic but they’ve proven very useful for people who can’t travel to a showroom.” In this way they are able to sell directly to customers. “We can focus as much as we possibly can on meeting people’s needs – things that are personal to them – because we don’t have shops all over the place. It also means that the spirit of the house is in the mobile showrooms.”
The spirit of Kemps House is integral to Maker & Son and whether it was once inhabited by Kemp or not, it’s fitting that a family of designers are living in and loving this house, creating an interior that enhances the period detailing, optimises the effects of natural light and effortlessly reflects timeless and contemporary tastes. Simple, sublime and extraordinarily comfortable.
To find out more about Maker & Son, their range, the company’s home in Balcombe and their mobile showrooms, visit makerandson.com
- words: Jo Arnell
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Holly Levett
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