The Yorkshire furniture maker making in big in the City
The family business, with more than 60 years of heritage behind it, has evolved into a leading designer-maker of handcrafted, contemporary furniture.
Galvin Brothers has not only conquered the lucrative London market, but also has a string of collaborations with some of the high street’s biggest brands under its belt.
It’s fair to say that Matt, who owns and runs the business, has cornered a very different market to the one that his late father, Tony, who worked as a self-employed joiner, carved out for himself.
Although the business in its current form was launched in 2012, Galvin Brothers is built on the foundations that Tony set down and holds the same principles dear.
Matt, who describes himself as ‘Beverley born and bred’, returned to Yorkshire to establish Galvin Brothers after spending several years in London, where he’d acquired a Masters Degree in Design at the Royal College of Art and established a successful graphic design business, working for the likes of Paul Smith and Tate Britain.
“I was liberated from it,” he says of his past career. “I’m better at this. Maybe it’s because I grew up in dad’s workshop and have an understanding of form and size.
“We’re a heritage business, but we’ve become very design-led because of my skill set. Despite our growth, we’re very close to what we make and it’s all made by us. There’s a close connection between the designing and the making, and that keeps the quality high and is what sets us apart. Everything comes past me.
“In a weird way, wood is the 21st century material and my connection to it just seemed right. I didn’t expect to be living in Beverley at the age of 43, but the business grew so fast that I just didn’t go back to London. Of course there are lots of other joinery firms, but we don’t sell through joinery – we sell through design. I guess we’re less dusty than we were in the beginning, when we were a smaller, local firm. The business has changed form and taken on more talent.”
He admits: “I think I’ve always been a frustrated product designer, but there are lots of transferable skills, such as when it came to building our website and creating our brand. I had an idea and put it into action.”
These days Matt is supported by a small team of craftspeople comprising established woodturners and cabinet makers, as well as several apprentices who are being trained in these ancient but fast disappearing crafts.
“We’re heavily influenced by the craft of woodturning, which is a dying art form. Some crafts are dying out, either not made at all or made cheaply. Our pieces will last forever; it’s heirloom furniture and that’s what sets us apart.”
Galvin Brothers’ furniture is all handcrafted in Yorkshire, using sustainably sourced timber and the same traditional techniques employed by Matt’s father.
It’s the market for the products that has changed beyond recognition, with around 85 per cent of them now sold firmly within the boundaries of the M25 motorway, which encircles the capital. This shift has come about naturally as a result of interior designers snapping up furniture for their clients.
“A massive amount of our furniture is bought by interior designers, who buy multiple pieces; we have a big trade following. Of course, we do sell in Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere, but the interior design market is so much bigger in London. We also have a big Instagram following and get great national media coverage; they just seem to find us.”
According to Matt, it’s the ‘strong graphic language’ of Galvin Brothers’ furniture that has won the brand a legion of influential fans.
He mentions the fluting, bobbin legs and other instantly recognisable design features that regularly figure in his work as great examples of this, adding “There’s a graphic quality to our work; a lot of our furniture has a strong silhouette. “The bobbin legs are inspired by 19th century Dutch furniture and we’ve been doing them for ten years, but now it’s raging fashion. We’ve definitely had an impact and our style is being copied, but some of the things we do can’t easily be imitated. The silhouettes of the products are very much ours. Design is leading the story and that’s why we command attention from London.”
The Galvin Brothers’ shop is located a stone’s throw from Beverley Minster on Flemingate in the town, although products are currently made at a workshop in Full Sutton, near Pocklington. However, Matt has recently secured land on Long Lane in Beverley, where he plans to create a brand new, purpose-built workshop and studio. “My vision is to have symbiosis between the design studio and the workshop, so the new workshop will be custom designed and built for us on land less than a mile from the shop. Rental in Beverley is astronomical and what we want is very specific – it must be a suitable size, environmentally friendly, sustainable to heat and made using sustainable timber.
“I want it to be more like a visitor centre, bringing our customers closer and helping them understand the effort that goes into making our products. We want them to be able to see the process; people are interested in it.”
In addition to collaborations with high end brands such as The White Company, Heal’s and Paul Smith, Galvin Brothers has recently won a number of artistic commissions, including a project for East Riding of Yorkshire Council and the University of Hull that involved creating a series of wooden beacons along the Yorkshire coastline. They have two very different functional roles, as well as a sculptural quality.
“In response to coastal erosion, there’s a monitoring project that takes photographs of the changing landscape at regular intervals from fixed points, so whatever we created had to be able to cradle a phone on top,” explains Matt. “However, we worked with the council to come up with designs that would also act as way-finders to encourage people to explore the coastline on foot. The designs we created were inspired by the language of the coastline, things like groynes on the beaches and lighthouses.”
Matt and his team are currently designing and creating furniture for visitors to Harewood House near Leeds, as well as a special – and top secret – piece for the estate’s festive celebrations. They’ve also been commissioned by Hull City Council and Highways England to create a permanent piece of public art that will be positioned close to Murdoch’s Connection, the iconic new footbridge over the A63, which links Hull city centre with the Marina and Fruit Market area. “It’s kind of crazy; an artist could wait a lifetime and never get a permanent public art piece. It’s weird how the tentacles of a relatively small furniture business get into so many different things. What we do is traditional joinery, well made but not old fashioned.”