When NatWest asked furniture manufacturer naughtone to design a contemporary wingback chair to use in its branches, it was a pivotal moment for the firm.
The Hush chair, which provides visual and acoustic protection for customers who need privacy, proved to be such a hit that NatWest rolled it out across the UK and Naughtone added it to its regular product list.
Nine years later it remains one of the Knaresborough company’s best-sellers and has been adopted by technology giant Amazon.
“At the time we were a really small business,” said sales director Matt Welsh. “The product proved to be pivotal for us and we still sell thousands of them a year to Amazon. I still get a buzz when I see Jeff Bezos being interviewed sitting in our chair.”
Naughtone, which produces contemporary office furniture for some of the world’s biggest technology companies including Facebook, Apple and Google, was launched in 2005 by friends Kieron Bakewell, design director and Mark Hammond, commercial director. They were joined three years later by Mr Welsh.
The company, which specialises in designing and making office furniture for informal, collaborative workspaces, designs products at its Knaresborough headquarters and manufactures them in Elland, West Yorkshire.
“Ten or 15 years ago the only seating areas in an office might have been one or two chairs in reception and in the canteen. Now it’s a 50/50 split between desks and comfy chairs,” Mr Welsh said.
“Technology has had a huge impact on how people work. Wireless technology means the old days of workstations are way behind us now.”
In 2016 the directors sold a 50 per cent non-controlling stake in the company to US furniture giant Herman Miller for an undisclosed sum. The partnership has enabled it to start manufacturing in the US and open its first overseas showroom in Chicago.
“As a small British business, the thought of globalisation was pretty scary,” said Mr Welsh. “We took a view that partnering with a bigger company gave our business a better opportunity to grow at the rate we were used to - 40 per cent a year - and enabled us to win large global contracts.”
Naughtone, which employs 75 people across the two UK sites, has a turnover of £22m. Last year it grew its exports by 107 per cent to £9.2m.
The US is the company’s biggest market, accounting for 65 per cent of its turnover. It also has a sales manager in Denmark who covers mainland Europe.
Naughtone is now looking to grow its presence in Asia and plans to open a factory in China to cut down on manufacturing miles. “We have access to a broad spectrum of opportunities,” said Mr Welsh.
“Brexit will be a challenge but the UK represents about £7m of our business so we are not reliant on the UK.”
He added: “If businesses aren’t investing into London it will impact us but not grind us to a halt. The weakened pound has actually been really good for us because we are making more money through exports.”
Naughtone’s furniture is often featured on screen, particularly on the BBC, which is another large client. Last month Tom Cruise was spotted sitting in one of its chairs during an interview at Radio One.
It also works with education providers and small independent businesses. In Yorkshire, it works with Leeds University. It also designed Goose, a new children’s play space in Harrogate.
In addition, the company provided furniture for Bruntwood’s new Platform office building in Leeds.
Naughtone has completed unusual requests, such as the Co-op’s order for chairs made out of wooden pallets for its Manchester head office.
The firm has so far stayed away from adding technology to its furniture but Mr Welsh believes that as wireless charging technology improves, it will revolutionise the market. “If you were sitting in an armchair fitted with an inductive charger, it would be amazing,” he said.