High-design Furniture Brand Makes a Comeback

Tara Darby; Peter Guenzel/Established & Sons

Established & Sons blazed bright and flamed out fast. Now it’s back with a fresh approach and an updated collection. 

It’s not often that a start-up furniture brand’s launch parties attract the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler, and Paul McCartney. But that’s just what Established & Sons did in its early heyday.

When the London-based firm exploded onto the scene in 2005, the design industry hadn’t seen anything like it. High-end European manufacturing at the time was dominated by the Italian big guns with an aesthetic that was decidedly minimal. Established’s founders—chairman Angad Paul (who died in 2015); chief executive Alasdhair Willis, a former publisher and husband of fashion designer Stella McCartney (hence the guest lists); and two design directors, Sebastian Wrong and Mark Holmes— were like a punk band looking to disrupt design’s stodgy culture.

The key to their initial success was a combination of youthful ambition and the relationships Wrong and Holmes had with big-name designers. The pair commissioned top talents to create whatever they wanted in limited editions at a time when the collectible-design market was still taking off.

Clockwise from left: Filigrana light by Sebastian Wrong, $545; Barbican sofa by Konstantin Grcic, $5,690; Light Light by Dimitri Bähler, $1,440; Wrongwoods dresser by Richard Woods and Sebastian Wrong, $5,175; Cassette sofa by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, $6,210. Peter Guenzel/Established & Sons.

The results, while not always commercially wise, certainly stood out. Zaha Hadid’s organic, flowing Aqua table on fin-shaped legs prefigured her London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics. Architect Amanda Levete created the elegantly curved Drift bench, while newcomers Raw Edges came up with Stack, a chest of wonky and happily colorful drawers that became an emblem of the era. Trouble was, while it made for great hype, there weren’t enough collectors willing to spend $87,000 for Hadid’s table or $55,000 for Levete’s bench.

Edward Barber, one half of the design team Barber & Osgerby, which created the glass-topped, metal-wrapped Zero-In coffee table for the company, reflects on the mindset at the time. “Established wasn’t going to be some little homespun thing,” he says. “It was going to be very international, very, very quickly.” And it succeeded. For a while.

After the recession hit in 2008, the market narrowed for the kinds of inventive, limited-edition pieces Established was producing. Amid rumors of overspending, the founders left. New collections came to a halt, and the company went quiet.

Then in 2016, a trio of energized new owners, Vincent Frey (of the luxury textile house Pierre Frey) and entrepreneurs Ramzi Wakim and Patrick Mueller- Hermann, bought Established and recruited Wrong to return. “My heart is still in this business,” Wrong says as we sit together in the sunny new showroom in East London. “I’m someone who likes to fight a corner with an obsession to get it right.” 

If anyone can revive Established, it’s Wrong, arguably one of the most important artistic directors in furniture today. After leaving the company, he ran design for the popular Danish brand Hay. “Coming back to Established, you could say I’ve become boring and practical,” Wrong says. “But it’s not being boring, it’s being in control.”

For starters, Wrong has overseen a five-piece collection, including the chunky Barbican foam sofa by Konstantin Grcic that is embellished with brightly hued cushions and looks like it was ripped straight from a 1980s nostalgia catalog. 

There’s also a group of handblown Murano glass pendant lights by Wrong himself that resemble giant peppermint candies. But nothing exemplifies the new, more humble Established more than the minimal Cassette sofa by brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec: With a simple, industrial-looking steel frame, the no-nonsense seat’s only twist is the overstuffed, fuzzy cushions.

While the new pieces might not have the extravagance of yesteryear, the design thinking behind them is top-notch. “It’s about doing what’s right and having fun,” Frey says. “That’s the beauty of design.”