The "build it yourself, make it yourself" picture Mark Humphrey paints of his Berkshire childhood seems more akin to pre-war Britain than the 1970s and 1980s in which he grew up. "I did a lot of tennis, football, rugby, rebuilding motorbikes, pushbikes, cycles, and go karts for kids. It was just a constant outdoor-activity life," says the interior designer. "It was half sport, half building models." The latter experience seems to have been a formative one for the 36-year-old. He went on to do a degree in architecture and interior design at Middlesex University, and then landed a job working for a design company in Stuttgart on his graduation in 1993.
He could speak little German though, so he returned to the UK a year later to take a job with socialite interior designer Nicky Haslam. That allowed him to extend his contacts base and portfolio, but still wasn't quite right for him. "There was no framework in that company to do my own product design," he says, to create "a total design brand that's completely owned by myself. Otherwise, you have no signature style." So he decided to strike out on his own, renting a small room in Battersea and fishing for the contracts that could get his business rolling. He landed a big one. Ringo Starr had met Humphrey while he was with Nicky Haslam and now asked whether the newly independent designer was up to the task of redecorating his London pad. "I said fine, let's do it!"
High-end design hardly comes cheap, but Starr nonetheless got himself a deal. Indeed, "if you're starting up and you're young and you don't have a huge amount of experience or client list, your fees have to be very, very competitive", says Humphrey. "So therefore, they're quite low." Still, the deal had a contract value of between £200,000 and £300,000 he says, enough to help him expand his studio. "I started with nothing. I had no loans, I just used my first commission to start it (the company)." Finding his next customer turned out to be straight forward too.
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Starr, pleased with his bespoke sofas and walnut cabinets, passed on Humphrey's details to a friend George Harrison. That really got the ball rolling, allowing Humphrey to begin investing in the premises he'd need to start creating the style and brand that he's now become synonymous with: think a basin and bath fused into one sculptural piece, or a £50,000 bed that can also be an office by day or a cocktail cabinet at night.
This kind of thing isn't easy to make both the materials and the labour of highly skilled British craftsmen are costly but that doesn't mean Humphrey can't make good margins from the business. "I realised that as the business builds and the more clients you get and the more projects you complete, your fees can go up." A contract to design Fendi's couches followed, "a great commission" that brought in more work. Now turning over £2m a year, Humphrey is in no doubt as to the secrets of his success. "Go into a business that you love, that is going to keep you fulfilled for many, many years, and that you won't get bored of. And go into a business where you think you can offer a difference or an improvement."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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