James Harrison runs furniture company James UK and the Yonder climbing centre in Blackhorse Road, which also provides shared workspace and a yoga studio. We spoke to James about how his businesses are developing, the challenges of the lockdown period and the importance of rebuilding the local economy.
Can you tell me about when and why you started James UK?
It started about 15 years ago. I had graduated from a 3D design course at Newcastle University and had found my calling in furniture design. Even at that point, I knew I wanted to do my own thing and started out designing and making small-scale, one-off commissions.
I used to present my work at exhibitions in Islington and a contemporary rocking chair got picked up by the [high street furniture chain] Habitat. It became one of its bestsellers.
I then got a part -time job for Habitat as an in-house designer, during the time I was developing James UK. That’s where I met Fizzy [Dawson] who worked in product development and later became my business partner.
What do you think makes your business stand out?
We create products that are built to last. When we design something new, we do it with longevity in mind. In times past, that was how furniture was made. It would stay in people’s houses for generations, so we wanted to get back to that way of production, to offer something a bit different to the disposable furniture you can buy in some places.
We also make completely bespoke products and involve the customer as much as we can or as much as they want to be.
How has the business grown since it started?
It wasn’t a sudden scary leap from working at Habitat to focusing everything on James UK. It has been a process of building up the client base over many years. I did know that I always wanted to do my own thing, but working at Habitat really opened up my knowledge and networks.
You are also one of the co-founders of Yonder in Blackhorse Road. Tell us a bit about that.
Paul used to work for me at James UK and we first started thinking about it – only ‘semi seriously’ – around five years ago. I live in Walthamstow and really liked the idea of big warehouses that offered shared working space and places where the community could come together.
I had two great networks of people – one of which was people who made furniture and the other a group we used to go climbing with at The Castle in Stoke Newington. Yonder was really an idea to combine the two.
We started by installing a small climbing wall in the workshop where we made furniture to stay active at work and the idea grew from there.
People really love it, so it has been amazing that what started as a bit of a far-fetched conversation in the pub has become a reality.
How do James UK and Yonder give back to the community in Walthamstow?
The focus of Yonder has always been about community. There’s a real network of makers and creators and a melting pots of ideas and interesting things happening between people who have become firm friends.
We use local suppliers at Yonder, such as selling beer from local breweries Wildcard and Signature. We stock Square Root Soda too [made in Leyton].
We’ve worked with [educational facility] Big Creative up the road. Every time we put something on at Yonder we think about a local angle. We’ve hosted an event for the E17 Arts Trail and at Yonder, we have 'mums and babies' yoga classes – there’s a lot of young families around here.
Both James UK and Yonder are always keen to immerse themselves more locally.
What challenges has Covid-19 posed for Yonder and James UK?
The difficulty at James UK is that not only have a lot of architects and interior designers shut down over lockdown, but the whole hospitality industry too, which accounts for a high percentage of our business.
Yonder was closed for over four months which has been very difficult. The furlough scheme was a bit of a lifeline, as we absolutely didn’t want to lose any of our staff by making redundancies. The business rate relief initiative from the Council has been really helpful. We were also approved for a Discretionary Grant from the Council, which is another big help.
We’ve brought back staff part time now, but we’re obviously nervous about what happens if we go into a second lockdown and whether the furlough scheme will continue.
Has your business had to adapt because of COVID?
At James UK, we’ve been doing a lot more commissions for domestic use. At Yonder, we have brought the yoga classes online. That has been really successful and good for our brilliant teachers, as they’re all self employed, and it meant they could keep working through the lockdown.
What makes Waltham Forest so special?
I’ve lived in other places in London before Walthamstow, but I’ve never lived in a place with such a strong sense of community.
Why would you encourage people to support local businesses?
It helps develop a sustainable economy. If people use local businesses, we’re using fewer air miles and contributing to the protection of the environment.
We need to support each other at times like this. If people have each other’s backs, we’ll all get through this together.
Why are local customers so important to you/your business?
We wouldn’t survive without them. The best businesses know their customers and look out for them.
Are there any places you like to go locally?
The Clearing at St James Park. It is this sculpture commissioned by Waltham Forest to local artist Owen Bullet, carved out of this big, beautiful old oak and shrouded by trees. It is a hidden treasure and a great place to take the kids, I would really recommend it.