Searle & Taylor celebrates 30 years with a look back at the changing face of kitchen design
Since 1991, Darren Taylor, managing director of Searle & Taylor, has run a successful business designing and making bespoke and contemporary kitchens for clients in Hampshire and beyond. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2021 and having designed thousands of kitchens over three decades, Searle & Taylor is an established brand with a showroom over three floors in central Winchester. Here, Darren reflects on how he started, looks back at the design trends that have defined the kitchen styles we see today and explains how he is looking to the future 30 years on.
How did you start making kitchens?
I had a Saturday job aged 15 working for a small cabinetmaking business, where I developed a keen interest in both working with wood and earning my own money. A year later, I left school and started a woodwork course at Basingstoke Technical College, but it was more joinery based, focusing on windows, doors and staircases. I was already working with really accomplished artisan craftspeople at weekends and age 16, I left college, and left home. I then started to work full-time at the cabinet workshop so that I could receive expert training to become a skilled cabinetmaker in my own right. I loved it.
When I was 18 years old, the owner of the business decided to retire and I saw an opportunity to start a furniture business myself. With an investment of just £250, I found a business partner, Jeff Searle, an accomplished cabinetmaker and fitter, and we took on a small shop in Market Street, Alton and called ourselves Farmhouse Furniture. We accepted orders for handmade furniture, which was then built by Jeff and me at a workshop in East Worldham. With the help of an article in a local newspaper, the business grew really fast and we focused on making traditional bespoke country kitchens with freestanding furniture to complement. In 1991, the trend was for reclaimed pine kitchens and furniture and that is what we specialised in. Because each piece was unique, we would sign and date the back of the cabinetry before it was installed.
Why was reclaimed timber such a big trend in the 1990s?
The great storm of October 1987, where a devastating hurricane felled thousands oak, ash and maple trees across the UK, had resulted in a glut of usable timber which was then stored, aged and sold at keen prices to become furniture. By the mid 1990s, ‘reclaimed’ was everywhere and we were already maximising on the trend using these timbers as well as old pine. We bought the pine from demolition companies. These would be huge roofing timbers and joists that we then de-nailed and cut and planed for furniture. This was well before the word ‘sustainability’ became a by-word for efficient business methods. The styles were detailed, with ‘gothic’ becoming a key look and handcrafted cabinetry had natural oiled, waxed or lacquered finishes. From 1995 onwards, the fashion for wooden worktops was surpassed by the use of granite and marble, a more premium option, and we started working with local stone companies and fabricators to provide a greater choice of colours, with black granite options being the most popular.
In 1997, the country entered a new era of Cool Britannia with the election of the New Labour government. How did this affect your business?
There was a definite feeling of optimism and the economy took a strong turn for the better following the election. Our business continued to be very successful because there was a boom in the housing market. We changed the company name and on 19th February 1998 we incorporated to become Searle & Taylor Ltd. We then signed a 10-year lease on a new 4,500 square feet modern building in a retail park in Winchester. We set up a full manufacturing factory capable of producing five kitchens a week, with showrooms above on the mezzanine level. Because of our strong reputation for making quality handmade kitchens, we started to supply a number of premium kitchen companies all over the UK, and this eventually became 80% of our production, while the other 20% was dedicated to retailing pine kitchens to clients in Hampshire. We soon became Winchester’s premier kitchen company, employing up to 22 people.
How did kitchen trends change after the Millennium?
The fashion for pine went into decline almost overnight. People still wanted beautiful handmade timber kitchens, but in oak, and by 2005 a new trend had started for painted kitchens in distressed finishes and with special patinas and the more colourful, the better. We were mainly building hand-painted Shaker and traditional kitchens and in 2007 solid colour Shaker kitchens arrived – and have stayed in fashion ever since. At the same time, the trend for contemporary handleless linear kitchens began to take hold and we wanted to be on the crest of that wave, designing and retailing furniture made by European brands.
How did you start selling contemporary handleless kitchens?
In 2008, we chose to take Searle & Taylor in a new direction. We sold the manufacturing side of our business to a company based in Yorkshire, who still produce handmade kitchens for us today. We then used the money from the sale to transform a former car showroom and garage into Hampshire’s largest kitchen showroom in a village called Ropley on the A31 – a main route from London to Winchester. This was the same year as the global financial crisis which had an effect on all businesses, however we were determined to ride the storm and be successful.
Together with our traditional handmade and Shaker kitchens offer, we started working as exclusive agents for two contemporary Austrian Furniture brands, Intuo and EWE, part of the Nobia Group, which also owned Poggenpohl. We rolled out these award-winning kitchens to our existing dealer base and we also featured them on display at our Ropley showroom and training centre, where we had 12 displays in total.
We also focused on selling premium appliances to complement our contemporary offer, which were becoming ever more technologically advanced, with built-in ovens being designed at eye level and not undercounter, and when induction hobs were starting to become more popular as an alternative to gas. These types of appliances were beginning to seriously compete with range cookers, even in in traditional country kitchens. As an independent kitchen company, we were able to choose the suppliers that we wanted to work with and to this day, we remain independent with some of the world’s foremost international appliance and worktop brands.
How did your business evolve during the Tweenies?
By 2010, with the new coalition government in place, the housing market slowly began to pick up. For a few years, it had become the survival of the fittest, but we had survived and remained in profit throughout. In 2012, we decided to focus on our retail offer, so we stopped being agents for Intuo and EWE whilst still being suppliers of the furniture brands and we remain so to this day.
In 2013, I dissolved my business partnership and purchased the company name outright and in the same year, I opened a second Searle & Taylor showroom in central Winchester, initially as a Poggenpohl dealer. However, when the German brand started to have financial issues, prior to being purchased, I decided to dedicate the space to our own handmade bespoke kitchens alongside the Intuo and EWE brands. In 2015, the company rebranded with a new logo, a new and informative website and we retained a PR Agency that we had previously worked with to promote our kitchen projects in interiors magazines, with great results.
What else changed?
New government legislation made it easier to add extensions to existing homes without having to go through an extensive planning process. This kick-started a trend towards having larger and more open plan kitchens with islands being the central hub, and the division between the functional and living spaces. In addition, kitchens were becoming less cluttered with the increasing popularity of boiling water taps and the ability to conceal appliances behind cabinetry doors. Also, by 2015, induction hobs were already outselling gas versions and appliances were getting quieter, so kitchens started to be designed with a clear focus on the socialising aspects, with breakfast bars and tables becoming very popular. Whilst linear design was also fashionable, there was a distinct shift to more fluid styles featuring curved and circular furniture, something we still specialise in at Searle & Taylor, together with the use of pocket doors, another specialism of our brand.
We all know what happened in 2020. How did the pandemic affect your business?
All in, with lockdowns various, we were closed for over nine months, but during that period I put my time to good use and performed all the tasks that usually get put to one side. This included my single-handedly fitting a completely new and large display at the entrance to my showroom. I also worked with my external marketing team to produce a new brochure, which I am very proud of and we constantly updated our website with new videos and information. It was a very difficult time for all businesses, but I still went into the showroom every day. We had a lot of interest in kitchens during lockdown and when it was safe to reopen, we had a lot of installations to organise.
You are celebrating your 30th anniversary in 2021. What does the future hold for Searle & Taylor?
It was such a pleasure to be able to properly reopen our central Winchester showroom earlier this year. It is fantastic that people can just pop in to look around again, and to seek inspiration. They always receive a warm welcome from our team.
With the renewed interest in home refurbishments since the lockdowns, we have also had a very busy time with people booking appointments, so much so, that we have made it much easier for prospective clients to book an appointment directly on our website, either in our showroom, or via Zoom. We are also being commissioned by clients to not only design a bespoke kitchen, but together with additional fitted furniture for other rooms in their homes and we are constantly finding ways to ensure that we are using sustainable materials.
And as for the future, Searle & Taylor is now the longest-running kitchen business in Winchester and it is a recognised brand in a fantastic location. As an independent kitchen business that is constantly evolving, we already have plans to make further changes to our showroom to both adapt to the changing face of kitchen design and to always keep ahead of the trends.