“My father, a very traditional Royal Navy man, was never keen on me going to Bedales. He’d rather I went to a proper, more conventional school,” Steuart Padwick says. “I went to an all-boys prep school and was down to go on to my father’s old school, Pangbourne College (a feeder school for the navy), but it must have been my mother who decided that I should go to Bedales. She was the creative one.”
To the young Steuart, the product of a fairly typical English private educational establishment, Bedales represented a new world, one in which diversity and relaxation appeared to be celebrated. “It was a three-day event, the Bedales interview, not the usual ‘common entrance’ exams” Steuart recalls. “I turned up in my school colours tie (awarded for playing hockey and I confess I was quite proud of it) which marked me out as a bit of an alien, I suppose, but I liked what I saw.”
Bedales would also provide Steuart with the opportunity to develop his creative side. “Pottery was something I had lapped up at prep school and hoped to carry on at Bedales,” he begins. “It wasn’t a subject taught at Bedales at the time but carpentry definitely was. I’d dabbled a bit at prep school, learning how to cut a mortice and tenon joint and so on, and realised I had a knack for it.”
David Butcher would accordingly become a second father figure to Steuart: “Like many kids at any boarding school I had my ups and downs, so for me, the workshop was my sanctuary and my refuge at any time when I needed one. I practically lived there and David was a constant source of encouragement and advice. He was equally nurturing to everyone, whatever their ability. He and Martin Box were a major part of my time at Bedales all the way through. It was entirely thanks to David that, by the time I left school my making level was described as ‘equal to that of a professional’. He had enough trust to give me a key to the workshop, enabling me to use it and all the major machines, like circular saw and band saw, any time I wanted without supervision. Health and safety would go nuts at that sort of thing now, but I hope David felt I honoured his trust.”
“David famously said he would award a gold watch to anyone who could cut a better mortice and tenon joint than him,” Steuart continues. “I really think I could have done by the time I left Bedales but to me it seemed disrespectful even to make the challenge. Perhaps he would have welcomed it. I felt he was very proud of what I achieved at school and had I won, it would have been full credit to him, his generosity and amazing gift as a teacher.”
Like many kids at any boarding school I had my ups and downs, so for me, the workshop was my sanctuary and my refuge at any time when I needed one
Although the workshop was the centre of Steuart’s life at Bedales, it did in some ways block out other things. “I would like to have done some acting at school, something I turned to in later life,” he says. When the time came for him to move on, Steuart had no doubt that furniture was what he wanted to do: “It wasn’t that I was a naturally confident person but I knew I had a talent for designing and making furniture and was not surprised when Parnham College, John Makepeace’s school for craftsmen in wood offered me a place before I had even finished the interview.”
In 1980, Steuart set up his own workshop with three friends from Parnham. His first job was a commission from the Duke of Beaufort to design a wardrobe as a wedding gift for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. “Unfortunately they absolutely hated it. I was gutted at the time but now I find it funny,” he says. Eighteen months later he left the workshop. “I was much more interested in the design than the making, and it seemed to me that going to the RCA (Royal College of Art) would be the best way to make it happen,” Steuart says. “I had this idea of the RCA as some great ivory tower of talent but as things turned out, it was an anti-climax. Even though I was there with some amazingly talented contemporaries, Jasper Morrison for instance, the furniture department itself I found uninspiring – it needed a good kick up its backside!”
During one of his holidays from the RCA, Steuart found himself in David Linley’s workshop when a sudden impulse came into his mind – why not chuck in furniture and try to become an actor instead? He did just that and went on to drama college. Acting, however, is a profession where you are more often than not out of work and Steuart took a pragmatic view: “I didn’t want to be forty or fifty and still waiting for my big break,” he admits. “I missed designing and decided, after about eight years away, that it was time to go back to it. It was very hard not to feel a failure, but that is the harsh reality of the acting world; most people fail to get the work.”
Steuart embarked on a number of projects in the design world, becoming a buyer for The Conran Shop, sourcing products across Europe and China, launching Benchmark Furniture for Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe in 2004, and the following year, his internet company, Designbar.com came into being. A design directory and information website, it rapidly gained membership across 33 countries worldwide and the compliment from Conran that it represented “the ultimate design directory”. “It never really worked as I had hoped, and I ended up selling it to Brent Hoberman of lastminute.com fame.” Steuart observes.
In 2009, Steuart successfully launched his own brand, Steuart Padwick. He was getting much press, a number of awards and nominations (see Steuart’s website www.steuartpadwick.co.uk), but: “By 2011 I was going bust and did not know where my next money was coming from. At the same time as looking for employment, I was the first person to start supplying designs to made.com,” he explains. “They were an instant hit and rapidly sales crept from a few per month to 1300 per month after five years.”
...by the time I left school my making level was described as ‘equal to that of a professional’
Now designing for an eclectic clientele, mixing private and contract work with pieces for retailers such as Made.com, CB2, Land of Nod and Mothercare, Steuart has never been busier. “I feel as though I’ve only just got started, what with the years I took out to act and developing the designbar.com website,” he sighs. “It’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve been able to make the business pay. I have never pursued money, but having some gives me the freedom to do the work I want to do. I am now so excited about designing my own home and studio in London. I am so lucky to have this opportunity and I hope to move next year or the year after that. I have just finished two back-to-back exhibitions in September, launching 10 new designs, ranging from metal clocks and a folding metal table to fully upholstered pieces and a wild aluminium pendant light. As a one man band, this is a lot of work and stress, but I like that and thrive on it. I think I make better decisions when I’m under pressure! I also want to expand the business at some point, and the first thing I need to do is find a really good office manager to first and foremost manage me! These days I am very inefficient in the way I work. I’m a true procrastinator. I appreciate the need for balance between focus on the task in hand and dreaming about it. A workaholic still needs faff time. It is very important people allow themselves time to think so they are not always so busy being busy.”
A recent commission that neatly brought Steuart back to his early days came from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to design some nursery furniture to mark the birth of their daughter Charlotte. “Quite ironic 35 years after the first royal commission!” he says. “The difference this time is that the designs seem to have gone down rather well and I received a lovely letter from Kate to thank me for them and say how much they loved them.”
It’s not the only example of a satisfactory squaring of the circle of Steuart’s life. “I never saw David Butcher a lot over the years – somehow life got in the way, but I like to think he would have been chuffed by what I’ve done in the end,” Steuart says. “One of my classmates was David’s daughter Pauline, with whom I’ve remained friends. Her daughter, Sian (also an ex-Bedalian) has just graduated from the London School of Fashion and I shall soon be wearing a tailor-made suit of her design. It couldn’t be a more appropriate thing for me to have.”
Steuart Padwick was interviewed by James Fairweather in 2016.