19 Feb 2019
Entrepreneurial Start-Ups Steal Limelight at UK Home and Gift Show
With 'Out of the Ordinary' its clear mission statement, this year's London-hosted Top Drawer event, a curated design-led symposium for the home / gifts sector, saw many of the smallest and newest exhibitors taking the creative lead.
Appropriately enough, this year's London-based Top Drawer home and gift show was promoted under the banner: "Out of the ordinary". And, sure enough, despite there being the usual array of established companies exhibiting their products at the show, what really caught the imagination were the many smaller, newer companies, many of which were set on promoting fresh, innovative ideas and bold entrepreneurial approaches.
One such business was Quebec-based Today is Art Day. Originally launched in 2014 as a series of social media accounts sharing daily fun facts about art and artists, within two years its growing popularity had given rise to a range of related merchandising.
Seeking to encapsulate the company's product lines, Founder and Chief Executive David Beaulieu said: "We make collectible figurines of famous characters. We have already featured such famous artists as Monet, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Dali and soon we'll be adding some of the world's most admired scientists, including Einstein, Curie and Tesla. We also have plans in place to depict legendary writers and composers, notably Shakespeare and Beethoven. Basically, our whole range stems from the idea that there are too many figurines of fictional folk and not enough of real people."
Each character comes complete with its own bespoke accessory – a melting clock for Dali, a mini Mona Lisa for da Vinci, an apple for Magritte, and so on. The design – simple, cartoonish features on large heads and small bodies – consciously echoes that of the enormously popular Funko POP! figurines that focus on film, TV and games characters. In terms of best-sellers, the Van Gogh figure is currently number one (though no confirmation as to whether it comes with a detachable ear), with Frida Kahlo – an early 20th century Mexican artist – perhaps the slightly surprising number-two choice.
Clearly keen to promote the company's board game, The Grand Museum of Art, Beaulieu said: "This was a venture into something new for us. The game launched last year and it proved very popular over the Christmas period. Each player is a curator and, as you go around the board, you collect different artworks and curate your own thematic exhibitions. It's kind of educational, but not too serious. Anything that's funny and that makes art history more accessible is bang on target for us."
Top Drawer was Today is Art Day's first European trade show, with Beaulieu explaining that the company was trying to grow from its North American base. Outlining its future ambitions, he said: "Our primary network is bookstores, art-material stores, museum stores and gift shops. We're developing a lot in the US, but now we're trying to expand into Europe."
Another exhibitor looking to expand overseas was Little Sun, a Berlin-based manufacturer of solar lamps. Explaining the company's ethos and aims, Sales Manager Philipp Fuhs said: "We're a global project and a social business with a mission to try to spread awareness of the lack of lighting facilities and communication difficulties in Sub-Saharan Africa."
As stylish as it is illuminating, the Little Sun lamp was introduced in 2012, when the company's founder – artist Olafur Eliasson – set out to design a portable solar lamp to sell in Africa and beyond, all the time subsidising the cost for African customers and funding education workshops to promote the use of the lamps over that of the more traditional kerosene variety.
Outlining how the lamp was created particularly with Africa in mind, Fuhs said: "We did a lot of research and it seems that products in Africa are generally purchased by women, so we developed a product with a noticeably feminine design feel. In line with that, the design of the lamp is very reminiscent of the Ethiopian national flower.
"The lamp is also very simple and powerful. Obviously, there's plenty of sun in Africa, so if you place it in direct sunlight for five hours, you can then turn it on and have four hours of bright light or else dim it down and have 20 hours of light. As well as Africa, we're also looking at selling into Europe, Japan and the US, mostly through museum shops and small design outlets."
Little Sun also produces a more obviously design-oriented lamp, complete with a reflecting lens – the Little Sun Diamond. At the end of 2017, the company also debuted the Little Sun Charger, a solar phone charger with a built-in lamp.
Explaining how this latest addition to its range works, Fuhs said: "While it's more techy and for a different clientele, it came about as a recommendation from our African customers. While many of them are heavy users of their phones, trading via mobile apps and so on, they have limited access to electricity so charging their phone is big issue. Using our system and placing it outdoors in direct sunlight, the unit is fully charged after 6 1/2 hours and then you can have 20 hours of very bright light or you can fully recharge your phone up to three times."
At present, the company has almost 2,000 trained sales agents handling its products and has sold more than 800,000 original Little Sun lamps, with more than half of them going to off-grid households in Africa. One of its biggest buyers, however, is the Tate Modern art gallery in London, with the company hoping to put similar deals in place elsewhere.
Another European exhibitor with a socially responsible agenda was Barcelona toy designer Oli & Carol. Produced in Morocco from natural rubber, the company's range of children's toys is promoted as non-toxic and wholly eco-friendly.
Expanding on the benefits of the company's range, Co-founder Olimpia Román Canals said: "They're ideal for teething and bath time. They're all handmade and individually hand-painted, so each one is unique."
Also keen to promote the company's popular fruit-and-vegetable design collection, she said: "The idea here was to introduce kids to a healthy lifestyle. Mothers really like the fact that their kids are chewing on something that reminds them of real vegetables, with all of the items also having their own child-friendly name – Brucy the Broccoli, Arnold the Avocado, Kendall the Kale and Ana Banana..."
The company's latest range, though, is its H2Origami collection – chewable rubber teethers in the form of crabs, turtles and whales. Explaining the thinking behind this new collection, Canals said: "This time, the aim was to raise awareness of the problem of marine pollution. In order to help counter this, we give 10 cents from every sale to the OCEANA organisation."
Launched just four years ago, Oli & Carol now has 20 distributors worldwide and sells in more than 30 countries. This, however, marked the company's debut at a UK trade expo.
Similarly keen to crack the UK market was Craftholic, distributor of a distinctive range of cuddle-cushion characters created by the Tokyo-based designer Ikuko Yamamoto. Already a noted international success, the UK rights have been acquired by Nikie Humby, who founded Craftholic UK in 2017. Based in Brighton, the company currently sells largely on an online basis.
Describing the products' appeal, Humby, said: "They're a different, funkier kind of interior-design feature. For Yamamoto, it's important that interior design isn't compromised by the look and feel of traditional children's toys.
"Her concept was that the cushion animals are aliens from the planet Craft who have come down to Earth and taken on the form of what they see as our most beloved animals. There's a cat, a rabbit, a sloth and a monkey and, when you fall in love with them, you become a 'craftholic'. Essentially, they're designed to grow up with your child, so they might get them at the age of two or three and remain engaged with them until they go to university and even after."
Fully CE certified (Conformité Européenne – the EU safety standard) and made from 100% polyester, the range is hypoallergenic and said to be safe for children of every age. According to Humby, the simplicity of the design of each character also has wider benefits.
Expanding on this, he said: "About a year ago, an occupational-health therapist wrote an article saying how good they were for children with special needs. As the faces are very simple, they're easy to imprint on and, as they have really long limbs, they can properly envelop you in a cuddle.
"At present, demand for them is slowly growing across Europe. It's massive in many other territories, though, and now we have high hopes for their success in the UK."
Top Drawer Spring/Summer 2019 took place from 12-14 January at London's Olympia. The event attracted more than 1,500 exhibitors.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, London