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The Founders interview

We sit down with the brand’s founders Tom and Fi to discover how they met, the brand's roots, and what lies ahead for the future.

Founder’s meeting

Tom: We actually met on an art foundation course in Brighton, but we also had quite a weird connection between our families before we even met; my dad, who’s an equine vet, worked with Fi’s aunt for a number of years, and our extended families had all sorts of strange connections.

Fiona: We’re both Sussex born and bred – Tom is from West Sussex but I’m from East Sussex. We both have some artistic background hence the art foundation course; Tom’s grandad was an artist and my great great uncle was an apprentice to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. So Tom’s family have a circus and horse heritage, whilst my family are all engineers…

T: …so there are geniuses on Fi’s side and circus people on my side – it’s a pretty fair representation of our roles within the business to be honest!

Career beginnings

F: When I was younger I couldn’t decide between music college or art college. I trained to be an opera singer but I was also interested in art, so I did an art foundation to help make the decision for me. I ended up specialising in fashion. I’ve always had a fascination with how things are made and where they’ve come from – I think it must be the engineering heritage. I love the different qualities of different materials and how they behave.

I worked in high-end fashion for around seven years – for Roksanda Ilincic and Holly Fulton – making pieces that people could hopefully treasure for the rest of their lives. Even still though, I didn’t like how transient it was. I think I also craved a personal connection with the customer. It mattered to me how customers felt about the products and reacted to them, and unfortunately, I didn’t get that from fashion. I think if you work in the fashion world you have to be absolutely devoted to it, and I just wasn’t.

T: I’m a Chartered Landscape Architect. I think I fell into it mainly because I was from rural roots, I liked the outdoors, and I had some vague creativeness kicking about! I love creating environments that can be beneficial for people and nature. In the UK landscape architecture is a really undervalued profession; most people thought I was a gardener.

After university, I worked for an architect for a number of years. They specialised in master planning and big multi-dwelling developments. We would design the parks, streets, and garden boundaries. I found it frustrating though – a lot of the time the developers chose not to afford what we were designing and it became quite demoralising.

Similar to what Fi was saying, to do landscape architecture, and to do it well, it has to consume you and you have to be really devoted to it. We both came to the same conclusion about our careers at about the same time.

Company beginnings

T: We always had the suspicion that we would work well together. Around 2014, we decided to build our own kitchen – we did it for fun, but there was an initial glimmer of hope that it could turn into something. We then built a kitchen for some friends, and then for Fi’s parents, and it just took off from there.

In the early days, we did everything together. We were literally doing 16-hour days and still working our full time jobs. We were designing kitchens before and after work, having them cut on a CNC machine and then spending all weekend in my parent’s tin shed in Sussex, sanding and oiling the materials. We’d then drive it all back up to London, and either assemble it in our flat, or build them on site. Eventually it came time to commit to it fulltime.

F: We thought we’d hit on a genius idea for bespoke kitchens – a gap in the market between top-end high street and bottom end bespoke – but actually everyone had been doing it for ages. It wasn’t until 2017 that we started thinking about fronts for proprietary cabinetry and using IKEA carcasses.

There wasn’t really anyone doing fronts in the UK, but we did think there could be a market for it here. We did a market research day trip to Copenhagen to check out the companies doing fronts in Scandinavia. Everything the Danish brands were doing was fantastic – from the quality of the materials to the design, their ethos and branding. We didn’t see why it couldn’t be done in the UK, so we decided to give it a go – and that’s how HØLTE began.

Company roles

F: I’m a bit of a material addict. I love the different tactile qualities between different materials, their performance and standards, and how one material can be excellent at something but terrible at something else. Each material also has a hidden performance measure as well – the stuff that you don’t see from the outside but that is so crucially important. I worked at an architect’s office for a while and whilst I was working there came across a lot of the materials we now use; a lot of that has informed what we do.

T: For me, I’ve been consumed by the technical side of what we do.

F: Tom is the voice of reason, the sounding board, the balance, and the measured approach. He keeps us grounded. Tom loves systems and everything being streamlined. When he was running the workshop he was constantly dreaming up ways that he could do things faster – to make repetitive tasks quicker and easier. He loves efficiency. He’s also like that with his commute – working out how can he make it as efficient as possible!

Future company direction

T: At the beginning we always assumed HØLTE’s market would be young professionals – maybe first-time buyers. But as the brand has evolved, we now have a lot more customers who could very easily afford a bespoke kitchen. Instead, they’ve realised that they could save a lot of money using an IKEA carcass, and that the end result will look the same.

We’ve also been doing a lot more bespoke work, and we want to develop that. We’re also building up more relationships with architects, and we now have a set of interior designers that we regularly work with. A goal that we have for the future is to become more of a design brand. We’re definitely getting there.

F: There’s brands that we admire and aspire to follow suit, like Vitsoe. At the moment we design a lot of other bits of the house such as shelving, cloakrooms, snugs, studies and bedrooms. We might move into other areas like furniture. We hope that with a well-designed aesthetic, you can branch into other areas of design as well.

Sustainability

F: The biggest topic for me for the last couple of years has been sustainability. Since the beginning, we’ve always upheld an ambition to use the most sustainable and environmentally responsible materials available to us. However, the materials available currently – that meet the requirements of today’s customers – are not very sustainable.

We did an exercise where we calculated the CO2 emissions of all of our products. We spent a year doing the calculations and hounding lots of companies. Although it was quite depressing, it was so valuable in reaffirming something that we already knew – that these materials weren’t great. It’s just amazing how many companies don’t really know the emissions of their products. It means that the issues are quite deep-rooted: if they don’t know their emissions, then how are we supposed to calculate our products’ sustainability?

Add in the fact that the factories that are making materials using fossil fuels and non-renewable energies, and suddenly you see that it’s a gargantuan issue. The depressing point is that fundamentally, a lot of issues are pretty much out of our control.

We’ve come to realise that the future can only really be in the circularity of design, as promoted by The Ellen McArthur Institute. It’s the only way forward, across the whole design industry – from furniture to product to architecture. It’s vital that all of us in design start to think with circularity at the centre.

Future sustainable models

F: All of our research into sustainability means that for us, the future is a freestanding kitchen system.

T: We have a number of big ideas we’re working on to try and make our kitchen system as affordable and accessible as possible. The idea of the kitchen system is that it could be adapted when you move, not ripped out by the next inhabitants. If disposal was necessary, we’re looking at ways to ensure the responsibility for the disposal or the reuse of the materials would be ours – not the consumers.

That’s the dream. We’re very keen to attack it with integrity.