I’m talking to Dave Lyall, co-founder of OPM, as the company relocates to Hammonds Farm.
How far back does your interest in furniture go?
I was 13, working Saturdays with my friend at his father’s repro antiques factory. We got sixpence a strip for making featherbanding for repro furniture. After, my parents pushed me to enrol at the London College of Furniture as their answer to keep me from the Dole, after a stint at sea on a training ship to whip me into shape.
London College of Furniture. A reputation for quality teaching that remains to this day.
Whether you went into the arts, production, designer crafts or went on to work for names like Heals or Habitat, LCF offered a broad brush for learning. When I started there was a change looming from designer crafts into production as they chased university status and it could be said we became the forgotten few only interested in wood rather than production techniques. Certainly, the courses were changing to feed an industry driven by production. We were just a band of brothers/lunatics who wanted to enjoy the arts and be courageous in our passion. LCF allowed us to do that.
Sounds like a romantic period in your life.
Very much. None of us had lived in London before. We secured housing through the GLC and there was a sense anything was achievable. I doubt London is the same for students these days, more’s the pity.
Even in the mid 1980’s, when I first came to London, there was an energy that allowed you to explore and create without the financial burden that has pushed the bar so high for many young people starting out today.
Agreed. After leaving college I worked for Heals in their workshop on Tottenham Court Rd (before it was bought by the lovely Sir Terence). It was your typical male domain where managers wore white coats. There was a buzzer for your tea-break, and I was not cut out for that life for long, but it led me to work for the interior designer, Tim Nicholls, who owned Publisher. He lived in a warehouse on the river in Wapping and I found myself surrounded by artists and sculptures including Peter Milne who would become an important figure in our lives.
David Byers and I already knew each other, having been at the same college. David studied furniture restoration and ended up working for an art dealer in the West End. A world of eccentric characters where pressure was intense when handling priceless antiques and accidents would feel insurmountable; cracking a curved glass on a William and Mary bow fronted cabinet is not a great day at work for anyone. David later went on to work with Peter Milne. So, there we all were – this big crew of people in Wapping.
The early days from being a ‘poor’ creative to a commercial enterprise. Does creativity still underpin today’s philosophy for OPM for quality over quantity?
A couple of days in the week when the latter wins. I would say most days the former is correct yes. We all lived together in an 8-bedroom house for £25 pounds a week, feeding ideas off each other in our work. All good fun.
We went on to buy a house in east London, even though there was no money. The GLC told us how to bid for a dilapidated property so we put in a sealed bid for a building in Stepney Green. Serendipitously we met a gentleman from the Housing Association in the pub the evening before they were due to meet. We got him drunk, and we got the house. This was with David Byers and another Dave nicknamed Benny from a character out of Top Cat. The three of us and Jacks (who became my wife) managed to buy the property and do it up.
It was quite a time. I had started to work for Peter Milne along with David Byers, who was my manager during the day, and I his manager at night whilst we did up the house. That was disastrous, so I moved to Heals and eventually Crown Suppliers (another hotbed of LCF talent) which we now recognise as the CCS (Crown Commercial Services).
So how did Osiris come about? The O in OPM.
I left Crown and set up Osiris in 1985 with 4/5 other guys that grew to 14 guys.
You created a co-operative in some ways?
Co-operative with a small ‘c’. It was led by quality and contribution which lasted, well frankly that last 6 weeks as everyone got at each other’s throats. The ideal was good and what we created worked. A few of the team were bought out and we became a team of 4/5 again, creating a more formal structure with a co-operative philosophy. We took on apprentices, paid everyone well, took holidays.
Is OPM mirroring its early days?
We always sold ourselves on the ability to create one-off’s and anything designers wanted. We would go into a meeting with Gensler, Swanke Hayden and TP Bennett and they could work ‘on the hoof’ creating, designing, coming up with details, and we could design it with them. We would go off; do a drawing and they would sign it off. Often in the beginning they were never signed off – we would just make it.
We had a fantastic reputation for depth of experience and skillsets. Fast forward and we still have the knowledge but one by one our skillsets have moved on, stopped working or work for themselves, which is to be applauded.
Today, we are set up differently from the one-off mindset where we could make things twice if that is what it took – we would not worry about the money – we wouldn’t tell anybody, we would just do it, and everyone got as close to perfection as possible and on time and that’s how our reputation grew.
David and I have been close friends for a very long time now; lived together bought houses together.
At Osiris, we were not commercially driven until we merged with Peter Milne in 2004. They were treading the same path as us. We were coming up against the same tenders, projects and clients and it was uncomfortable. In the space of one year sadly one of my partners Robert died in a ski accident and Peter Milne decided he wanted a change, moving to Barbados. David was left in charge of running Peter Milne Furniture, so he closed the workshop and started to sub out, whilst we still had our workshop.
It became obvious I was not the salesperson when I attended meetings. I would just say yes, come up with a figure and do it. When we merged to become OPM, I gained David’s commercial edge and he acquired our expertise in making furniture. But the world is ever changing so having a workshop with the breadth of skillsets that we need to furnish clients’ buildings has become too expensive and unsustainable, especially within the M25.
You ask me where do I see it going? We have evolved into a company that combines our extensive expertise with a trusted network of artisans who work with us. We have the knowledge of how to get the work done at a highly skilled level, marry them together, make sure they work and deliver the finished work to site.
You are describing a modern twist from where OPM began – retaining craftmanship albeit not under the same roof. Much to celebrate when you describe it like that. There is a market to accommodate and if that can sustain our artisans, I think this is a wonderful story.
If we see this as a route to ensuring we remain competitive whilst keeping specialists going, it’s a good model for us.
Do you have any toe-curling moments you can smile about today?
Many. Shattering a piece of glass, the size of a house, bringing it into a building in Liverpool Street. 6 people and lots of support straps. Someone brushed the corner, and 6 men are left holding fresh air with a pile of glass on the floor.
What do you see for OPM in 2021?
We continued working through 2020 with no issues of ill health for our team – we feel lucky.
The last year has been a wakeup call for many in manufacturing and we continue to change with the times. We see our standard collection as an important foundation to the business. As no two companies are alike, how we tailor our work to meet those changes sits well for interior designers.
The icing on the cake is our new home and the natural landscape of the farm with nature and wildlife going about their business. Lots to be thankful for.
Thankyou Dave. It has been fun listening to your stories, especially the ones I cannot print.
Trudy Martin Brand Ambassador OPM