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Timothy Oulton on 1880: "There's no such thing as work-life balance"

Antique fantastic

Timothy Oulton describes his interior design process for 1880, a private members club launching here in June

Timothy Oulton should be shot.

It's his 13th year showing at the International Furniture Fair Singapore, which he continues to return to even after his self-proclaimed ban years ago. "I said if I do more than 10, shoot me," he recalls, laughing. "I should be shot by now."

Wild-haired and open-necked, the British furniture designer is sitting at a long dining table in Singapore Expo, which is swarming with professionals and aficionados of the design industry. After passing by new releases from d-Bodhi, Nathan Yong, Cappellini and Journey East, Timothy Oulton's heritage-inspired collections show up in all their elegance, or what he calls "genuine, humble luxury". While he's no stranger to the Singapore market (his presence was first seen in a store along Kim Yam Road, and now retails at CuriO in Dempsey), our conversation steers towards something novel: The design of 1880, a private members club. Due to open in June this year, the 22,000 sq ft space sits on the third floor of The Robertson Quay Project, a building made from the redevelopment of the existing Gallery Hotel and the Quayside retail podium.

Members' lounge in 1880
Joining Oulton in 1880's meeting of minds were founder Marc Nicholson (also behind Truefitt & Hill in Singapore), CEO Luke Jones, developer RB Capital and bar consultancy group Proof & Company. Other individuals involved in the lifestyle programming include chef Colin Buchan (formerly from Pollen), head bartender Rusty Cerven (from The Connaught Hotel in London) and director of music Aldrin Quek (from Zouk). Its formula intends to provide members with the basics of what you'd expect from a members club, and more: A social and co-working space (which is interesting and targets women), a concierge, and a platform for investment and enrichment opportunities.

As their first co-working space, the project was a massive deal for Oulton's studio arm that focuses on interior design. Past projects have included a residential and restaurant space in London, as well as a showroom in China for a shoe brand. From a conversation that started back in 2013, Oulton's task was to make 1880 look epic. Marble was used to make up the central spine of the space, with the rest of the floor loaded on crystals and leather, a material the brand is best known for. A wine cellar was going to be fitted in burnt wood and brass, while rotating pods were proposed in gaucho leather. For some breathing space, a lounge at the outdoor terrace was to fashion a birdnest-like setting. Enter the club via an escalator in a kaleidoscope tunnel, and a reception made out of a lump of rock crystals is there to emanate good energy. "Stroke it when you come in and leave," Oulton gushes. "Your hair gets better, you teeth get whiter genuinely medically proven."

Tasked to transform the club from day to night, Oulton's team of nine also created a Star Trek-like transformation: Chandeliers were designed to come out of the ceilings and curtains to drop to prep the bar for a night of indulgence. Unfortunately (or fortunately), fans of Oulton's aviation-inspired pieces will be disappointed as 1880 won't see hints of them. "That has been so copied now," laments the designer. "It doesn't really mesh with the 1880 concept, that's slightly more feminine, more glam, and more romantic."

Sketches of the wine cellar in 1880, with proposed materials of burnt wood and brass

What do you look for when you look for a partner such as 1880?
People who live the same lifestyle as we do, with an outlook and a curiosity. An international tilt to it, because no one seems to be based anywhere anymore. Marc's vision was to do something that really up ended the typical old private members club. That sounded really interesting for us, because you don't want to get stuck in the past.

You started around antiquing, though — something old.

Antiques are not interesting on their own. You have to make them relevant, and that's what we do. I had 1,200 antique teapots, and we have this huge bar made out of teapots. That's making them relevant. Because a teapot on its own is not interesting. When you have 400, oh that's interesting! I've been buying them for years and I didn't know what to do with them.

Vintage teapots that make up the bar in 1880
When did you first start collecting antiques and going around flea markets?
Since I was 18. I still go to the flea markets now, but not like I used to. We have people to do that for us.

Any interesting finds recently?
We found this town in China where all these rock crystals are from. They've not been repurposed; they're directly from the ground. They've had it for eight years. Seven tonnes of rock crystal. I haven't told my accountant yet [that I bought them], he won't be very happy because I have no use for them.

You also once bought 2,000 100-year-old French oak doors.
Yeah, my accountant wasn't very happy. We did a lobby with them. Some of them were about 20, 30, 100 quid. Doors as tables have been done to death, innit? This is what I mean by making antiques relevant. Each door on its own is not interesting, and together they're not that interesting, but when you offset them and put a $5 light behind them, that's a great space.

Speaking of furnishing finds, is there something you've seen in other members clubs around the world that you'd like to adapt to 1880?
Looking at the income, 1880's like Soho House. They're the go-to model for private members clubs, but we didn't want it to look like that. It's going to be more epic. They're cool as hell — I've been to the one in New York — but we're going to use more natural materials, have more volume, be more in your face and more stimulating. Marc and Luke talk about collisions, so it's a space where people can collide. 

1880

Having had a presence in Singapore for quite some time, what do you admire about the city?
You're very lucky, you lot. I only come once a year so this time the taxi took me around the back, and I went pass the docks — they were a bit empty. I asked the taxi driver why there were no containers and he said they're moving the docks. What? No other country would just f*cking move their docks. He was saying like it was nothing. I like Singapore. It's global, cosmopolitan and young. Whatever anyone thinks of the government, it works. Sh*t gets done here and that impresses me.

Have you been inspired by Singapore so far in your work?
I'm gonna move my docks over (laughs). Architecturally, I love The Warehouse Hotel. I've been walking past that building for 13 years, thinking, 'oh that's a pretty little building'. They've done a beautiful job. I had a quick look through the window but the security guy was like, 'bugger off'.

You didn't go inside?
It was 5 in the morning. Big fat sweaty guy from England? No. (laughs)

Luxury keeps getting redefined, and you've spoken about "humble" luxury and "casual" luxury. What does luxury mean to you right now?

Well, luxury for luxury is the same. It's not interesting. It's not about elitism. I don't like the discussion some luxury brands have when they say 'should we charge $5,000 or $15,000?' — that doesn't work to me. Some of our stuff is $15,000 because it's [made of] 7,000 crystals. So of course that's luxury. But that's what I call genuine humble luxury. It's all in the materials so there is no trick. Intrinsic value versus relative value. We'd like to think that you can buy our stuff, use it for five years, sell and get your money back or a profit. It's not fake luxury where you just make a price up.

Bardo, the co-working space in 1880

What were the challenges you faced in this project, seeing as it's your first co-working space?
We've learnt quick. The workspace is different from a breakout space. A breakout space is what we have been known for because of our type of furniture, but now we are learning both disciplines. Marc and Luke are calling it Bardo. It's a Tibetan word that means 'intermediate state', just below heaven, limbo — an idea of blending work in.

Do you have a work-life balance?
There's no such thing. It's just life, and work has to fit in with that, and you have to love both of them. It's a sh*t word. It's only one thing, f*cking life!

For more information on 1880, click here

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  • Image: Timothy Oulton, 1880

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