- Master upholsterer Bob Fowlds on his specialised family business, and how despite changing times, they still run everything
much the same as 90 years agoWords Stephanie Kukulka
Photography Liz SeabrookAbove: Larry at his workstation
I meet with Bob Fowlds amidst England’s coldest April for 60 years; he immediately ushers me over to the workshop’s iron coal burner, and offers me a cup of tea. Whilst my extremities defrost, Bob launches into a passionate recollection of the surrounding area’s history: “Camberwell was full of people making things,” he tells me, “next door was a tie manufacturers”. Back then everything could be – and was – sourced and produced locally. Mass production and international importing weren’t issues, meaning there was a thriving specialist craft industry.
Bob nostalgically recalls his grandfather’s relatively small workshop bustling with fifteen or so workers – seamstresses, polishers, drivers, upholsterers. But now there’s just two of them – Bob and Larry – plus a part-time seamstress who works on an antique Singer sewing machine that dates back to 1914, and still “works like a dream”.
AV Fowlds & Son Ltd moved into their current workshop in 1926, though prior to that, they had multiple workshops and retailers dotted around London. Now, solely based in Camberwell, South London, their upholstery workshop presents as if stuck in a post-war time warp. Dust collects around tools no longer required, but essential to the feeling of home; receipts pinned to the walls have a yellow discolouration, but bare the hand-writing of beloved past-colleagues; a manual button press stands as if still in regular use, with aluminum backs and fabric circles at the ready; and fabric rolls casually lean on each other, tired, but comfortable.Without a single Apple product in sight, and minimal changes to the century-old procedure of production, the workshop still operates on a full-time basis, with Bob recalling his admittance into the family business at age 17. Smiling widely, he says “It’s satisfying making something with your hands, you have something to show for your efforts when the job is done.” It’s not an easy job Bob – you need to have a good understanding of shape and form, structure and depth; you need to be a tailor, a carpenter, a problem solver, and an artist.
Above: Button machine
While tradition is embedded into the business, Bob states, “I’m not opposed to modernising.” Bob and Larry laugh when reminiscing about using tacks and magnetic hammers before the introduction of staple guns in the 60s – “We used to keep a dozen or so tacks under our tongues and spit them onto the magnetic hammer. It saved time you see.” While stapling a new teal fabric to a sofa’s skeleton, Larry casually adds “Yeah, it wasn’t unusual to find a few rogue tacks in my mouth on the bus ride home.” Although the majority of jobs are now done with the use of a staple gun – improving efficiency and hygiene – you still have the occasional antique dealer specifying the use of tacks.
Larry is carefully restoring a twin-seat sofa, which was first brought to them to be restored 20 years ago by the same owner. When furniture grows old and tired, Bob is aware that nowadays it’s often cheaper, and easier, to replace the entire piece rather than reupholster. Scambling around his office, Bob digs out a picture of the store front from the early 1920s displaying a sale sign advertising “6 dining chair, 2 chairs, and 1 chaise lounge for £6.19”.
But that’s times a’ changin’ for you: the dilemma is how you change with it, without changing too much, for the enchantment of this place most definitely lies amidst its traditions and old treasures, those largely being Bob and Larry themselves.Top left: AV Fowlds as it appears from the outside
Bottom: AV Fowldes is a member of the Association of Master Upholsterers
AV Fowlds, 3 Addington Square, London SE5 7JZ
Subscribe to Port Magazine annually and receive each issue to your door.Get PORT in print