Monday, 12 March 2012


The Alfred Dunhill factory in Walthamstow, East London, employs several master craftspeople. Rick Read is one of them. Above the main factory floor, in a quiet, well lit room, Rick creates bespoke items of great beauty.

Rick, who hails from south of the River Thames, has worked for Alfred Dunhill for ten years. He started his career in 1966, since when he has created products for the likes of Tanner Krolle and Chanel. Rick served his apprenticeship at Marshall and Company. He explains that company's demise, "they did desk sets and the like. Since desk sets have fallen by the wayside, so have they. More's the pity."

With companies such as Marshalls going out of business and the likes of Tanner Krolle being brought out (by Alfred Dunhill), many of the employees at Alfred Dunhill have worked for a variety of household names. It strikes me as being a very similar story to that which I heard at Globe-Trotter.

We talk to Rick about some of the items he has made over the years. He tells us of his pride at seeing Tanner Krolle briefcases still being used by business people on the tube. The items he makes are made to last.

The reason that the items which Rick and his colleagues make last so long is the attention to detail and understanding of materials. Rick talks us through the prototyping process, where items are mocked up in a cheap material called 'salpa'. "It’s very cheap, you can make the job up, get the proportions right, send it back to the designer, they can draw on it, cut it, do whatever. We’ll probably do another in salpa to check it’s right. Then we’d do one in old leather before the final one in proper leather."

The proper ones are very impressive. Flawless leather goods that are the result of Alfred Dunhill's exacting standards in materials, the craftsman's skill and understanding the customer's needs. Rick tells us about a recently made alligator skin wallet: "It came out so well… It’s like anything you do, if you make the smallest mistake, you’re doing some decorating indoors say, your eye goes to it (the mistake) straight away. This wallet… it was pukka! Spot on. So good he (the customer) wants another one."

While leather goods continue to attract healthy sales, other items no longer have the relevance that they used to. "There were 300 craftsmen making pipes at one point here. You used to go to the football years ago and everyone would be wearing a cap and smoking a pipe!" The pipe business does still exist, under the name White Spot.

Conversation moves on to apprenticeships and education. "All the guys downstairs are all long serving, it’s very hard to get anyone new to do crafts," Rick tells us, "I think the reason is that it costs a lot of money to train someone up and there’s nothing to tie them to that company. They could finish their apprenticeship and go ‘I think I’ll try this on my own’. They could take their skills away. It’s up to the company to make it worthwhile staying."

Rick tells us that he is to retire in a couple of years. They are already looking for his replacement - it is a long process to find the right person. "People want the big bucks. If you go on to an apprenticeship you need to be prepared to be on a low income," Rick says. The person in question would need to 'gel straight away' in the small workshop that Rick shares with Tomasz Nosarzewski (who has taken up a kind of residency over the last year or so at Bourdon House, Dunhill's Mayfair HQ in order to bring the craft closer to the consumer). "They don't need great skills," Rick continues, "it's just a particular fit."

I suggest that it could be tough to find that elusive person, what with the required skills not being taught in schools as they used to be. Rick nods. "The school I went to – there was a drawing office, there was a metal workshop, a wood workshop, a forge… all of these things pushed you in that direction if you weren’t academic. But to do this you have to know drawing, you have to know measurements… you need to know quite a bit before you can actually put those skills in to the hands and do the job."

We talk about the difference between making and designing. "There was a college in Hackney, Cordwainers. But it has moved more towards design… everyone wants to be a designer you know? Design to me... ideas just keep coming around and around. The amount of times I hear someone say ‘oh, we’ve got a great idea, look at this’ and I think ‘oh yeah’ (Rick rolls his eyes) … ‘I think that’s in the cupboard at the bottom!’ These things, they come around, get tweaked up." He has a point.


All photos by Robin Mellor