The revival of British heritage interiors brand Warner House
- Credit: Refinery Photography Manchester
Cheshire's Lee Clarke, of Clarke & Clarke renown, has taken Warner House, the heritage brand with a Royal Warrant, and crowned it with a vibrant new future... all from a converted church in Wilmslow
Does the name Lee Clarke ring any bells? If you’re an interiors fan, it should. Lee and his wife Emma were the brains, passion and brilliance behind Clarke & Clarke, the fabrics, wallcoverings and home accessories firm that from its founding in 2000 swiftly became the go-to brand for quality, innovation and style. Clarke & Clarke fabrics travelled the globe, setting out from a design studio in Wilmslow. In 2016, Sanderson Design Group took Clarke & Clarke into its portfolio. Now Lee has launched his new business, Warner House, by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with a heritage dating back centuries.
‘When I sold Clarke & Clarke to Sanderson, I was 46 years old and definitely not ready to retire,’ Lee says. They asked me to stay on for a couple of years, which I did – after all Clarke & Clarke was my baby and I did find it hard to let go, but there came a point when I just knew it was time to move on. It was only a matter of days before I realised I needed something in my life to replace Clarke & Clarke; I need to accomplish something, to set myself a challenge, I need that buzz in my life, hard work – I need to earn the weekend.’
It’s a trait shared with most of Cheshire’s most successful entrepreneurs: the doing is as vital to enjoying life as the arriving.
‘The only thing I’ve known since leaving school is textiles and interior design,’ Lee says. ‘And everything I learned at Clarke & Clarke and with Sanderson showed times are a-changing; more and more people are happy to choose designs and buy online. Is selling fabric through retail shops still the right model – the model for the future? I think it will always be there, but more and more I think there’s a place for digital.’
Why, then, Warner House? It's in no way a contemporary brand. Not at all modern or disruptive.
‘I have always fancied an old, heritage brand. I love that country hotel look, I love chintzy florals, I love the mish-mash of designs and clashing patterns. I love the maximalist movement; all the layering, the pattern on pattern, the matching wallpapers, curtains and sofa, and I’m passionate about textiles and fabrics and wallpapers. I’m a bit of a fabric geek I suppose and have always appreciated that style but never had the vehicle for that look and level. So this was my opportunity to try and find a brand that could provide that.’
The opportunity came through a casual conversation with one of Lee’s many industry contacts, Andreas Zimmer, owner of Zimmer + Rohde, founded in 1899 and now one of Europe’s largest textile manufacturers.
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‘I knew Andreas had bought Warner 10 years ago, but nothing seemed to be happening with it, so I asked what his plans were. He admitted he really didn’t know what to do with it – with five brands of his own and potential clashes. I asked if he would be interested in selling to me, and he said yes. It was really just the brand name and its heritage, and a very small archive. It had been run down so much it was almost dormant. I remember back in the 1980s and early ’90s when Warner was a powerhouse in textiles – a really prominent brand. I even remember my sister having it in her hallway – this big trompe l’oeil design – and I loved it then. It was such an exciting opportunity, not to mention the history; Warner provided the silk for every Coronation since 1932, were the holder of a Royal Warrant since 1938, supplied fabrics to The Titanic, The Queen Mary, the White House, Buckingham Palace... and on and on and on. It was like, wow, what have I got here, this is just incredible – and what a shame that it has almost disappeared.’
The original Warner Textile Archive, of around 100,000 designs, had been sold in 1993 to Braintree Museum District Trust, where visitors can browse designs from a brand with its roots in the late 17th century.
‘We own about 1,000 original Warner designs,’ Lee says, ‘which is more than enough. This is my skill – I can look at designs and know what colours to produce them in. I know the market inside out, I know the customer; I know exactly who my customer is and what they like and what they don’t like. It's not a new skill; it’s what I built Clarke & Clarke with. I absolutely lived and breathed that brand and that’s what I do now with Warner House.’
What’s also clear is Lee has an absolute passion for the business. He knows the archive backwards; he’s thrilled with the brand’s history and delighted it’s back in English hands.
‘What I am doing is taking an old brand that has previously only been sold in an old-fashioned, laid-back way through interior designers and bringing it right to the forefront, making it accessible. Back in the day Warner was classed as very high-end, but today the price points bring it within reach of a far wider audience, and the way you can shop it, via the website, means you can buy direct, or if you don’t feel comfortable with that, via an interior designer. Longer term we plan to have a place where people can come and look and touch and experience the brand, definitely a location here in Cheshire and another in London, but for now, it’s all online.’
Online only it might be, but Lee’s commitment to those happy to shop digitally has resulted in a gorgeous website, packed with inspiration and with every aspect of a room scheme’s design considered, from paint (in shades inspired by silk yarns held in the Warner House archive) to fabrics (indoor and outdoor), to cushions to lampshades to chairs, sofas, and even headboards. Many of the patterns feel familiar, perhaps embedded in our British design DNA, while others exude a new expression of delight in the maximalism trend. As websites go, this is a honeypot of pleasures for the homeowner, without doubt.
It seems for British interiors brands the time is right to bring their centuries of passion and brilliance in design back to the British home and Lee Clarke is leading the charge – and all from a converted church near Wilmslow.