Sweetpea & Willow - French interiors sourced by an Altrincham couple

Aurora Chesterfield

Aurora Chesterfield - Credit: Archant

Born and raised in Altrincham, Matt Dunton, with his wife Jacqui, founded Sweetpea & Willow and is responsible for furnishing the homes of francophiles far and wide, writes Kate Houghton

Matt & Jacqui Dunton

Matt & Jacqui Dunton - Credit: Archant

Matt Dunton, who attended North Cestrian Grammar School in Altrincham, initially followed a career path very typical of his fellow students: after graduating he headed to the City, where he did just fine as a money-broker, while his graphic designer wife Jacqui pursued her own career.

‘I had always planned to head back to Cheshire when we had a family,’ Matt says. ‘Indeed, many of my friends have done just that and I’ve spent many a weekend in Wilmslow being told what I’m missing. I actually met my wife at a wedding in Mobberley – her best friend married my best friend!

‘In 2006 we bought ourselves a fabulous six-bedroom house in Ealing and then couldn’t afford to furnish it. We found some lovely things at auctions, but on the high street we found they were asking figures like £1,700 for a wardrobe that looked good but was poorly made compared to the pieces we were finding at auction houses.

‘Quite simply: the things we liked we couldn’t afford. We bought and did up a lot of furniture from auctions and friends started asking us to find stuff for them too. We went on a trip to France and found a fabulous mirror, which we lugged all the way home. What with the requests from friends and then this discovery, we had a bit of a light bulb moment and realised that we should perhaps set up for ourselves, importing the furniture from France that everybody admired – the shabby chic style – and running our own business.

‘Initially my wife ran it by herself, but six months in she was getting very busy and our first child was on its way, so I decided to give up work and join her.’

A six-bedroom house (with associated mortgage) a pregnant wife and a fledgling business and he throws in a well-paid job? That’s the Cheshire in him coming out!

Matt laughs: ‘Maybe. I’d never owned my own business before and of course it proved to be a spectacularly bad time to launch anything new, but we’ve grown all through the recession and I think that actually makes us stronger.

‘Eight years ago the online retail scene was very much in its fledgling stage. Nowadays people choose names that garner Google’s attention, but we wanted a name that was different and didn’t pigeonhole us. We sat with friends and threw ideas around and settled on Sweetpea & Willow. It’s flattering, if frustrating, that quite a number of businesses have since copied us – both in terms of name type and offering, but we choose to ignore it, evolve and move on.’

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Sweetpea & Willow began to really take off once Matt had built a strong UK supplier list and was able to tap into their stock systems. They soon began to sell in volume, with people furnishing entire rooms at a time, and in 2008 Paypal (a gift to online retailers) marked them as one of the fastest growing businesses in the UK.

Sweetpea & Willow today is a very different business to even a few years ago. No longer a purely online retailer, they have a vast and glorious showroom in West London and have launched their own range of bespoke, hand-made furniture all designed and made in England: Handmade in London.

‘We don’t hide behind a website – we’re a bricks and mortar business and anybody can come and see our ranges. We offer a very consultative approach; visitors can enjoy a glass of Prosecco or a cup of coffee and browse to their heart’s content, flick through our design books or spend time with one of our staff planning what they need.

‘We really do see all sorts here, from UK families to Arab sheiks, interior designers to celebrities. There have been occasions when we’ve opened specially for UAE princesses, who come with their own bodyguards and love to spend. On one occasion I popped out for a sandwich and when I came back James Bond was waiting outside!’ It was Timothy Dalton. Had it been Daniel Craig I suspect every female member of staff would have been climbing over Matt to get to him.

Sweetpea & Willow has evolved into considerably more than the French shabby chic furniture supplier they started out as. They now source furniture and accessories in seven countries and launched Handmade in London, which, as the name says, is all made to order in London. With its cleaner lines and timeless style, it’s a perfectly British foil to the original Gallic inspiration.

‘We work with some of the best brands in Europe, but offer something for everybody,’ says Matt. ‘You can buy everything from a £15 candle to a £50,000 Fornisetti collectible, but whatever we choose to stock we stick to the ethos that drove us when we founded Sweetpea, which was to supply quality items that were value for money.’

And with that he’s off to accept another of the daily deliveries of fabulous fabrics, beautiful furniture and wonderful accessories that make a wander round their website, and their showroom, such a joy.

It’s pretty unlikely he’ll ever make it back to Cheshire, now that his business has concrete roots in London, but as long as it remains his spiritual home, I think we can continue to claim him as another Cheshire success story.w


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