Diary of a Tile Addict offers me a fantastic opportunity to pay tribute to those individuals who have inspired me throughout my career, and who have made an indelible mark on the UK tile scene.
Paul Portelli is one such individual. He was a man who pursued his passions with skill and vigour; be they vintage Spitfires, astronomy and the Skylon or his retail baby, World’s End Tiles. I enjoyed many long telephone conversations with Paul in his latter years at World’s End, and as he prepared to sell the business.
While always happy to talk about tile design and tile retailing, Paul was prone to wandering a long way off piste; but for the listener these detours were always worthwhile. He was a true visionary and, sadly, died far too young.
There follows an article I wrote about Paul and World’s End Tiles some 17 years ago. Despite the passage of time, his memory burns bright.
World’s End Tiles, founded by Paul Portelli in 1972, has long been regarded as one of the UK’s leading tile retailers and distributors.
The company is rightly renowned for the excellence of its 800 sq. metre showroom in Battersea, which was completely revamped in 1998 on the theme of Time and Space, complete with a model of the Skylon and a specially commissioned mural of the Eagle Nebula by Paul Marks.
In this dramatic space, a broad range of ceramic tiles, mosaics and glass tiles are displayed in a manner designed to fire the imagination of professional designers and the general public alike. Clever juxtaposition of contrasting materials, such as marble and porcelain, gives the showroom a chic contemporary appeal ideally tailored to the demands of the London market. A satellite showroom in Chelsea presents a range of specialist materials and services for the interior designer, including tiles at the cutting edge of ceramic design.
However, World’s End is far more than a tile retailer. The Battersea site has its own manufacturing plant, where bought-in bisque is decorated in the company’s own range of plain colours and patterns, and where bespoke designs and murals are produced for a client list that includes many of the capital’s leading designers and architects as well as top hotel, restaurant, leisure and retail companies. World’s End has an impressive portfolio of housebuilder clients, and also distributes products to a select group of retailers.
The company has a turnover of £14 million pa, roughly 38% retail, 19% specification business from architects and interior designers, 10% distribution and 33% contracts, housebuilders and developers.
With a dedicated staff of 100, led by Managing Director, John Newey, a fully computerised sales and logistics operation, merchandising service and samples library; all housed in a 4,500 sq. metre premises that includes a 24,000 sq. ft warehouse with over £1.3 million of stock across 2,500 lines, World’s End Tiles is a significant player in the UK tile market. This was recognised when the company was one of three world importers to receive the Assopiastrelle Award to Foreign Distributors at Cersaie.
World’s End Tiles remains a family-run company with a strong collective ethos. As well as Chairman, Paul Portelli, tile production is managed by his brother, Tony, while Paul’s daughter, Alex, is involved in marketing, purchasing and showroom design. This ethos is carried into the showroom where a fully equipped café lets customers relax and view the many displays, while their children use the play area.
How did you get involved in tile retailing? Largely by accident. I studied design and technical drawing at college, but found studio life rather tedious. So my then wife and I, with 4 year old Alex in tow, went to live in France for a year, where I went on a Van Gogh pilgrimage, visiting all the sites featured in his paintings. However, I needed to earn a living and talked my way into a job with Gerflor, the resilient floor covering company. This led to opening a flooring shop in World’s End, mainly selling Amtico and Cork-o-Plast, but with a small corner dedicated to tiles, such as Sally Anderson , Kenneth Clark and H & R Johnson. Within a year, the whole equation had shifted and tiles had become the focus.
Were you just a retailer in the early days? No, we were also active in contracting, overseen by my brother Tony. In effect, we offered a supply and fix service to our customers.
What took you into manufacture? The market was very different in 1974. Italian tiles had a very Rococo feel and there wasn’t the breadth of choice available that there is today. While we dealt with some of the best designers and manufacturers in the UK, I wanted to get my own ideas onto tile. At that time, Sloane Street was packed with designers who had blossomed under the tutelage of Lord Kenilworth. We were offering something bold and new, and they simply beat a path to our door. We produced patterned tiles to order to complement fabrics and wallpaper; right down to leopard-skin effects.
Where were your tiles going? All over London, but especially around Chelsea. We did many hotels: The May Fair, The Hyde Park, The Churchill. We were used in top shops like Harvey Nicholls. We had celebrity customers: Gary Glitter, Led Zeppelin, Elton John. You can still see a lot of our 1970’s tiles in houses in Chelsea today. It was a mad time, bloody hard work. I was getting up at 6.00am to make sure tilers were on the job, selling in the shop all day, and then I’d be off estimating every evening.
When did you move to your current site? In the early 1980s. Things were really booming. We had brought the first rapid fire roller kiln into the country and were expanding rapidly. We launched our first exhibition, Sea and Sand, here with arrays of turquoise tiles by Enrico Coveri, a Sally Anderson peacock mural set on pebbles, Punch & Judy show … it was all quite extravagant and great fun.
What were the next landmarks? Through the 80s we expanded distribution, with Hereford making our designs to order and dispatching them around the country. We started making bespoke designs for John Lewis in the mid 1980s and had a good range of regional distributors, such as CTD, taking our tiles everywhere from Wales and Scotland to the West Country. And then came the recession. That completely changed the face of the UK tile industry. Distribution channels were destroyed by the demise of the large importers. We went into December 1989 with an order book worth over £500,000. By the end of February, none of this business had materialised. Building sites just shut down. We very nearly went to the wall. We had to cut staff numbers from 58 to 27. We shoe-horned our second factory in Wandsworth into Silverthorne Road, cutting our rental overheads by £1,000 a week. We were saved by the refurbishment of the Waldorf Hotel and by Danesfield Hotel in the Thames valley. The latter project alone, which suffered two fires during its life, kept 14 hand-painters going for over a year.
What is the current state of the business? Excellent. The retail and house building sides are both performing very well, while the distribution business is steady. We can develop the specification side; I think some architects have a misconception that we are an exclusive retailer not suited to the specification market. However, we are working on this with a new brochure, video presentation and CPD seminars on slip resistance. This side of the business is expanding rapidly. I think it can grow from £2.5 to £10 million within five years. Our 25th anniversary celebration,Time and Space, was a great success – attracting over 700 customers in two days and generating excellent press coverage.
Did you always have a clear vision of how you wanted to display and sell tiles? Yes. I think it comes from my design background I have always tried to differentiate World’s End from the mass. We have spent a lot of time and money creating a strong corporate image. We have always tried to make the showroom inspirational and vibrant, rather than create actual room sets with “off the peg” solutions. I want to give customers the tools and ideas to spark their own imagination.
Do individual tile designs impact on a retailer? Yes, but rarely. In the past 28 years there have been only three or four designs that have really taken the market by storm. We had great success with an 8in by 6in glazed series from Azuvi, and later found one of the first 200 by 250mm marble effect tiles, by Ariana, that sold by the container load for years. The Colori range by Floor Gres is a good current example. But overall, it is more important to have a portfolio that fits your customers. In London, the trend is minimalist interiors with light neutral colours. This makes simulated limestones and light marble effects very appealing. We have been doing very well with Micro Compac; a conglomeration of 97% powdered marble, resin and colouring agents.
‘Only dead fish go with the flow!’ Is that an accurate summary of your philosophy? Up to a point. We certainly seek out suppliers with something different to offer. Cedit, for example, are situated away from Sassuolo and more influenced by the Milanese design culture. It shows in their portfolio. We also deal with many small companies for marble, etc. However, our main suppliers (Marazzi, Rex, Ascot, Floor Gres, Bisazza, etc.) are all innovators. With our track record, we largely avoid the wild west show at Cersaie; running around like mad to find the best ideas before your competitors. The best designs, ideas and products now seem to find their way to us.
Is it important to stay loyal to your suppliers? I believe it is. You need mutual trust and you have to have a good relationship if you are going to exert any design influence. We have worked with some suppliers long enough to sit down with their designers and come up with ideas for the UK market. Events, like our showroom re-launch in January 1998, have really helped our reputation with manufacturers. We want to be the first port of call for any representative flying into Heathrow. We want to see those new concepts first.
How do you keep in touch with design trends? We go to Cersaie, Cevisama and Coverings. The latter can be important because you get to see some of the new designs that will be featured at Cersaie in advance. We also work closely with the writers and stylists on the interiors magazines, such as Wallpaper, so we know what is going to feature well in advance. A great asset is the Chelsea showroom. It’s a design laboratory. It attracts all the interior designers in the area. They are around two years ahead of the consumer market. If they consistently ask for a colour or pattern (currently it is the beige to khaki spectrum), then it is likely to be accepted more generally in the months ahead.
How important is price? Competitive prices are a given; but design and service are more important. Generally, if we get that right we don’t find that people are too interested in discount.
What are your design predictions? I think we will see much larger patterns realised over large surface areas. I don’t think they’ll be bold in colour, but subtle multi-tile patterns across several large format tiles. I also think integral decors will appear more and more on large format wall tiles, minimising the need for special pieces to achieve listello and border effects. But I think the tone will remain neutral and minimalist until the manufacturers work out a direction for tile beyond ever more clever facsimiles of natural products.
What’s your view of the design studios used by Italian and Spanish manufacturers? I think they are the Achilles’ heel of the industry. They are an inverted pyramid. All the manufacturers complain that their ideas are copied within weeks of appearing, yet they entrust so much of their design to the same companies used by their competitors. While I’m sure that the studios are honest in their business practices, it is inevitable that ideas will be recycled. Couple this with the sheep-like mentality of so many companies, and creativity is stifled. Companies away from Sassuolo and Castellon are less frightened of innovation and less intimidated by the competition.
What would be your five top tips to any retailer? 1. Trust your aesthetic judgement. 2. Give tiles room to breath. 3. Empower staff and encourage their creativity. 4. Lead, don’t follow the herd. 5. Enjoy life!
This interview first appeared in Tile UK, Summer 2000.