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Manufacturer Report: David Highley

Thirty or so miles northwest of London lies High Wycombe, about as far as imaginable from the concrete and bustle of the Capital. In the Chiltern Hills, High Wycombe was once the chair making capital of the world – a title held until relatively recently.

01/04/2019 3 min read

The Windsor chair was the most famous product of the trade, one of several different styles of regional chairs, such as the ladder back, which was developed in the 18th century to satisfy the market created by the labouring and artisan classes.

High Wycombe grew from a handful of manufacturers to 150 by 1875, making an estimated 4,700 chairs a day. As tastes changed and production moved both overseas and to other parts of the country, big furniture names left the area, including: G-Plan, Glenisters, Parker Knoll and Ercol. Today, along with Verco and William Hands, Davidson Highley remains one of the high-profile firms still producing world-class products.

When we caught up with Davison Highley, it was clear that not only do they have a proud heritage, they are a modern business with a reputation for handmade quality furniture for the commercial workplace.

The business’ origins were rooted in London as far back as 1929. Founded by Marshal Davison, they moved out of London during WWII and later, under the new leadership of Barry Davison, found their current home in Piddington. So, in 1979 – the year that Margret Thatcher came to the throne – Davison Highley as a brand were born.

For the older readers, the first major piece was in 1981, with the Classic sofa and armchair range bringing together the brand’s upholstery and frame expertise. For many years, Davison Highley were synonymous with individually customer-focused pieces of furniture, making over 70% bespoke pieces, with the remainder being from the standard range. During this period, Toby Davison, son of Barry, was the Production Director. When Toby took over the leadership in 2014 he realised that, to maintain their reputation for craft, they had to ensure their model was commercially fit for the next 40 years, creating a business based on design, price point and sustainability.

Davison Highley spent their time listening to the market, particularly the loyal A&D following, adjusting the range to make it relevant and desirable. They were also perfectly in time to take advantage of the changing nature of the commercial world. Gone were the £1,000 desks and in were beautiful booths and sumptuous fabrics that you would recognise more from the world of hospitality than the workplace.

Whilst Davison Highley were not the only ones to take advantage of the significant shift in workplace design away from ‘hard’ and into ‘soft’, they were sure to move quickly to confirm their market position. Whilst their ‘standard’ range now makes up their majority of production and ‘bespoke’ the smaller percentage, they have made sure they have flexibility through their tailored solutions. Asked for an example, we were told how they reduced the height of their booths by 100mm to fit a client’s office that had a natural level around the entire space.

One of their best selling products is the highsided Skylon work booth, which illustrates the changes in the last five years at Davison Highley.

The company’s products have changed, the workplace has changed and so have their conduit to market; the demographic of the A&D market has also changed, and their knowledge grown exponentially, often being central in choosing fabrics for most pieces. The other key route to market, through dealers, has changed beyond all recognition in recent years, both in terms of their services, their involvement in the process, but also the considered feedback to help product design. We were told to look out for the new Eevie chair and sofa range, which was a direct result of market feedback.

Balance is key to any manufacturing process and Davison Highley are clearly on the side of quality, but at the right price. Getting the right balance between great value products and environmental impact is one for all manufacturing to consider. Davison Highley’s choice of frames is FSC sourced WISA-spruce plywood, giving them both flexibility and strength using robust 18/25mm ply. The choice of metal, when used, is aluminium and their glue is water-based.

Over the years, Davison Highley have built up a supply chain where all their components are sourced from within a 40-mile radius, whilst few companies will be 100% immune from Brexit, Davison Highley have clearly helped their cause from an environmental and transportation cost point of view.

Over the last five years, Toby and the team have built their collection and reputation. Their biggest challenge as a business is being perceived as a high-cost, bespoke manufacturer, when in reality they produce approximately 80% standard and 20% bespoke annually. The next five years may just be the most exciting, as more and more companies realise the true value of this jewel of a family manufacturer in the Chiltern Hills.

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