The chairman: the dealer selling CC41 furniture to the famous

James Watkins set out to be a pop star, but instead found success dealing in Second World War utility pieces

It was during his time living in London’s Whitechapel that James Watkins discovered his love for design and vintage furniture. He had a small room in Myrdle Court, a shabby art deco block of flats with curved Crittall windows, that had once been home to the band Bow Wow Wow and the Chapman Brothers. Although he was working as a musician, he realised the importance of his environment. “I thought if I only have space for one chair, I want it to be a good chair, something with a history.”

For the next few years, he spent more time living out of a suitcase and staying in Travelodges than considering interiors while he performed as half of the electro-pop duo Chew Lips. But by 2012 the band came to an end. “We were that mid-afternoon festival band you don’t really listen to.”

Most musicians finding themselves in this situation would maybe consider forming another band, or producing or writing for other artists, but Watkins went a different route. “My sister was obsessed with jumble sales and car boots. Finding I had very little to do on a Saturday morning I’d go with her. She called it scooping – the process of finding great things out of rubbish.” And so Push Pull Vintage, his furniture business, was born. “It started off with small items – a lamp that I thought would be nice in my flat, then I’d find another that I liked. I’d think I don’t need another lamp, but I could do what my sister is doing and sell it online.”

Quickly graduating from lamps and letterpress drawers and focusing on midcentury design, Watkins followed his own tastes, modernist 30s to 50s furniture, scooping up Ercol chairs and, if he was lucky, Eames ones, too.

But it was the CC41 scheme that really caught his eye. “I love it when a piece has a story: people like a story attached to furniture they’re buying.” A government sanctioned utility scheme established during the Second World War, furniture with the CC41 stamp meant it met the government’s austerity requirements. The design team was headed up by Gordon Russell, who went on to become the first chairman of the Crafts Council. “It was basic and built to last, but also beautiful, and opened the door for modernism in this country. Without it we wouldn’t have had Ernest Race melting down plane debris to make his chairs.”

Before long, Watkins was asked by friends to help kit out their new pub. “I didn’t know what I was doing so I was cheeky and pretended I did. It was a huge learning curve. I brought in this delicate 20s cricket bench quickly realising once the staff sat on it that it really wasn’t going to last long in a pub environment.” It was replaced by solid steel hairpin-legged bar stools, bentwood reclaimed table tops and art deco overmantel mirrors. “Once the pub opened I got a lot of positive feedback, people asking if I could source something similar for them.”

Along with many other vintage dealers Watkins took to Instagram. “I realised I’d accidentally started a business,” he says, “so I had to start listing my furniture somewhere. It has been a crucial part of how I started.”

Push Pull Vintage was inundated via its account with requests to help source props for films and TV shows, as well as to furnish showrooms for fashion brands wanting cool ways to display shoes, and of course people just trying to kit out their homes without breaking the bank. He also sources vintage pieces for Soho Home, a homewares offshoot of Soho House, the members’ club and hotel group.

Does he miss the life of a musician? “I think there’s a definite connection between my former life and that of an antiques dealer. I’m still travelling around, being itinerant, in a different place every day going to furniture fairs. We had a rule in the band that we would only stop in M&S service stations – a rule that I still apply now. There’s still that enjoyment of being on the road. I just rarely get to stay in a Travelodge these days.”

Phill Langhorne

The GuardianTramp

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