Graham and Brown - the wallpaper hailing from Blackburn as seen on many a Hollywood movie set
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 May 2013 | UPDATED: 23:23 23 October 2015
Wallpaper spotted in Hollywood movie sets and gracing the US home of The Kardashians comes all the way from Lancashire. Sue Riley reports
Ian Brown still remembers the day when he saw his father’s wallpaper on a television advert during Coronation Street. That was over 40 years ago and now Graham & Brown wallpapers can be seen everywhere - from television shows like the Kardashians to shop windows promoting Louis Vuitton luggage and even in Jennifer Aniston’s bedroom in Hollywood movies.
How things change. Yet, one constant is that the business is still based in exactly the same spot in Blackburn as it was when Ian’s granddad Henry Brown set it up with Harold Graham just after the Second World War.
These days it straddles the Leeds Liverpool Canal with the factory on one side and the new design centre and office space on the other. The business is now a £100 million operation and, charmingly, the grandsons of the founders still run it. Each year, they produce enough wallpaper to go around the globe six times.
Chief Executive Andrew Graham, 42, and Ian Brown, who heads up the distribution, started in the business more than 20 years ago working their way up to their present positions.
For much of that time they worked alongside their fathers who retired seven years ago. Always on the lookout for new ideas they have introduced wall canvasses, easy hanging paper where you paste the wall and not the paper, signed an exclusive deal with Disney to produce goods for their European and Australian markets, expanded into overseas markets and, by the time you read this, they will have just opened in Cairo and Dubai with plans to continue their expansion into China, the Middle East and plans to target South America.
In the past three years they have increased their overseas sales by 50% but that still only accounts for a fraction of their annual turnover as at least half of what they make is still sold in the UK.
They’re proud to be based in Blackburn and employing 400 people in the area. When they held an Expo last year clients from across the world attended the event at their east Lancashire HQ, admiring the life-size Marcel Wanders’ horse (it’s a lampshade) in the reception and eating Lancashire hotpot. Their business cards boast ‘Graham & Brown - Amsterdam Hamburg Lille Moscow New York Shanghai Toronto Blackburn’. Says Ian: ‘Blackburn helped set up G& B and now Blackburn needs a leg up like a lot of northern towns.’ As part of that they have linked up with local secondary schools to show the pupils that there can be a career in art and what they can achieve if they work hard. Andrew is also chairman of the Blackburn Youth Zone charity which he says is about ‘challenging and inspiring young people’. He says: ‘Any young person in Blackburn could start a business with real world class credentials.’
Both men insist that although they use the values of a family business the firm is run by a management team of seven. Both men have three children and they stress that if any of them want to come into the business it will be on merit. ‘There’s no room for nepotism,’ warns Andrew. And that echoes the message seen by everyone who walks into the offices on a daily basis, ‘You don’t have to have a ‘Graham’ or ‘Brown’ in your name to succeed in this firm’ is the theme.’ That may be the case but Ian and Andrew still retain their grandfathers’ values, particularly about how some wallpapers should also be functional..
Andrew says the key is to be fashionable and innovative. Their designs in recent years, working along established figures like Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, Kelly Hoppen, Steve Leung and Barbara Hulanicki, have led to them being included in the CoolBrands book for the past three years, alongside names like Aston Martin and Apple. ‘People will buy into good design, but it needs to be affordable,’ said Andrew. Their five staff designers also have online access to the 30,000 designs in their archive - many done by the company’s first designer Donald Lowe - but are always on the lookout for new ideas. Ian said one famous design was inspired by a toilet seat, but gave no more details! Another which Ian, 47, points to in the archive was a tapestry by his mother.
Last year the firm saw its highest ever profits, but both men agree the business will have to work harder. Says Ian: ‘We will move a lot faster in the next 10 years then we have in the last 60.’
You wouldn’t put anything past them - they really are on a roll.