Made in Lancashire - The Surface Print Company

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 August 2015 | UPDATED: 15:39 21 October 2015

Bead design

Bead design

Archant

Innovative wallpapers manufacturers in Clayton-le-Moors are supplying Buckingham Palace, writes Martin Pilkington. Photography by Kirsty Thompson

Abigail Watson (Sales Director), John Watson (Chairman) and James Watson (Managing Director)Abigail Watson (Sales Director), John Watson (Chairman) and James Watson (Managing Director)

Clayton-le-Moors may seem a slightly unlikely hub of the interior decoration world, but The Surface Print Company’s factory there manufactures wallpaper for top names around the world – their beautiful products even adorning rooms in Buckingham Palace and The White House.

John Watson founded the company in 1990, having previously run Crown Wallpapers in Darwen. His father and grandfather worked in the same industry, and now his son James is Managing Director, daughter Abigail Sales Director. Their mother Julia has retired from her career as a lawyer, but still fills an HR role in the family business. It’s in the blood.

‘Darwen was the origin of and main area for this technique of surface printing, which really came out of Lancashire’s textile industry. It was an offshoot of calico printing, some of the machines are very similar to the old calico print ones,’ says John, now company Chairman.

‘The technique was developed in 1838 in Darwen,’ says Abigail. ‘And now we’re one of very few companies left in the world that can offer this lovely hand-painted effect.’

A walk around the extraordinarily clean factory shows that the family is keen to make the most of new technologies too. ‘We’ve got some 100-year-old surface print machines made of cast iron, they can never be replicated as nobody is building things like that any more, and in the next room there’s a digital machine that’s only months old, an investment of £500,000,’ says Abigail. That new machinery allows them to do shorter production runs for some very high-end clients.

It creates a near photographic appearance, but the company has invented new techniques and looks of its own over recent years. ‘Holographic wallpapers are something we created, printing onto a foil which gives a really stunning 3D effect, and we make papers with beads on the surface. We’re known as being innovators. And about eight years ago we brought flock back into fashion,’ she adds with a smile – that department is currently running 24 hours a day. Their flock, however, is rather different - a very sexy black-and-white zebra print.

Wallpaper is largely a misnomer these days. The vast majority of designs are printed onto non-woven material. Surface Print has its own design facilities, but generally customers provide their own. ‘They bring the designs to us, we’ll have a design meeting, rollers are engraved, and once those are with us we’ll sample the product. We have a proofing department with mini-machines to do samples before a full-scale run,’ she explains.

The company is thriving, employing 100 people and last year selling more than a million rolls to take its turnover to £10 million, an impressive 15 per cent up on the previous year. Abigail can reel off a list of major names as customers - Ralph Lauren, Liberty’s, Mulberry, Cath Kidston (they’re her oldest supplier), Jane Churchill, Designers Guild... Plenty more equally significant partners can’t be mentioned because of confidentiality agreements.

Such recent success has been helped by designers turning away from the minimalist-white-everywhere look, instead going for more flamboyant styles and colours. Abigail declares: ‘All that plainness is a thing of the past.’

She’s says the single biggest factor in their success is a highly skilled workforce. ‘People such as Print Manager Keith Fenton, who’s been in the industry 40 years. It’s work that needs a trained and skilled eye, especially for colour matching. We’re keen to train up the younger generation and keep the surface print technique going, so we’ve got apprentices here, and have developed links with local colleges.’

Abigail attends trade fairs for the company in New York, Paris, and London, and visits customers as far afield as Spain, Italy and Japan. Seeing wallpaper constantly you’d maybe imagine she’d want to escape it at home. But like the rest of her family she’s passionate about the product. ‘I’ve even wallpapered part of the garage!’ she confesses.

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