Selina Denman talks to Martin Waller, who has travelled the distance to make eclectic a household term.
It was 1978 and the UK was in the clutches of its "winter of discontent". Rubbish was piling up in Leicester Square, there were widespread strikes and the dead were going unburied. So Martin Waller, at the tender age of 22, decided that it was a good time to launch an interior design business in Richmond, London. Of course, that business was Andrew Martin, which is now a global furniture brand with 17 stores around the world. But still, one has to wonder what possessed him.
"The confidence of youth, really," Waller says, with a smile. "When you are 22, you know everything that there is to know. Gradually you realise that you know less and less and less. And very soon now, I'm going to know nothing at all."
That Waller ended up in interiors seems almost incidental - it was his love of all things retail that was the driving force behind the launch of Andrew Martin. "I'd always loved shops. It just so happens that I ended up working in interiors. It's probably because in the 1970s I was a really embarrassing dresser, so that closed off fashion."
Waller was inspired by a shop in London called Biba, which was only around for a few years but still managed to achieve semi-iconic status, and by his hero Gordon Selfridge. "He was the greatest retailer ever. Everything you know about shops came from him. 'The customer is always right' - that was his phrase. 'The countdown to Christmas' - that was him. He was the first person to do window displays and keep the lights on at night. He revolutionised stores. Selfridges started in 1908. Today, it gets 17 million visitors a year, which is a lot of people. But even in 1908, before tourism and travel and a much wider demographic of possible customers, he got 12 million customers. Can you imagine what a sensation that was?"
By the mid-1980s, Andrew Martin had moved away from providing interior design services to focusing solely on supplying fabrics, furniture and other items for the home. In the mould of a 19th-century adventurer visiting far-flung lands and bringing back new and exciting treasures, Waller was already travelling the world, buying dhurries and artefacts from India or teak furniture and silk from Thailand. "Who wouldn't want to be Howard Carter or Lord Elgin?" he laughs.
Waller went into China very early, when foreigners were still such a novelty that locals would stand around and stare. He has hunted for mammoth remains in Siberia, although one such adventure resulted in him being arrested at a Moscow airport after a dispute over a baby mammoth skull. And he was the first Englishman for 40 years to visit the Burmese part of Nagaland, a tiny state in the far north-east of India.
"It's a wonderful tribal culture and so full of treasure. I found these wonderful handwoven textiles and beautiful plumed hats. Of course, it was rather complex, because they don't have money; in fact, someone asked me to show them some money because they'd never seen any. Andrew Martin has always had this concept of exploring being at the heart of what we do. To have a mammoth tusk in your home, or Naga hats, or fantastic tribal art from Ethiopia, is a great thing. And it gives me an excuse to go to these places.
"We really developed this idea of fusion interiors - global design informed by cultures from all around the world. We were the antithesis of purity. That 'eclectic' idea, which has become almost a cliché in design, we were really at the forefront of that. Mixing things from different periods and different places and making it illegal for everything to match."
The Andrew Martin look appeals to a wide demographic, says Waller, particularly those between the ages of 30 and 45, who are "well travelled and cosmopolitan". This may go some way in explaining the brand's success internationally - it currently operates eight stores in the US, is present in China, India, Russia and in various markets across Europe, and opened a two-storey, 650-square-foot store in DIFC in 2009.
"The Middle East is an incredibly important region for us," says Waller. "If you are going to be a global brand, this is one of the key markets. We are using Dubai as a cornerstone of our Middle East business and hope to open the first of a couple of stores in Saudi before the end of the year."
Opening his first shop at the age of 22, during a particularly turbulent time in British history, it seems unlikely that Waller could have imagined that he was laying the foundations for a global brand and that his work would take him around the world, hunting for mammoth, meeting indigenous tribes and playing elephant polo. "I've been phenomenally lucky," he says, in typical self-deprecating fashion. "Luck is the most underrated quality in business."
Thirty five years after the launch of Andrew Martin, Waller shows little sign of slowing down. "Everybody wants to be as good as they can be. Everybody wants to fulfil their potential. I started this company 35 years ago but it feels it's only just the beginning. We have a unique opportunity to be a global brand and there aren't many of those in the homes sector.
"I'm a bit of a prophet for how important design is politically but also, on the immediate scale, of how much it affects people's lives. The ability to feel rested and relaxed in your home - that is so important to people's lives. And we so often underestimate that luxury."
Follow us @LifeNationalUAE
Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.