If you were to drift through the Theo Fennell storefront all the way to the upstairs studio, you may find yourself ogling at silverware by the bushel and ornaments fit for the parlours of Gallic royalty. You may also catch a glimpse of a pair of brooches emblazoned with the faces of Henry VIII and Elvis Presley, the two kings of varying qualities; custom-made plectrums for the guitarist Slash; and mock-ups of a ring that’s festooned with a miniature replica of Stonehenge. It is an other-worldly place, a singular place, one whose famed offbeat, one-of-a-kind portfolio is offset by more restrained, simple, but equally accomplished, pieces.
To offer a degree of insight as to what informs his eponymous company’s designs, Theo Fennell, 70, one of the world’s leading creators of jewellery and silverware, expounds on his idea of what makes an extraordinary item. “I think it's about time and lack of boundary”, he says. “So using the very, very best material that complements the idea and the piece. Not necessarily the most expensive materials, because, for instance, I'm sure there are all sorts of incredibly expensive leathers that don't suit a pair of walking shoes. But, if you said, the very best leather made by the very best craftsperson to fit you perfectly. Also to use the knowledge, the experience, the talents, the skills of people using these materials without any kind of time or, I say, financial constraints. Gradually learning about these skills just adds to the whole sense of occasion and ownership you know [about the] material, that it’s come from a certain place, and how it's all been put together. I think that is really the essence of luxury.”
Situated in West London, but with a global reach, Mr Fennell’s brand celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and within that colourful period he has come to work with celebrated clients such as model Naomi Campbell and Elton John; he’s seen his company taken over by private equity firms, before his eventual buy-back last year; and there have been madcap creations such as an ashtray with Winston Churchill’s bald head at its centre, a white-gold charm bracelet that doubles as a nappy rash cream holder, and chess sets featuring game birds in silver and gilt. But Mr Fennell’s creative verve first took shape at art school, which, he says, was “very kind of traditional, but fantastic.”
“So you did a bit of lettering”, Mr Fennell continued, “a little bit of perspective, a little bit of sculpture, a little bit of commercial design. You learned some really interesting skills, and skills that really helped going forward.
“I just knew very much I wanted to produce something from nothing as it were. Because creativity always seemed like an extraordinary chemistry. And I really like the idea of it being something that lasted… I just always liked nice things. I loved suitcases that were mid-19th century. Suitcases just got better as they got older, and you got this patina.
“I know that I liked working in a small scale. And I knew that I liked etching, I liked drawing small things. I thought perhaps [I could be an] illustrator or something of the sort, but I wasn’t really good enough.”
Still, Mr Fennell knew that he “had some kind of voice”. Serendipitously, a traditional apprenticeship at storied British silversmiths Edward Barnard and Sons gave Mr Fennell a place where he could amplify it.
“It began [with] sweeping the floor, doing whatever it is, I think it was thought of as being good for your soul, [to] get you sort of imbued with the ideas of that business… it was a very decent place and had huge respect for its workforce and for its craftspeople.”
Then came the proverbial lightbulb moment for Mr Fennell, when all the opulent objects and grand curios came through the shop door, from the FA Cup to the Wimbledon trophies.
“Seeing all the stuff coming in for repair… [there was this] sort of talismanic quality. You just thought ‘I can barely touch this’ because it's got all these heroic names on them. Jesse Owens’s gold medal came in; it was like a relic. And so I found a kind of heft to these things. We’ve all seen silver, we’ve all seen silver stuff, and you see people holding up trophies, but I never really thought ‘how's it made? how’s it designed?’”
Awed by the breadth and depth to the vocation and the items at the heart of it, Mr Fennell was finally sent down to the workshops, typically a prohibited area, and saw a “place that was absolutely extraordinary.”
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Lumps of metal! Candelabra!” he says. “It was magical.”
Moreover, Mr Fennell was touched by a sense of admiration and respect for those within the company: “What was amazing was that not only were these people incredibly skilled, but very modest with their skills,” he says. “They were fantastically collective in their behaviour and their appreciation; there was somebody who milled it [the metal] out and that raised it out; somebody who engraved it; somebody who polished. It really appealed to me, and nobody was more important than anybody else. So there was a collective responsibility… just an acute act of civilisation.”
However, realising the limits of working within a traditional institution (you had to do your time until around the age of 45 before you could become part of the board and receive a share of the profits, says Mr Fennell) and taking his cues from the self-employed craftspeople in the surrounding area of Clerkenwell, Mr Fennell went solo, renting a small studio that had an adjoining workshop with three people: “And I said [to the craftsmen], I’ll design some things, you make them, we’ll see what happens, and that's really kind of how it started.”
In the decades since, Mr Fennell has turned heads for his aforementioned unorthodox designs – from a ring topped with a bijou colosseum, to a Marmite lid in sterling silver – as well as his unfussy pieces, including bangles in gold, and sapphire pendants made in the shape of a love heart: “My joy has always been to do both: to sit down and do a really simple three-stone ring for somebody [and] add some things that are hardly visible; or go mad and do things that open up.”
To generate such an array of designs, it is apparent Mr Fennell finds potential inspiration floating around anywhere: “I've always had these sort of eclectic interests, and really eclectic. It’s not everything in one go – but it can come from anywhere. It can be historic, it can be a fairground, it can be a little artefact, it can be a song. You can suddenly get into a country and western moment and find yourself thinking of what a cowgirl would wear.”
Yet, anchoring all his products has been the idea to create something that evokes a deep, weighty feeling within the client, one that Mr Fennell has felt (and has witnessed others feel) when visiting museums: “When you see somebody looking at jewellery at, say, The British Museum or the Louvre, there's a kind of oh-my-god-come-look-at-it moment, because the whole thing is humming with feeling.”
After over two decades of providing their customers with such slack-jawed moments at their flagship on Fulham Road, in London, Mr Fennell and his team will soon relocate their studio and shop to the soon-to-open Chelsea Barracks development. On explaining why he decided to move premises, Mr Fennell says that the new neighbourhood is a “very exciting place” that has melded a historic “beautiful looking thing” with the contemporary, and is located within a “really buzzy part of London.”
“It just seemed it'd be nice to go to a new place, a new start [following Mr Fennell regaining control of the company last year]. I just thought it speaks more of bespoke than here [the current location], which is much more retail and emporiums,” he continued.
The area of Chelsea has always held somewhat of a special place in Mr Fennell’s memory. “[When I was at art school], I lived down the road here. The feeling of sort of bohemia, of creativity, is still very much around. You walk about and you see people of all ages enjoying themselves, but also you can see that they have very much their own look, their own way… you do feel the kind of artists’ quarter thing here.”
For a first-time visitor to the neighbourhood, Mr Fennell recommends heading to the Chelsea Embankment and Cheyne Walk to stare at the “lovely sort of rickety” abodes; taking a beeline towards Tite Street, to look at Oscar Wilde’s former home; the Chelsea Physic Garden, “which you wouldn’t know existed unless you went through this door in a wall and walked into this extraordinary place”; and then up and down the King’s Road where “it's just really nice to wander around and see these funny little things that have been the same for all those years.”
“It’s got some depth”, Mr Fennell says of the area. “I think people who live there have a sort of innate pride in it.”
When it comes to assessing his own qualities and what his work will be remembered for, Mr Fennell has a prosaic answer that is seemingly at odds with his dial-turning innovations: “I'd just like to think that in 50,100, 200 years, someone will [look at one of my pieces] and ask, ‘What’s the story with that?’ And that it won’t ever get melted down, it won't get thrown away… I’ve never really had that dynastic feeling. I don’t want to conquer the world in any way but I would love these things to last.”
The world has too often been ruined by solipsistic individuals and The Greats of history, Mr Fennell says.
The aim, put simply, would be to create “a few things to give people joy… I wouldn't mind just being one of The Not Bad.”