In the British countryside, a holiday feast with butter in the shape of a sofa
It’s hard to say where the business ends and where the family begins for Alex Willcock, 57, and Felix Conran, 27, the father-son British founders of the Maker & Son furniture brand. Willcock was introduced to Conran’s mother, interior designer Sophie Conran, in the early 1990s by her then-employer, design and restaurant manager (and Sophie’s father) Terence Conran, passed away last year. So it was perhaps inevitable that the couple’s two children would also have a passion for design (their daughter, Coco Conran, has a fashion line). And since Conran and Willcock started their business in 2018, Willcock’s home, Kemps House – a 17th-century brick mansion in West Sussex which he moved into with his second wife, Charlie Kinsman, 17 years ago – has served as both the corporate headquarters and showroom. Almost every room includes at least one of the brand’s voluptuous yet modern sofas, armchairs, beds or loveseats, all crafted entirely from natural materials and upholstered in linen, velvet and brushed cotton in a palette of Rich, earthy undertones ranging from moss green to burnt. Sienna.
The house was designed by British architect John Kemps in the 1660s. âHe did a lot of housing in the area, but he made this one for himself,â says Willcock. With its original 17th-century elm and oak staircase, high ceilings and huge sash windows, “it really has its own spirit and energy,” he says. But it is also imbued with the creativity of its current inhabitants. In the early 1980s, Willcock trained as a cabinetmaker at famed British furniture designer John Makepeace’s Parnham House – a 16th century house in Dorset that Makepeace then operated as a craft school and where Willcock met Terence for the first time and studied under luminaries like the British Modernist. architect Norman Foster and postmodern Italian designer Ettore Sottsass – and his carpentry tools can be found throughout the Kemps house. As have many of the family’s creations over the years, including, in the large living room, delicately ribbed glass serving bowls made by Willcock and Conran; in the bright kitchen, thick-rimmed white bistro plates designed by Willcock and Terence; and, in several rooms, sculptural light fixtures by Conran whose loops of ultra-fine maple veneer hang from the ceiling like upside-down fountains. âThere are a lot more parts in the house that were made by us or someone we know than parts that aren’t,â Conran laughs.
Earlier this month, this craft-filled home was the setting for a festive lunch hosted by Willcock and Conran for a small group of family and friends, including Tony Niblock, the co-founder of the Plain English kitchen company; Tawanda Chiweshe, designer and studio director at Alaska Alaska c / o Virgil Abloh; jewelry designer Emma Milne-Watson; and Brogan and Sebastian Cox, the designers of the wife and husband behind the furniture brand that bears the latter’s name.
The meal, organized before the last wave of the pandemic, was conceived both as a pre-Christmas party and as a hymn to the mother of all inspirations: nature. An aperitif served with a sparkling rosÃ© in the woods behind the house was followed by lunch on a table dotted with foliage inside. Roasted prime rib, Yorkshire buttermilk puddings and seasonal vegetables including fennel and butternut squash preceded a dramatic and particularly well-received dessert: an orange and almond Bundt cake, flamed at the table and served with a rich cream. Frozen pastry chef whose leftovers have slipped into the kitchen. to be enjoyed as the party continued into the late afternoon. Here, Willcock and Conran explain how to throw an equally warm and memorable winter gathering.
Challenge your guests
The meal started with an elegant and slightly mischievous appetizer: narrow slices of toast made from the bread Conran had baked that morning (a wholemeal bread with hazelnuts and sourdough), homemade butter (carved , for a whimsical touch, in the shape of Maker & fils couch) and brown and salted Arroyabe anchovies from Cantabria, Spain. âWith this dish, which is such a simple thing, you have to get every item perfectly,â says Conran. âThere’s nowhere to hide, so it’s all about the ingredients themselves. It was an opportunity to challenge the guests a little – so many people tell me they don’t like anchovies – and give them something to talk about. Copper-colored sparkling rosÃ© from local vineyard Black Dog Hill served in crystal cups at the Dorset Brassica Mercantile housewares boutique (whose founder, Louise Chidgey, worked with Willcock at the Conran Shop design store in London) helped eliminate any lingering skepticism one way.
Keep the party moving
The aperitif was served in the small wooded area above the back garden of the house in and around the rotunda, a 16-square-foot curved-walled hut clad in cedar shingles that Willcock had built as a sort of retreat of meditation using salvaged Georgian doors and windows from a nearby salvage yard. The guests were seated inside, on a enveloping the Maker & Son armchair and loveseat that flanked the structure’s wood-burning stove, or chatted beside a nearby bonfire. Coming home for the main course not only gave guests a different view of the building – “the front of the house has this wonderful symmetry while the back is a crazy mishmash of windows”, Willcock says – but that also helped rock the mood. âWe went from that pretty primitive outdoor setting to the kitchen, where the food was prepared, and the main dining room, which we had kept out of sight when everyone arrived, for the big reveal,â says- he. âThere’s something very nice about changing the landscape like that,â Conran adds. âIt turned the main course into an occasion. “
Fodder for decorations and ingredients
Anita Bell, the senior stylist at Maker & Son, brought in the exterior of the estate by stringing a garland of foliage – a sort of wild chandelier made up of branches of the 30-year-old garden eucalyptus and a redwood with lush fronds resembling tree – above the dining table. That same greenery highlighted the fireplaces and serving tables, and spanned the entire length of the old clothier’s table at which guests were seated. The menu was also inspired by the environment of the house. âIt’s important to use seasonal produce as much as possible, to remind customers of the ultimate source of everything we eat,â says Willcock. The forty-day roast prime rib was accompanied by anise-spiced fennel, nutmeg-warmed butternut squash, and fresh horseradish picked the night before by Conran’s girlfriend, documentary filmmaker Emily Smith. (She and Conran, who live together in London, met through her Instagram account, @ down2forage.)
Think carefully about the lighting
âAt this time of year, there’s nothing quite like the combination of a velor upholstery and a candle or a roaring fire,â says Willcock. âWhenever possible, I love to use beeswax candles made in the nearby town of Lewes, which has a pagan ritual-style celebration with fireworks in November each year. The candles burn with a particularly warm glow and give off a subtle scent of honey. Golden wax candles dotted on the dining table, some in carved wooden candle holders made by Willcock himself, others on a foot and dripping on the tablecloth, a Maker & Son design in an ultra-heavy white linen that the company imports from Florence and uses it for sofa and cushion covers. Even when the sunlight shone through the oversized windows in the room, the candles created an intimate and cozy atmosphere.
Be kind to yourself
âI like to work backwards when planning a menu,â says Conran. âI think about the most urgent dishes and work around those and the oven space I have. Â»With this in mind, he chooses a starter (toast, butter and anchovies) which only acquires a short assembly time before the arrival of the guests, an accompaniment (potato dauphinois) which can be cooked at advance then simply crispy when the time comes and a dessert (the almond-orange cake and ice cream) that could go straight from the freezer to the table. This gave him plenty of time and space in the kitchen to prepare the slowly roasted beef and vegetables, and allowed him to remain a calm host. âIf you can enjoy the day, there’s a good chance other people will too,â he says.
Pick an activity that suits the crowd
Given the group’s love for furniture and design, after dessert, Conran and Willcock presented one of Terrence’s favorite dinner games: making miniature chairs from the cages used to hold the corks. bottles of champagne. Each guest received one of these foldable metal frames, and Conran and Willcox showed how, with careful handling, the stamped metal top becomes the seat of the chair, the wire its back and legs. Taking it a step further, Sebastian Cox used the foliage of the table to create a voluminous wingback chair. âI always like having an activity, even if it’s really silly,â says Conran. âIt’s fun and engaging and gives everyone something to remember from lunch. Whenever someone describes a meal they enjoyed, they don’t start with the food, they start with the where, the who, the how.