It’s fair to say that Paul Middlemiss knows a thing or two about furniture. Having worked in the business since the 1990s with brands including Habitat, Conran and Pedlars, his passion for design, materials and specialist manufacturing techniques runs deep. “I've been to so many factories, learning how pieces are made. We would travel all over the world,” he remembers. “I've always collected stuff along the way, things that inspire me. Really, I just love great design.”
It wasn’t until four years ago however, that he decided he wanted to do something for himself and having reached out to a trusted friend, together they launched Merchant & Found. The company, based in Hampshire, now offers a vast range of original industrial, vintage and 20th century design sourced from all over Europe. “We don't strip, repaint or refinish things but we do a lot of work to get them looking right,” he explains. “They’re mended, cleaned, maybe given a light wax to ensure they’re nicely presented so that people can live with them comfortably. I don’t love the word patina, but the aim is to preserve the history and character.”
In addition to selling to individuals, a significant proportion of the company’s customers are hotels, restaurants and bars who buy chairs on a large scale. “We just wanted to offer cool, affordable, quality stuff and we’ve become a one-stop shop,” he continues. “Of course, we source all sorts of other items and we have more expensive pieces too, but we’ve found a little niche and it works incredibly well.”
Home for Paul, his wife, two daughters and their two cats is what he refers to as a ‘very standard Victorian terrace’ in London’s St Margaret’s. But although the building is a duplicate of its neighbours, the interior is a treasure trove of fascinating finds. “We've been here for 20 years and have kept it very original,” says Paul. “It’s taken a battering but I believe a home should be lived in so I'm proud of that. Essentially, our house is a collection of stuff brought together over the years, and I can tell you the story behind each and every piece.”
Among Paul’s most well-loved items is a simple shopping basket, picked up in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam over two decades ago. “It cost pennies and is woven by hand from the packing strips they secure around boxes,” he says. “There was this street that we used to go to, with a plumbing shop, a shop that would fix your bike, and another that sold pipes. I enjoy that kind of old-fashioned retailing. This bag is the perfect colour and it reminds me of my travels in Asia. It’s also the most useful tote I've ever owned.”
Conversely, another item close to Paul’s heart has no practical use at all, but what it lacks in functionality it makes up for in charm. “I bought this amazing butcher’s shop fit from a guy in the north, and in the drawer was this,” he says of an original letterpress poster. “It's never been used or pinned and the language is wonderful. Every row is a different, brilliant font, plus for no apparent reason the word shop has a capital ‘s’. It’s a snapshot of history and was a superb secret find.”
Bearing in mind one of the main focuses of his business, it comes as no surprise that a set of bentwood chairs, bought at what he describes as a sunny little market in the south of France are also cherished by Paul. “They were made around 1910 by a company called Fischel, and they’ve obviously sat somewhere very dry and sunny as they’re quite rough to touch, but in a lovely way,” he enthuses. “Everything about them is untouched; the bolts underneath, the screws, the brass nameplate, and the hoops at the back have a tight bend, which would have been tricky to make. The main thing though, is that they've survived and are as strong as ever. They’re a piece of history that could easily be in a museum.”
Though vintage is his first love, beautiful craft is also something that Paul admires and a turned oak bowl is also high on his list of favourite things. “It’s by a couple called Tyla & Tara from Knoxville, who have taken this raw material and made something completely exquisite,” he says. “The colour, the shape and the proportions, they've got it absolutely right. It's only about four millimetres thick, so it’s incredible that it didn't split. I bought it as a reward for myself when I started the business, to mark the fact that I've left corporate life for good. I wanted to look at something special every day and say, okay, this is what it's all about.”
In the same vein, TOAST’s Zarzo Flower Basket, handwoven from willow by Sarah Loughlin, founder of Hopewood Baskets in Worcestershire, is something that Paul also holds dear. “It’s based on a traditional Spanish design that was originally made to strain cheese,” he explains. “I have a real soft spot for functional items, but as well as being useful, it’s also really stunning. Plus it’s made in England and people like Sarah are doing a fantastic job of keeping ancient crafts alive. For those reasons, it's something I know I’ll hold on to forever.”
Paul owns the Hopewood Zarzo Flower Basket.
Interview by Claudia Baillie.
Photography by Lesley Lau.