Praised in Paris…. Made in Dorset: Farrow & Ball
Lorraine Gibson looks at the enduring story of Dorset’s Farrow & Ball
Published in July ’13
They may have a global market with more than forty showrooms in locations as widespread as New York, London, Paris and Milan, but every drop of Farrow & Ball paint is still made in Dorset, where it all began. The famously quirky colour names, the intense chalky shades and even the distinctive recyclable tin-plate cans in which they are sold, are like the founders – Mr Farrow and Mr Ball, Dorset born-and-bred.
John Farrow was a chemist and Richard Ball an engineer; together they built the company from small beginnings in the 1940s into a thriving business. Their reputation for quality quickly spreading until the pair were supplying paint to the likes of the Admiralty, the War Office, the motor industry and Raleigh bikes.
Dissatisfied with the mediocre finish of modern paints, they eschewed the growing trend towards cheaper, acrylic-based versions containing high levels of plastic and opted for the traditional approach rooted in the past, using bespoke blending techniques, original formulations and natural ingredients already proven to stand the test of time, to create paints that looked better for longer.
The company continues to make paint in exactly the same way today, which is the foundation from which the firm’s international success has grown. Paints are made using China-clay, water and minerals. Colours are hand-blended with great care and precision, all of which gives even their palest shades a depth of intensity modern, mass-produced counterparts simply cannot achieve. Even the final, almost ceremonial, placing of lid on tin is done by hand.
Naturally, this takes more time, costs more money and requires more manpower, but devoted customers appreciate the effort and are willing to pay that little bit more.
It is its quintessential Englishness, its downright Dorsetness, as much as its track record, that lend its decorating products so wide an appeal. Each tin of paint and every roll of trough and block wallpaper is inspired by, and linked to, the county; they are still conceived and produced in the same, modest factory (on the Ferndown Industrial Estate at the easterly point of Wimborne) by a local workforce of around eighty men and women, all of whom have been chosen for their skilled eye and natural creative flair.
So whilst they might grace the walls of LA dream homes, minimalist Tokyo apartments and Parisian art galleries, the Dorset influence is never far away, which, according to Farrow & Ball’s director, Sarah Cole, plays a large part in the demand from consumers and interior designers around the world: ‘They love the fact they have a little bit of Dorset, England on their walls, particularly enjoying some of the stories behind our paint names,’ she says, ‘but it’s also about the quality of the products, the designs and colours and the exceptional levels of service.’
Then there’s the ‘Downton Effect’. The current fashion for all things historic and vintage shows no sign of abating and, despite being a mere child of the 1940s, Farrow & Ball somehow feels much older, far more established than that. The signature tin, bearing the distinctive F&B initial logo, is the product of choice for interior designers, period building custodians and householders who share the firm’s meticulous approach, or wish to be thought to do so.
Much of this is down to the products being firmly rooted in tradition, to a time when blending was a mysterious alchemy. The shade names (White Tie, Book Room Red, Dead Salmon, Slipper Satin, Manor House Gray and Pavilion Blue) immediately conjure up Downtonesque piles, awash with elegant guests and starched-collar-wearing butlers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the dining room in Downton Abbey is decorated in Farrow & Ball colours. Closer to home, they can be seen in properties as diverse as historic Dean’s Court and Number 9 restaurant and B&B, both in Wimborne.
Sarah explains: ‘By staying true to our Dorset roots we have maintained the craftsmanship and heritage that is still felt within the company today. We may now supply to more than fifty countries around the world but we still make our paint and papers to traditional production methods with a local workforce taking immense pride in what they do.’
As much as anything, though, it is the firm’s colours that have captured people’s imaginations. The colour card has moved on over time – most of the names today stem from the 1990s when, after a bit of a fallow period, the firm branched out beyond its ‘stately home’ reputation and modernised without seeming to do so at all.
Regardless of their locations, customers embrace the names, which instantly evoke their origins. Lulworth Blue, Wimborne White and Dorset Cream speak for themselves, but Mizzle is precisely the hue of the West Country term for a blend of mist and drizzle, and Ball Green and Farrow’s Cream simply pay homage to the founders.
Even the more contemporary shades evolve from group meetings at the Wimborne HQ. Take Charlotte’s Locks, a deep orangey red: ‘Charlotte is a wonderful young lady who has been a member of our creative team for a number of years and the colour describes her luscious ginger locks,’ explains Sarah.
‘Naturally, I love all our colour names but if I had to pick my top three they would be Elephant’s Breath, Mouse’s Back and Arsenic. The whole team is involved with the creation of any new colours and their names,’ she says, adding ‘we also listen avidly to what our customers are saying in our showrooms around the world. It’s a project that involves deep thought and consideration over an 18-month period. Any new colour joining the card really has to earn its place and should join with a name evocative of the colour itself. It’s the high levels of pigment, rich resin binders, and our key ingredients that produces that immersive depth of colour. We scrupulously test every batch before it reaches the tin and believe that paint is more than a veneer. The paints are water-based and kind to the environment too, proving that beauty doesn’t have to cost the earth.’
The factory, where all this takes place has been updated to embrace technology that can assist with maintaining and matching standards. Otherwise, it remains much as it always has: looking like a giant bakery, which has been turned almost entirely white from years of processing the neutral chalk base from which all the paints eventually spring.
Personnel huddle beside various stages of the process – some over vast mixing bowls with super-sized whisks, others checking tins of coloured paint (which are lined up like fondant fancies) while others man the printing troughs to ensure the safe passage of the wallpapers until they snake out at the other end of the process in their designed finery. The decision to broaden the range to include wallpaper was made by the owners in 1995; they had learned the craft through hand-blocking wallpapers for various restoration projects in historic houses. A wallpaper factory was then established and, as with the paint, the company chose to keep traditional production methods alive and to use paint on the papers, instead of printers’ inks.
‘Our designs are taken from our archives or from historical fabrics with our creative team always on the lookout for patterns and designs they can tweak to work with our production methods. With the introduction of the Latest & Greatest papers in February, the complete range now comprises a selection of 320 papers including florals, damasks, stripes, striés and geometric designs.‘
As far as Sarah and the team are concerned, the next ‘big thing’ in interiors is painted floors: ‘Our bestsellers tend to be neutrals like Pointing and Wimborne White, with a recent shift to warm greys like Elephant’s Breath, but our big focus now is on our eco-friendly Floor Paints which are available in all 132 colours.‘
All of which seems a far cry from the muted palettes of the 1940s; Farrow and Ball may not have moved their factory, nor changed their philosophy, but they have come a long way.