Robb Reader: Smallbone’s Iain O’Mahony

‘Smallbone of Devizes’ is, to those whose culinary inclinations are infused with a passion for achingly tasteful design, a canonised name. The Wiltshire-based bespoke kitchen design business has over 40 years’ experience in the field: so how does Iain O’Mahony – Special Projects Director for the Canburg Group, which has  Smallbone of Devizes under its umbrella – make sure the company keeps turning up the heat in the luxury kitchen business?

Does collaborating with your customers enhance the creative process?
We’re in the fortunate position of both being influencers and being influenced by global professionals working at the top of their game. Our clients work with top interior designers and architects and this in turn helps to keep us appraised of the direction the top of the market is focused on. Our clients also demonstrate an evolving set of needs. Beyond kitchens, we’re often asked to bring design solutions to other spaces including wine areas, dressing rooms, studies and media rooms. Their collections of carefully curated pieces need to be housed in an environment that best displays them – whether that be a lit shelf for the [bottles of] Pétrus, a custom-built drawer for a pen collection or a cabinet for a set of Hermés bags.


How have luxury consumer tastes changed over the last few years. 
Bling has given way to subtlety. In today’s HNW world,  ‘Reserve’ and the ‘Quality of the material palette’ seem to be the similes for luxury. High-gloss finishes have transitioned to a less outré satin matt look and the craft of cabinetmaking has come front and centre – particularly as it embodies the desire to own a piece that has been created especially for you. I’m really pleased we’ve now moved past a soulless decade when kitchens and islands were anodyne and linear.



Are customers more focused than before on the provenance of materials – as they are in tailoring, for example?
It’s no surprise to us that ‘materiality’ is at the sensory forefront, and that relies on inherent luxury and very careful curation. When a client and their team put together exotic veneers, antiqued metals, finest full grain hides and semi-precious stone worktops, they now, more often, want to know the story of each product, allowing them to carry the story forward in their ownership. The aspiration is now for an exclusive yet personalised space. Visits to historic stone yards in Carrara to select specific slabs are a part of the service that we’re able to deliver.


Is eclecticism OK, or do you recommend subtle common threads and themes between rooms? 

I’d always encourage clients to put their mark on a project – that’s what bespoke really means. It’s about creating a functional environment that will invariably look beautiful, but this should also be an opportunity for clients to imbue them with their own personality. Eclecticism is about demonstrating choice and says something about the owner – I think that’s really important.  Our clients are global travellers, can have multiple homes and enjoy an enviable lifestyle that allows them to visit many fascinating places. What better way to re-savour a moment than to bring back a physical reminder and to display it beautifully?



Are there any customer requests you prefer not to execute?
We occasionally get some unusual requests, but ours is not to wonder why – fortunately there’s nothing too left-field. Our Clients enjoy an expectation that we will provide furniture that is safe to use and built in a manner that encompasses and stands up to a 25 year warranty. We also actively avoid anything that smacks of plagiarism.


Should we still consider certain design features more ‘masculine’?

I’m trying to avoid the ‘toys for the boys’ cliché but it does often follow: secret drawers, humidors, the Jura coffee machine, fridge drawers, wine walls, automated rockers for keeping your watches wound – they’re all more about ‘want’ than ‘need’ but there’s no shame in that! 


How would you describe the design philosophy behind the grey/gold collection?

The essential style is 12 years old so it predates my tenure, but there are aspects of this design which I’m sure will be celebrated in the near future. The running slatted motif, which takes a constant set of parallel grooves across the face of the furniture, looks effortless but it has to accommodate door and drawer intersections and the different heights of appliances – which entails overcoming some serious design challenges. The beautiful quadrant and half-round handles with a polished and engraved top edge, counterpoised against a gently hammered face, are the perfect decorative accent. We also have a fully resolved and articulate set of complementary pieces like our baker’s table and the stunning island in the round. Our contemporary adaptation has brought to it a re-imagining of the materials, using selected rift-cut oak stained in our unique grey Smallbone finish and champagne gold on the handles and hinges as the contrasting accent.



When making creative decisions, how important is gut feeling to you?

It’s essential. There’s rarely a new design that hasn’t already been realised by nature, but what we can do is master the composition of shape and palette. You need to keep your eyes constantly open and take inspiration wherever you can find it.


In what scenarios do you have your best creative ideas?

The muse strikes in times of contemplation, when travelling and while taking in great architecture, both old and new. It helps to keep looking up and taking time to consider your surroundings and what defines them. I also work in a very talented team – having a group of experts in their field around me and bouncing ideas and challenges off them tends to reward exponentially.



Does the constant need to embrace change invigorate you?

You immerse yourself in a project and live it compulsively. When it’s finished, you can admire it for a short while. That said, the thrill of the process of design, the collaborative nature of the group as we draw together as a team and then the sense of elation you achieve when a piece of work starts to flow from conception to reality – that’s the kick that keeps me engaged.