Design in stone : Chesney's Architectural

The new Chesney's Architectural showroom in London.

Chesney’s already has a reputation for quality stone fireplaces. It is rapidly expanding that into a reputation for supplying quality architectural stone, reinforced by the opening of a new showroom dedicated to architectural stone.

Chesney’s. The name is familiar enough as the supplier of stone fireplaces reproduced in classical styles. During the past three years it has also become increasingly familiar as the supplier of architectural stonework – a reputation that received a boost last year with the opening of a Chesney’s Architectural showroom for stone in Battersea Park Road, London.

It is a discreet distance along the road from Chesney’s original fireplace showroom, in the same style as the original, with the name of Chesney’s standing out white against the black paintwork to benefit from the corporate association.

The large windows stream daylight into the showroom. In the windows are a Moldova limestone bath filled with water standing on a plinth of Portuguese Breccia and a scale model of a mansion made from Cabouca limestone from Portugal. It is a one-tenth scale model built from 900 individual pieces of stone made purely as the company’s window display.

The same stone has been used to create a cantilevered staircase at the other end of the showroom and to demonstrate quoins.

There is a broken fluted column in Bianco Avorio from Italy and square columns and reception desk in Carparo Coral from Italy. It all stands on a floor of Azul Valverde from Portugal. There is even a door frame to a meeting room in England’s own Bath limestone.

Heading the architectural side of Chesney’s business is Director Mark Burns, with Mathew Snelling working alongside him to help architects and designers with the detail of the stonework they require. There is a CAD desk in the showroom where ideas can be explored.

Chesney’s Architectural is naturally building on the client base established by Paul Chesney over 25 years of supplying high quality fireplaces. It is mostly the residential market at the level that employs architects and interior designers.

But the Architectural side of the business has also been expanding the client base, helped by exhibiting at the Natural Stone Show at ExCeL London, where it was seen once again last year. Matt Snelling described the exhibition as “a worthwhile investment with international visitors”.

And Chesney’s likes international visitors because it is happy to supply stone to most parts of the world, including China, where it has showrooms in Shanghai and Beijing as well its own factory employing 135 people.

It has been manufacturing in China since 1989 and most of its stone is processed there into the designs that originate from the UK company – even when the fireplaces are made from British limestones (which the Americans are particularly fond of).

Chesney’s is proud of its factory, which Mark says would sit perfectly comfortably in Europe with its health & safety, quality control and working conditions. “I don’t feel a stranger in China these days,” says Mark. “It’s a very international country now.”

The factory is equipped with Chinese machinery, although most of the detailed work and carving is carried out by the stonemasons and just about every product from Chesney’s is hand finished.

Chesney’s also has a smaller factory in Portugal in case there is a demand for products more urgently than shipping from China allows, and it has a workshop in its fireplace premises in Battersea Park Road where minor adjustments can be made if necessary.

Chesney’s has a showroom in New York and 45 agents selling its fireplaces across the USA, as well as stockists elsewhere in the world. But Mark Burns says: “I don’t think we especially ventured out to be international. We were just following clients.”

After almost three years of establishing the architectural stone side of Chesney’s business, he was delighted to be able to open the showroom dedicated to it last year. As he told NSS at the time (see NSS November 2013 issue): “Without a showroom you are just showing customers samples. Now they can come here and see how various examples of stone have been used. It’s not until people start handling it that they know what they want.”

Both with fireplaces and now with architectural stonework, Chesney’s has been single minded about the sector of the market it is aiming at – and that is the higher end. That is not so much because the margins are better (even in this sector clients and their agents want value for money), but because the higher end of the market demands better quality products.

Twenty-five years of supplying that end of the market with natural stone fireplaces has established the Chesney’s brand with the clients and their agents, and the architectural side is benefitting from that reputation.

Even so, the brand still has to be in front of clients and their designers. Chesney’s makes sure it remains highly visible by advertising in lifestyle magazines, and it says the majority of its work comes from those advertisements. The next highest source of enquiries is referrals and recommendations and, says Mark, “if someone recommends us we’re likely to get the job”.

Chesney’s fire surrounds are not only available from Chesney’s showrooms, but are stocked by various high end retailers all over the country and further afield. “The fastest way to get to a local market is through someone who is already there,” says Mark. The company has thought about franchising but currently prefers simply to supply.

That, of course, is a philosophy not so easy to follow on the architectural side of the business where all the products are bespoke, and it is intended the new showroom will be the hub of sales of architectural stonework worldwide.

That stonework will be the more intricate, individually designed pieces for one-off developments, mainly residential. Projects such as a French mansion that Chesney’s has just started and the two mansions on the UK mainland that the company completed last year, not hundreds of identical bathrooms in hotels.

Mark: “We don’t want to buy millions of pounds-worth of machinery and mass produce marble and granite every day.

“We want to introduce stone to architects and designers who have never used it. It’s about re-educating them, exactly as we did with fireplaces. We’re just asking architects if they’ve considered stone. Many haven’t. They think it’s more expensive than it is.”

For a company already processing a massive amount of stone and with the skills to produce it in a lot more ways than fireplaces, it made sense to expand the product offering to its customer base, as well as expanding the customer base and spreading the risk across a broader product range. But Mark admits if it had not been for the credit crunch and recession of 2008 Chesney’s might not have moved into the architectural side of stone.

He is encouraged by the growth of construction in the second half of last year. A lot of important projects are getting underway, which has a knock-on effect. Will it continue? “I hope so – although I can’t guarantee it.”