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Floral patterns by Prince Charles

The Prince of Wales has launched a new line of high-end, handcrafted housewares

PATRICIA TREBLE May 5 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Floral patterns by Prince Charles

The Prince of Wales has launched a new line of high-end, handcrafted housewares

PATRICIA TREBLE May 5 2008

Floral patterns by Prince Charles

The Prince of Wales has launched a new line of high-end, handcrafted housewares

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PATRICIA TREBLE

On March 27, the chief executive of a new housewares firm called Traditional Arts was sitting in a London restaurant, mulling over that morning’s quarterly meeting with his boss. Nick Robinson has been in the international design business for more than 20 years, but never before with an employer like this one—the Prince of Wales. The firm was born last year out of Prince Charles’s passionate interest in keeping alive age-old traditional design practices. Headquartered next door to the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, the company aims to forge “a virtuous circle”: designs by recent graduates turn into housewares collections handcrafted by independent master craftsmen and then into profits that support royal charities, including the school.

This isn’t the first time Prince Charles has created a retail line from a personal passion. In 1992 his love of gardening and traditional agriculture spawned the now massive Duchy Originals organic and premium food products. Unlike some celebrities who sell their names to manufacturers, Charles “sees every single product before it’s launched,” Robinson says. On the agenda that March morning were leather journals bound in deerskin from Balmoral, Queen Elizabeth II’s private Scottish estate. Charles was concerned that “the story of the origins of the leather wasn’t being told strong enough in the enclosure leaflet.” So back to the drawing board for Robinson.

An obsession with details is one of the hallmarks of Charles’s new enterprise: Robinson searched for six months before finding a firm in northern Italy capable of manufacturing the sensually curvaceous Pageant silver jugs. One of Traditional Arts’ most popular tableware designs is a floral pattern called Kirtim

Flower, created by Samantha Buckley just after she’d completed a two-year M.A. at the school. It was based on an 11th-century illuminated Islamic manuscript on the medicinal uses of plants, Buckley explains. Because “it is quite a simple design and one element can be picked up and transferred,” the pattern is now on everything from silver openwork candlesticks and hand-cut and engraved crystal stemware to swizzle sticks. The ruby red version of the china was used at the company’s official launch last year at Charles’s London home, Clarence House. Buckley, 41, has continued to work on new projects for the firm, including a collection of tiny boxes, tea lights and trays with miniature painted adaptations of Indian Mughal art.

Right now, Traditional Arts products are being sold in a number of select British retailers as well as directly to clients in the Middle East. Robert Falconer, home accessories buyer for the upscale British department store Selfridges, reports that the design firm’s “traditional tableware, flamboyant glassware and high price point is popular with our international customers from the Middle East and Russia.” Rich buyers are a necessity: the handmade ethos behind Traditional Arts means that a single dinner plate starts at around $200. “ft was a deliberate plan to start at the high end,” explains Robinson, “and then

work our way down to have a more casual collection at this time next year.” They are just launching a handmade earthenware collection with dinner plates in the $60 range, about the price of the leather journals that Charles was so focused on.

Robinson hopes merchandise will be in the U.S., Japan and maybe Canada by the end of the year. As it expands, the firm commissions goods from local designers and craftspeople. It’s already been working with a Cairo-based design school, as well as textile and ceramic makers in advance of its move into the Egyptian market. Each new collection will be based on a particular traditional design. While the inaugural one, including the Kirtim Flower line, was inspired by Islamic arts, this year there are Buckley’s Indian designs as well as pieces focused on traditional English patterns. Far Eastern will probably be a theme for 2009.

Robinson has plotted out a huge retail expansion: “We have a three-year plan to create a premium home interiors collection. Our starting [point] was tableware but by the end of this year we’ll have a wonderful silk collection-scarves and ties—and cufflinks and a furniture collection for the spring of next year.” Still, the made-to-order side of the business accounts for more than half of sales and in the world of bespoke, the sky is the limit: the spring newsletter featured limited-edition Rolls Royce Phantoms, custom-designed by Traditional Arts. And fit for a prince. M