A brief history: Rhubarb Seating

In May 2011, Rhubarb Seating Limited came into existence, emerging from the legacy of Tract Limited, a company that had its roots in the 1970s and had enjoyed considerable success during its era. Notably, Tract Limited had garnered widespread recognition within the industry and continues to be remembered by many even today.

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David Matthews and Alysoun Stewart, the company’s co-founders, are both chartered accountants by profession and while neither had any previous experience in the furniture industry, they had plenty of experience of managing and running businesses.  Their intention was to build a proper British manufacturing company when, particularly in the furniture sector, such animals have become a rare breed.  High Wycombe, just down the road from Rhubarb’s South Oxfordshire base, used to be a big centre for the industry with iconic brands including Parker Knoll and Ercol.  The sad demise of so many of those businesses has left the industry in this country short of the specialist skills needed, particularly sewing and upholstery.

Rhubarb actually came into being completely by accident.  Tract was in liquidation and had ceased trading and David and Alysoun were asked by Tract’s landlords to go and manage a workout of the remaining stock on their behalf.  It was clear after a couple of weeks that Tract had a few good products, and some loyal customers who still wanted to buy them, so it was decided to run a parallel strategy of closure and restructure and form a new company with a fresh approach – certainly not to recreate Tract.

Twelve and a half years later, the company has been transformed.  Whilst the early years were undoubtedly propped up by the outstanding, evergreen range of technical seating and the Mata and Prima ranges, thanks to substantial investment in equipment, people and skills, it has achieved its ambition of being a real manufacturer and is able to stand square behind its strap line – Seating made Great in Britain.  Its ever-growing ranges of soft seating are all designed and manufactured at Rhubarb’s factory in Thame – no element is out-sourced.  The end-to-end control this provides over everything, from complete flexibility when it comes to dimensions or specific details, such as sewing lines, to the ability to respond to urgent needs when these arise.  A very loyal and regular customer had just such a situation and the two armchairs and sofas they required were made from scratch and delivered within 36 hours.

All the company’s products are made to order but nonetheless, the normal lead times take most people a bit by surprise.  Ten working days is given as a guide for smaller orders.  Obviously a few hundred soft seating units takes a bit longer!  The ability to respond positively to the urgent needs of customers is not due to a lack of work but to an extremely flexible and multi-skilled workforce supported by production scheduling tool developed inhouse.

But, although soft seating is now well over half of the company’s turnover, its focus is far wider than that with seating ranges for every non-domestic environment from classrooms and libraries to laboratories, prisons, immigration centres and airports, from hospitals and care homes to restaurants and bars, leisure facilities and supermarkets – in fact anywhere someone needs some form of seat on which to perch, work, relax or luxuriate.

As well as seating, the company also provides upholstery services, making headboards for several hotel chains, cushions for fitted banquette seating, upholstered panels for all manner of installations and generally turning their hand to the creation of upholstery solutions wherever they are needed. A partnership formed recently with a highly skilled joinery company has now enabled Rhubarb to provide a one-stop shop for projects that require both joinery and upholstered solutions adding further value to our growing customer base.

An increasing feature of the work, driven in part by the increasing importance of sustainability and the net zero agenda, is a demand for the re-upholstery of existing furniture.  Rhubarb offers this as a regular service on its own Prima chair, whose frame carries a 20-year warranty which almost inevitably means that there will be a need for periodic replacement of either fabric or foams or both.  However, the company is also currently working on a rolling project to replace the upholstery on the seats of two cinema chains across the UK and sees this aspect as a rising trend.

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About Alys Bryan

Alys is a knowledgeable design editor who is focused on instigating conversations, both online and in-person, with industry experts which challenge, educate and advance the commercial interior sector. Her training and 15 years of professional experience as a furniture designer for the commercial sector makes her uniquely placed to lead Design Insider as Editor
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