Top Designs; New Heights May Be One of the Leading Furniture Specialists in the Country, but Its Founders Had No Background in the Industry. They Were Simply Frustrated Consumers, Unable to Find Simple, Well-Priced Designs. Lifestyle Editor Lisa Piddington Reports

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Byline: Lisa Piddington

When three university pals - a Middle East journalist, city broker and one working in oil marketing - got together to form their own business, it's hard to imagine that interiors would have been high on their list of ideas.

A PR firm, perhaps; even something in finance. But no, these three men - Toby Ash, 35, Gareth Williams, 37, and Richard Hepworth, 35 - wanted to develop their love of furniture instead. And so, five years ago, without any background in this tough industry, they launched New Heights.

For the three Oxford graduates, it was a university reunion in New York during the New Year celebrations of 1998/99 that cemented the idea.

'I'd always been keen on antiques,' says Toby, 'and we all had a real interest in interiors.'

Their idea was to offer the post-Ikea generation well-made and exclusive pieces that would sit in any home, be that a trendy loft apartment or a country cottage.

'Most people catch the Ikea bug in their 20s, when they get their first flat. And we've all done it,' says Toby. 'But what happens when they move to a house that they plan to stay in for many years - what happens when they grow up?

'While Ikea is fantastic, and has liberated how we think of our homes, we discovered many people, by the time they reached their 30s, wanted to move on to something more exclusive. The problem was, where could they go?'

During their New York reunion, they were inspired by the likes of American companies, most notably the gorgeous Pottery Barn chain - a store so famous in the US that it even warranted its own Friends episode (The One with the Apothecary Table). 'While New York had quite a few great shops, and London had the likes of Heal's, there wasn't a great deal of choice in the rest of the country,' explains Toby.

'We wanted to supply easily accessible, quality furniture made from proper woods, like oak, maple or cherry. These days everything seems to be veneers and flat pack - we wanted furniture that was ready-made in real wood.' They made the decision to quit their high-powered careers and, with the help of friends and family, set about researching, drawing up a business plan and hunting for suitable premises.

They opened their first shop in London's Cricklewood in the autumn of 1999, where they managed to discover the cheapest retail space in the capital, before launching at regional centres across the UK. Originally, they called the company New Haven, until they discovered they couldn't trademark a place name. 'By that time though, we had the initials 'N H' everywhere,' admits Toby. 'So we had to do some quick thinking. At first we thought of 'Not Habitat', but finally came up with New Heights, which we thought sounded aspirational.'

With no advertising and only a small range of furniture, it was by no means certain that the business would take off, let alone grow into a national chain of 11 showrooms in such a short space of time.

The company's American influence proved very strong from the outset, with 95 per cent of its furniture being shipped across the Atlantic. This approach to sourcing was rare for a retailer of its size.

Instead of buying off-the-peg ranges from large manufacturers, New Heights sought to develop partnerships with relatively small, highly skilled workshops around the world to make exclusive collections.

For the first couple of years, virtually all the wooden furniture came from New England, where there is an abundance of premium quality hardwoods and a long tradition of furniture making. …