In normal trading conditions, Mylands of London supplies heavily pigmented paint to the film and television industry. “We’ve just finished the new Jurassic Park at Pinewood Studios — they used lots of dirty, earthy colours for the dinosaurs,” says Dominic Myland, managing director. And, he notes precisely, “We’ve supplied every Bond film since Dr No.”
But as film lots stood empty during lockdown, another type of order ticked up — “Lots of small pots of paint for people painting their new home office”. Myland promptly took a forklift truck test and started shifting orders himself.
“It was a great opportunity,” he says, of the new working-from-home decoration trend, but also a problem. “All of us wanted more tins and raw materials at the same time.”
“All of us” refers to the other players in the UK’s premium paint sector,
led by its two most prominent performers, Farrow & Ball and Little Greene. Though paint manufacturers are not obliged to list their ingredients, “premium” paint largely delivers more durable, saturated colours than a standard, mass-produced tin, thanks to the quality and volume of the pigments and binding agents. The smaller the manufacturing volume, the easier it is to also eliminate bad batches.
But colour also carries social cachet and history — and this is part of what commands higher price points. As commuters suddenly swapped grey, fluorescent-lit offices for homeworking environments they could control, premium paint found itself with a bonanza year on its hands.
At the top of this paint ladder is Farrow & Ball, the Dorset-based company now owned by Ares Management in the US. In the 1990s, as interest in home decoration and interior design enjoyed a boom, the company then led by Tom Helme developed a palette explicitly influenced by colours of the past. Widely credited with inventing the premium sector in the UK, Farrow & Ball has grown healthily until this year — when growth exploded.
Anthony Davey, chief executive, says: “At the start of the pandemic trade was very erratic, because people didn’t understand what was going on — we had some big orders cancelled. Since then it has been phenomenally busy: we’re at record highs for revenue performance. Our UK business is growing by in excess of 40 per cent in the year to date.” (It was growing at 14 per cent pre-pandemic.)
E-commerce has been crucial, with a spike in smaller online orders adding up: “We’d normally do 1 tonne of internet parcels a day, at its peak [this year] it went to 13 tonnes a day,” says Davey.
Logistical hedging around Brexit helped the company to cope with the initial surge. “If there was a positive from Brexit, it was that we created an EU hub [in Frankfurt] we had been filling up in anticipation of a ‘no deal’. We created large inventories of materials we believed were at risk of disruption in the supply chain, but the biggest concern was getting the product out to the rest of Europe. When demand took off we used the inventory to meet demand across Europe.”
There were “incremental costs in adding capacity and warehousing, but the demand much more than offsets that,” Davey says.
He notes that “Home is a new frontier — it’s an office, it’s a school.” And people want it to make a “statement”. But what happens if working life shifts back to office blocks, and people tire of endlessly chewing over paint charts? “We’re not naive, obviously Covid has expanded the market but we wanted to gain share. When all boats rose, ours rose even further. It was important to attract new consumers in this period.”
A very different UK paint company, Lick Home, started trading on the first day of lockdown this year — “surreal but [the business was] a nice distraction”, says co-founder Lucas London. He and Sam Bradley, formerly of outsourcing company Airtasker, raised £850,000 of pre-seed funding with a pitch for a slick online-only model and a solution to the “stumbling block” of too much choice.
“People were a little lost walking down the aisle of a DIY store,” London says. “You also had huge paint manufacturers without a direct relationship with consumers, and the high-end retailers’ price point that alienated a large percentage of the market.” (A 2.5 litre pot of “multi-surface” Lick paint is £38, compared with £49.95 for a 2.5l tin of Farrow & Ball emulsion.)
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Lick Home has targeted a middle niche — not explicitly millennial, though its research indicates this demographic redecorates every 12 months. (“We’re seeing people happy to pay more rent if they’re able to paint,” says London.) The Lick image overall has a simpler, more class-neutral marketing stance than the “posh paint” brigade.
Its samples are peel and stick, and it has an edited paint range of colours, which are not christened with unpredictable names (think Elephant’s Breath, to name one Farrow & Ball colour) but are instead numbered.
London says demand is “significantly higher than we expected; we went out of stock after our first month because we didn’t forecast the level of demand . . . We’ve had 45,000 orders to date.”
Agonising over the precise shade and significance of paint colour is a peculiarly British phenomenon. In the global marketplace, Brits are seemingly the frontrunners when it comes to nuanced paint choices. “For the consumer interested in paint colours, these more complex colours, it’s a perception of what you think you want,” says Myland.
For Americans, this behaviour doesn’t exist to the same extent — paint premiumisation is yet to take hold in the US, though there are other growing export markets. Mylands, thanks to strong field agents, has a healthy export trade. “China, Russia and Germany are our best markets,” says Myland.
Farrow & Ball’s Davey notes that its new “self-deprecating” advertising campaign deliberately makes fun of the preciousness associated with the brand. One ad shows owners of a newly painted home forcing their guests to drink red wine out of baby bottles in case they spill any.
It follows Farrow & Ball’s strategy to reach beyond its older, wealthier heartland. “We’re only now tapping into a younger consumer,” he says.
For Patrick Baty, a colour consultant who advises on paints for period properties and specialist restorations, there is little agony of choice. “I’m less interested in whether pink is nicer than green; it’s such a subjective matter. Everyone is right; whatever pleases you is the best colour to use. What might be appropriate for a historical building, that’s one thing, but even a pretty important house of a certain age is not a museum. I’m explaining how it might have been.”
How it might have been was largely a matter of the technology and supply chain of the past, which dictated the scarcity, expense and cachet of certain colours. “Brighter colours were twice as expensive in the 1740s — Pea Green, Sky Blue . . . The palette of colours was very much reduced prior to the industrial revolution. In the early days one was working with pigments derived from the earth, or burning things to make soot for black.”
Baty joined his father’s business, Papers and Paints, and in the 1980s developed a range of paint colours based on hand-painted colour cards from 1807. “I hadn’t twigged that in itself [a historical colour] would become a ‘desirable’ product. Now every single company produces a range of historical colours, almost none of which is based in fact.”
Papers and Paints continues today, co-run by Baty’s wife Alex, with its paints mixed from components supplied by Little Greene and Mylands. “We’re the old daddies of the business, and I’ve been in it long enough to see cycles,” he says. “The recent interest in dark colours, for example, we could sense that trend developing. I’m often surprised at how slow the big companies are at responding.”
When Baty looks at colour, he can see social aspiration. “From interiors of the late 18th century I can get a sense of the occupants, their status or their desire for status.” When later historians might look at the 2020 layer of paint under the coatings that follow, they might see some darkness.
At Farrow & Ball, at least, sales of darker shades increased by 28 per cent — including of Hague Blue, Railings and Down Pipe. Two Mylands bestsellers are rich but sombre — Borough Market, a dark green, and Bond Street, an even darker blue.
It is difficult, perhaps misleading, to ascribe meaning to this phenomenon. But for Cassandra Ellis, founder of Atelier Ellis, colour has undeniable power. “What’s most important to me is that people feel safe and uplifted in their homes; I know colour is a deeply emotional way to do that. We’re building a nest rather than a fashion statement.”
This “self-started” company plans to expand slowly, using Mylands as its bespoke manufacturer-on-demand. Ellis creates her colours based on fragments of art and culture that spark joy — one blue shade was inspired by the dyed silk of a Georgian dressing gown she saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “Colour and home is quite a strange thing. When people choose the wrong colour, it can be a personal affront.”
Edward Bulmer, an interior designer who started his own eponymous brand of natural paints 10 years ago, believes that “Colour is much more of a language to us than we appreciate. The idea that colour and status are linked is millennia old; it’s a grammar.”
But beyond the connotations of colour, Bulmer is more exercised by the composition. “I started our range as an eco mission; I got involved with natural paints from my work as an interior designer,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot available 10 years ago.”
Today, he says, his strategy is paying off. “Our sales are storming. We might say it’s to do with lockdown, Covid, etc, but it’s what we’ve been planning for.” All the ingredients Bulmer uses are “derived from nature — some in their raw state, most cooked with gentle chemistry. There’s a million miles between us and conventional paint, which has to be created with petrochemicals and retort chemistry.”
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Much premium paint is water-based rather than solvent-based, and will flaunt its “low VOC” (or volatile organic compound) status. VOC levels were driven down for the entire coatings industry by legislation, but compliance still provided a marketing opportunity for many companies.
Though not a premium brand per se, Dulux, owned by the Dutch group Akzo Nobel, is catching up on the sustainability trend, and has introduced a Heritage range of colours.
Alistair McAuley, managing director, UK & Ireland, Akzo Nobel, says: “On a global scale the consumer is more savvy when it comes to sustainability, and we have to produce paints with more water-based products into the market. The challenge is to innovate water-based to be at least as good if not better than solvent-based counterparts.” Akzo Nobel plants in China are being converted to water-based production.
As for the uptick in home decorating, McAuley sounds a note of caution. Since the early noughties, people have been working longer hours and may rent homes rather than own them, forcing decoration down the priority list. “Home decoration has dropped by a third over the past 20 years,” he says. “What I’m praying for is that this has acted as a catalyst for change.”
Natalie Whittle is the FT Weekend development editor