One of the UK tile industry’s true visionaries, Fired Earth’s founder Nicholas Kneale, has died aged 71.
It was back in 1983 that Kneale, with a £10,000 bank loan and four Spanish terracotta tiles, set up Fired Earth. Combining a flair for marketing with a passion for design that chimed perfectly with home owners’ fast-emerging aspirations, the concept proved so successful that, two decades later, Fired Earth was snapped up by Aga Group for £30 million.
This success was beyond the wildest dreams of Kneale when he left the Forces. In an interview with his local newspaper, the Oxford Times, in May 2007, he explained: “I had tried several ventures and was bust. But I had spotted a gap in the interior design market for good quality and well-designed tiles. At the time, in the 1980s, we had a very dull market in tiles. I found four designs of terracotta tiles made in Spain and the business began from there with a loan from Barclays in Banbury.”
Operating from a lean-to on the side of a farmhouse in Middle Aston, Kneale set about researching the market, touring Spain and Italy, as well small potteries in Britain, and in the process discovering a wealth of talented craftsmen and women.
“Some designs for tiles were hideous, but others I came across had something more exciting about them,” recalls Kneale. “Historically, we have had earthenware tiles in this country since the Romans and there was a big movement for decorative tiles here in the 18th century and through the industrial revolution.”
The first Fired Earth showroom away from Middle Aston was opened in Portland Road in the Notting Hill area of London. The timing proved perfect, because an increasing number of householders were becoming enthused by good interior design. With growing sales, Fired Earth began to import tiles from around the globe, including France, Scandinavia, and North Africa.
Starting with terracotta floor tiles that brought a little Spanish style to kitchens, hallways, and conservatories, Kneale soon added wall tiles to the portfolio, alongside stone and slate tiles. By the mid 1990s the business had grown to 15 showrooms across the country, including Fired Earth’s first large London showroom in Fulham Road. Today, Fired Earth has more than 60 showrooms across the country, including eight in London.
As the company grew, Kneale was joined by other directors and the business expanded into most areas of interior design while maintaining their core interest in tiles. “We realised people wanted to buy products for their interior designs in one place. So we moved into paint, wooden flooring, fabrics, soft furnishings, furniture, and equipment for kitchens and bathrooms.”
The clear ethos established by Kneale in the 1980s still permeates the company. The aim remains to offer products produced with authenticity, creativity, and style. Where possible these are also handmade and produced as close to home as possible. The result is a product range that seems to deliver the right look for almost any style or age of property … all in pursuit of the being ‘the home of great design’.
In 1990, the company bought Twyford Mill in Adderbury, the former Bibby animal feed factory, as its HQ. In 1998 Fired Earth was bought by the Prudential before being sold on, in 2001, to the Aga Group, based at Telford, Shropshire, for £30 million.
“Aga realised there was a synergy, or similarity of interests, with Fired Earth,” stated Kneale. “Up until then, if anyone wanted an Aga stove they had to go to a plumber, heating engineer, or an ironmonger’s shop. Our showrooms gave Aga more outlets.”
“We always went in for quality products,” noted Kneale of his time with Fired Earth/Aga. “I think I regard the business as having been an adventure more than a source of pride.”
“In my opinion, Nicholas was the first person to really understand the marketing of tile products to the middle/upper middle sector,” says Jonathon Minoli of Oxford-based Minoli Tiles. “He was very successful at this, creating a unique brand and being probably the only household name in the tile industry … even getting a mention in an episode of AB-Fab.”
Marketing flair was very much at the core of Fired Earth’s success. TSJ’s Editor, Joe Simpson recalls attending a Fired Earth polo event at Kirtlington Park in the late 1980s. “I cannot think of another individual who would have had the vision or courage to promote ceramic tiles by running a polo event. Yet, around 30 years ago, that it just what Nicholas and the Fired Earth team did. I can vividly recall ‘treading in’ divots with my wife Janet, and being awestruck by just how many designers, home owners, and tiling suppliers had been drawn to this soggy Oxfordshire field by this young tile retailer. I have been to hundreds of product launches and press events since then, but none as remotely memorable as Fired Earth’s polo day. And that, I believe, really says it all. Nicholas was a true visionary; an accidental entrepreneur who changed the face of tile retailing in the UK for ever.”
“Nicholas Kneale will be remembered fondly as part of a very select band of individuals, including Paul Portelli and Kenneth Clark, who made an indelible mark on the UK’s ceramic tile landscape through a combination of creativity, drive, and sheer charm,” concludes Simpson.
“He brought flare into the industry with handmade tiles that everyone aspired to,” says Ian Crowther of Tiles UK, “and built a brand that everyone was proud to be associated with. His death is a sad loss to everyone … in his own way he was the modern day Laurence Burton.”
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