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Interview: Tom Holley from Art Star Industries

Tom Holley from Art Star Industries talks to Make it British about the importance of openness, dialogue and lessons learned when establishing a new UK manufacturing base

Artstar Industries Collection

Artstar Industries Collection

Artstar is a new online lifestyle store developing and selling unique collections of home wares and gifts in collaboration with up and coming creative talent. The business works as a series of exclusively designed collections of limited edition pieces including bone china mugs, tea towels, greetings cards, posters, wrapping paper and aprons, all of which have been manufactured in Britain. Here Tom Holley, the company’s founder, tells us why he was so set on making his collection in Britain – despite the fact that it was not as easy to do so as he thought it would be.

Can you tell me a bit more about your background and why you set up Art Star Industries?

I studied fine art at Chelsea, the Byam Shaw and post grad at the Slade School of Art and ten years later, following the internet explosion, Design for Interactive Media at Middlesex University. I practised as an artist, designer, creative director, festival director and curator in a 25 year career in the creative industries. During this time I commissioned hundreds of international artists, designers and makers so my passion for art and design has been a real driving force in my life.

I had wanted to start my own business for a while, and having spent many years focused on digital creativity I had a desire to get back to making physical things. I also wanted to be involved in manufacturing products so the idea of a new collaborative design studio began to form. I established Art Star Industries in early 2012 in order to develop commercial products in conjunction with creative practitioners.

You work with different designers on each collection, what were your reasons behind this and how do you select the creatives that you work with?

The decision to collaborate with lots of different designers was always a significant part of the Artstar concept. We want to develop a product collection that is eclectic, surprising and fun to explore; different design styles and aesthetics are key to that vision. It’s important that we use our resources efficiently and keep our overheads low so outsourcing some of the design work rather than hiring our own design team is also a pragmatic choice. Another advantage with this approach is that we are able to collaborate with some designers who can’t operate on a full time basis because they have other demands on their time – like families.

Our selection process is first to identify a person whose work we value, that fits in with the Artstar concept and that we think can be commercially successful. We identify people through different means – some we already know, some are introduced to us and others we find online. For us it’s about building mutually profitable relationships that last.

Mr Bear Cushion by Anna Ahmarova

Mr Bear Cushion by Anna Ahmarova

Why did you decide to manufacture the Art Star Industries collection in Britain?

There are a number of reasons for it:

  • Access to factories – Access is very important as we hope to establish and grow relationships with our suppliers and we are looking for businesses with a perspective that aligns with that. That’s not as easy to find as we thought. We like to visit our suppliers and spend time understanding their capabilities and limitations, which means that we can get a handle on the creative potential of the factory. We like being able to talk to our designers and tell them what can and can’t be done which then helps with the creative process – it’s time-consuming and costly to ask people to do things outside of their usual capability, it often goes wrong as we know from our experience already.
  • Security – We feel more comfortable taking small steps and dealing with UK based manufacturers and mitigate the risks of using overseas factories.
  • Feasibility for a small scale startup – I can talk to a UK manufacturer about hundreds of items rather than thousands and they recognise that in the early stages of our business growth we just don’t have the volume of sales we would aspire to, and they know that our growth helps theirs. I couldn’t go to China and order a few hundred items.
  • The satisfaction of building on local (UK) resources – There’s a certain feel good factor knowing that you are contributing something, even if it’s in a very small way, to the local economic/manufacturing environment.
Imp Mug by Kat Leuzinger

Imp Mug by Kat Leuzinger

How difficult was it to find British manufacturers to work with?

It was far more difficult than I though it would be. I had no contacts in industry at the start and no idea where to look so I spent months trawling the internet with very limited results. Most of the suppliers we use currently were either recommended to us by contacts in similar businesses, introduced by manufacturers and businesses that we approached but couldn’t help us or found by other means, for example, we operate from a tiny industrial unit in a shared centre and a neighbour here has been able to manufacture cushions for us – that’s pretty great and very fortuitous.

I’m always honest with manufacturers when I approach them. I don’t pretend Artstar is any bigger or further developed than it is and many of them appreciate that and offer useful advice. The ones that get what we are about and the stage we are at are supportive and recognise that small businesses can become big businesses.There are others though that don’t seem to care about small customers and either don’t respond at all or can’t see the value in working with smaller guys. I have had a few negative experiences – very shoddy samples being presented as finished product and a screen printing job that was completely scrapped because the supplier couldn’t get the colour matching right. It wasn’t getting the job wrong that lost them the contract, but their attempt to persuade me that it looked just great! Yes it’s difficult identifying the right manufacturer but certainly not impossible if you are persistent. And all the legwork starts to feel very worthwhile once you finally find the right manufacturing ‘fit’.

I think it helps enormously that I am genuinely fascinated about all aspects of manufacturing and production processes. We engage with directors and factory staff alike, and ask questions – people respond to that curiosity in a positive way.

Smiley House canvas by Kat Leuzinger

Smiley House canvas by Kat Leuzinger

What tips would you give to anyone else thinking of working with a UK manufacturer?

Do your research including looking online and visiting factories wherever possible. Meeting the people you are going to work with is important. Having a more personal relationship helps communication and that reduces the risk of misunderstandings and therefore mistakes and expenses. Seeing facilities helps you understand both capabilities and limitations. Don’t rely on just email or even telephone if at all possible – email can be very poor at communicating tone of voice and is often misinterpreted. Also, if you can establish dialogue with other businesses who have used a manufacturer that you are considering ask their opinion – this is often very useful information.

If you were launching the business again what would you do differently?

I thought it would be easy to find manufacturers, and quick to design, sample and get finished product on the shelf, but I was wrong. A better knowledge of manufacturing lead times would have really helped with planning, but having said that we learn by our mistakes and I have learned a huge amount in setting up Art Star Industries.






  1. Richard Frost on February 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Really interesting interview. It’s so true that finding UK manufacturers is hard – hardly any of them seem to have much of an online presence! We’re so used to being able to do 30 seconds of clicking about on Google to find what we’re looking for, and even if you find a factory’s website, there’s still no guarantee they’re going to be the right partner for you.

    • Tom Holley on March 6, 2013 at 11:29 am

      Richard – yes we have become accustomed to finding everything online but it has been a learning experience for me. I now *try* not make judgements about a company base on their website either great or awful because those appearances are often misleading. I know a factory that sews bedding for many of the large UK retailers and they are not on line at all – he told he he didn’t need a site! It amounts to this – good sites do not equate to good company and vice versa but another factor comes to mind on thinking this through a little. The design of your website does create a powerful impression and one that is difficult to shrug off so imho investing in a good front end design is well worth the cost.

      Good luck with your business!


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