Chester’s in the haute seat

The Chesterfield, popularised in 18th Century England, is a classic seating style that has been rediscovered as a fine craft, combining science and art, comfort and elegance, history and timelessness. A Bengaluru-based manufacturer, Mr. Ramesh Ramaswamy, took inspiration to recreate and rejuvenate the magic of true leather furniture. Roy Thomas met the promoter of Chester’s and travelled to its factories to unravel the mystique of leather-upholstered sofas and chairs.

As one enters the office-cum-showroom in a plum locality in Bengaluru, one cannot miss the stark and minimalistic nature of the business premises…. until one observes that it actually serves to focus on the breath-taking beauty of the leather-clad furniture within, and to accentuate the sophistication of the Chesterfield sofas and chairs on display.

With its distinctive hand-crafted, deep-buttoned leather upholstery and anglicised name that points to its origins, the Chesterfield sofa was popularised in 18th century England as a classic seat with a low back, curving to form upright arm-rests and comfortably upholstered with leather and padding on coiled springs.

Almost as if to act as set-offs in the showroom are the occasional pieces of contemporary furniture, the wooden parts aesthetically paired with veneer, glass or steel to give them a contemporary look.

“The Chesterfield sofa is not just a piece of furniture but a piece of history,” says Mr. Ramesh M.V. Ramaswamy, Promoter of Chester’s, a recognised specialist in manufacturing top-end seating furniture with leather upholstery.

“The original purpose of the Chesterfield sofa was to allow a gentleman to sit in utmost comfort without wrinkling his garments. Today, Chesterfield is more a generic name to a range of classic furniture,” he says of his piece de resistance.

Intuition pays

Coming from a family that had no business background, and armed with a degree in commerce, Ramesh plunged into the leather garment industry in Bengaluru in early 1986. He specialised in procuring the best leather from India and abroad, processing and finishing it, and exporting finished garments and finished leather mainly to Europe.

But the early 1990s turned into a graveyard for entrepreneurs in the leather business in India. “The withdrawal of subsidies by the Indian government was the proverbial nail in the coffin,” recalls Ramesh, “Many garment and leather industries – including many top exporters – literally folded up and closed overnight.”

Ramesh’s leather garment export business, which included two tanneries in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, also had to close down. In spite of severe losses Ramesh was not ready to call time on his love affair with leather: instead he saw leather furniture as a natural progression to the experience he had gained in the industry.

Acting on intuition Ramesh had, in 1994, set up a small woodworking factory in Vasanthnagar (where his showroom now stands) to manufacture leather upholstered seating.

Dutch connection

It began during one of his business trips to Holland when, during a chance meeting, a fellow guest in the hotel mentioned that his father made hand-crafted leather furniture.

Following up on this lead, a young Ramesh employed all his persuasion skills to get the reluctant Dutch businessman to help him set up a similar unit in India.  Subsequently, a team of carpenters from India was deputed to train in the art of European craftsmanship – and so Chester’s was born in 1995!

Ensconced in his imposing leather chair in front of a solid teak table that is surrounded by comfortable looking leather tub chairs – all manufactured by Chester’s – Ramesh talks passionately about the business and what goes into producing such quality period furniture.

“Once we had developed the skills and gained a deep understanding of leather, we were inspired to rejuvenate and recreate the magic of true leather furniture and the classic Chesterfields. We rediscovered the fine craft of authentic Chesterfields, combining science and art, comfort and elegance, timelessness and nostalgia,” he recalls.

“The first order came after the well-known fashion designer, Prasad Bidappa, wrote about it in his column in a newspaper. Soon word of Chesterfield furniture being manufactured in India spread,” Ramesh remembers.

K.V. Kamath, the doyen of banking in India, personally flew down to Bengaluru and negotiated the entire furniture for ICICI Bank’s corporate office and the board room.

By the year 2000, Ramesh was supplying authentic handcrafted Chesterfield sofas and chairs to connoisseurs of fine leather seating, among them Wipro, Aditya Birla Group, Infosys, Reliance Industries, Hindustan Lever, Citi Bank, TCS and Deutsche Bank.

He also counts among his clients the Leila Palace Hotels and the Tollygunge Club, Kolkata, besides many others in Russia, Dubai, Germany and the US.

Legend of leather

Perfection in a Chesterfield seat starts from the leather. Leather is a natural product that breathes, is warm and has individual characteristics, which makes each hide unique.

Authentic leather always bears the marks of its natural origin and these characteristics can show as healed scars, growth marks, areas of differing fibre density, hair pore structure and pigmentation, Ramesh informs.

“These characteristics are cherished by our clients when selecting high-end Chester’s leather seating, be it a leather couch, office chair or a lounge. To get from a salted hide to finished leather ready for use on a sofa takes about three weeks. What you have in the end is leather that is wonderful to touch and ages gracefully.”

Chester’s ensures that each hide has its very own distinctive colour, texture and grain pattern. Hand-dyed hides have unique blends of colour and patterns and no two hides are the same. The hides are processed using the latest technology and are environmentally safe. Its tanners are highly trained in what they do.

Ramesh’s Chesterfield sofas were originally upholstered in the famed vegetable-tanned French Mouton Fauve lambskins that were hand-dyed and hand-crafted. Today, for practical reasons like size and texture, bovine hide is sourced from Central and Western Europe.

Wood factory

The 10,000-square-foot facility in Peenya Industrial Area can be described as functional. There are no fancy CNC machines mass producing furniture here, and it is obvious that the focus is on customised, quality woodworking.

The factory is instead equipped with basic requirements of band saws, a combi planer, a chisel mortiser machine and an Altendorf panel saw – and the whole set-up is geared toward customisation.

All the frames that go into the sofa are executed at this factory. Precision and detail are the bye-word here, and design templates for the current range on manufacture hang on the walls for ready reference and use.

Even a slight deviation from the specifications could mean rejection and subsequent wastage, but the carpenters and craftsmen carry out their work with a confidence honed by years of experience.

Ramesh notes with a hint of pride that his loyal carpenters play a major role in achieving the exacting standards that are required.

Most of the finely crafted framework is made from a mix of imported, superior quality, kiln-dried European Beech and hard Pine wood that prevent warping, bending, cracking and termite attacks. Beech is used in greater load-bearing parts. Authentic mortise and tenon joinery is used in assembling the frames.

Designer pieces

Once the wood working is completed the batch is despatched to the main factory for the rest of the process that transforms it to a designer piece. This spacious 15,000-square-foot factory is a modern facility equipped with the state-of-the-art equipment for upholstering.

Its store room is a veritable treasure trove of leather in various textures and hues such as burnt oak, claret, forest, red brown, stone, wet bark, choco, cigar and denim, charcoal, cognac, moss, ox blood, red wood and walnut.

The first stage of production floor is the suspension and webbing, which is the component that bears the maximum load and gives firm support and comfort over a lifetime. Chester’s uses a combination of sinuous steel springs and heavy-duty imported elastic webbing to ensure that this is a standard feature of all the sofas and chairs it produces.

Subsequently the frames are covered with many layers, starting with coir matting, felts, natural jute fabrics, and high-resilience polyurethane foam of varying densities. This highly skilled process imparts the distinctively exquisite shape and contour of each Chester’s piece. Padded layers are fastened to the frames with steel staples and water-based glues.

Several heavy-duty Jukki sewing machines are used to stich the leather selected from the readily available collection and the sofas are then covered with this material. Subsequently, the folding and tufting is painstakingly carried out with great geometrical precision by experts.

The application of hand dyes is carried out at this point and left to dry for over two days, before the final coat of wax that gives the leather a protective and refined finish is applied.

Finally, embellishments like the studs, or antique brass rivets, are precisely placed to give it the complete look. In the event of any special customisation requirement fine fabrics can also be used to upholster the sofas.

Marketing push

Asked about the competition Ramesh’s son, Mr AshwinRamaswamy (partner and marketing head), categorically states that there is no such thing in India currently. “What separates us from the wannabes is our intimate knowledge of leather and the leather market. It is not something that one acquires overnight. The relationship and trust that we have developed with the leather importers and suppliers provides us the cutting edge,” he asserts.

Such is his confidence in the quality of Chester’s products that discount on prices is almost unheard of. And this ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude is perhaps what adds to Chester’s aura!

Chester’s ensures that even while delivering top quality, it is able to keep prices within reasonable limits. Direct selling to end customers using the company’s own channels ensures there is no build-up of distributor margins, which can be very high.

Ramesh points out that another area of cost advantage is Chester’s own production of finished leather from European hides. This helps the company to keep retail prices within limits, which works to customers’ advantage.

The articulate and dapper promoter of Chester’s has deliberately adopted a low-key model for the company while simultaneously ensuring a steady and successful growth trajectory right from its inception. But he now wants to go beyond word-of-mouth publicity and client referrals to expand his niche business.

With ambitious growth plans on the anvil of achieving a target of Rs. 60 crore in the next 5 years, Chester’s now plans to ramp up its  marketing efforts using  digital and social media. A showroom in New Delhi is in the pipeline, to be followed by Mumbai.

A major challenge, as Ashwin sees, it is assembling trained marketing personnel who can accurately understand and assimilate customer requirements and accurately transfer the information to the production staff. Such abilities only come with years of experience, he says.

Having overcome greater obstacles thus far, such challenges should not be a big deal for Chester’s. For Ramesh and Ashwin the sky is the limit.





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