Porta Romana Discovery DayJanuary 2023
Porta Romana Discovery Day by Phoebe Barron
The Tobias Oliver Interiors team started off the new year with a very exciting visit to a ‘Discovery Day’, hosted by Porta Romana, at their Headquarters in Farnham, Surrey. We have represented Porta Romana as one of our preferred lighting specialists for many years but it’s always interesting to the entire team to get a sneak peek behind the scenes!
It was such a privilege to be invited into a world with whom the Tobias Oliver Interiors team share a special relationship with. Porta Romana’s unique and captivating products have been implemented in many projects over the years and are represented in our showroom in Berkhamsted – their distinctive designs are a real conversation starter!
As a newest member of the Tobias team, and an Interior Design Graduate, I arrived at the Discovery Day with an open mind. I’ve heard of Porta Romana through various sourcing projects at university and was aware of their quirky design approach, but never did I think I would have been shown such an exceptional level of detail, craftsmanship and passion from such a reputable company - impressed is an understatement!
Before we delve into our day, a little background about how Porta Romana came about:
“Porta Romana was founded on a simple concept. While living in Florence, founders Andrew and Sarah Hills found themselves exposed to different crafts and techniques in the form of small workshops that lined the streets around their house. Andrew explains ‘we were inspired immediately. We didn’t necessarily want to build a business, but we wanted to come home and make beautiful things.”
Following this, the Porta Romana brand was born in 1988, in a small workshop in London, and has grown and evolved ever since, creating lighting installations for the Royal Academy of Art, countless homes, yachts, galleries, and hotels.
“It is the collaboration between Porta Romana and the craftspeople who produce these pieces that Andrew credits for Porta Romana’s success ‘Rather than outsourcing production to factories overseas, we focus on UK makers, who have the skillset and creativity to make our pieces special.’ Supporting local craftspeople has been a focus of Porta Romana since its conception and is arguably one of the things that makes it so unique and so important to the design industry today.”
We began our day with Spencer Marsh, the Senior Product Developer at Porta Romana. He explained the importance of being a bespoke business, to satisfy both the creative and simplistically clever designs to the emphatically, in Spencer’s words, ‘weird and wonderful!’ Sustainability is a pivotal and complex topic in the world of design and is a huge part of Porta Romana’s ongoing process and ethos. They continue to investigate ways to strive to be ever more sustainable across all parts of the business, with a view to doing whatever they can to ensure all products are ethically and sustainably sourced and all processes involved are as environmentally friendly as possible. A mantra we fully support and respect at Tobias Oliver Interiors.
To improve efficiencies Spencer explained that they have their in-house design and workshop team onsite, and many of their artisanal partners within an hour’s drive this ensure they can reduce lead times as much as possible. Porta Romana have also introduced 3D printing and scanning onsite, enabling digital modelling and a much quicker turnaround time for prototypes! I was mesmerised by the 3D printer working on the Porta Romana logo, I would have loved to see a 3D prototype being printed, but I’d probably still be there watching it unfold! The material they use for the printing is a corn-starch composite, which is a biodegradable and carbon neutral material.
One of the prototype’s that instantly captured my attention was for the Mushroom Wall light, which looked like something directly out of Alice in Wonderland! I was amazed at the texture of the prototype and was surprised to learn that the final product is made from the original prototype material (corn-starch compound) with a decorative plaster finish applied before being embellished in one of the many bespoke paint finishes by one of their in-house specialist decorators. This is then fitted with LED bulbs. Amazing how the technological advancements such as this can allow for a final product to simply be printed!
Spencer also talked us through a wide range of inspirations that are discussed for potential new designs and showed us one initial inspiration that led to the design of the Urchin Chandelier. The chandelier’s inspiration began with chestnut seed pod, discovered when founder Andrew was on a dog walk. From there, the finalised design of the chandelier took 8 weeks, and consists of a complex process; each lamp takes two days for the material to be passed through a specialist machine before the finalised 13 steel elements are taken to the workshop to be hand-painted in either Bodu Gold, Bodu Silver or Flint White. Such an organic and unusual inspiration certainly pushes the boundaries, and really acts as statement of what Porta Romana are capable of!
Following on from the insightful talk from Spencer, we were introduced to Richard McConnel who joined Porta Romana directly from college and worked his way up through the business; to 20 years later becoming Production Manager for the entire outfit! We were shown the glass aisles and delivery aisles, the assembly department, the QC department, and even the wiring and packaging departments. Richard showed us how each product is wired and tested for international destinations, not just the UK!
Richard also explained that for packaging, all their crates are made in house, consisting of flat packed pallets and recyclable cardboard. The considered packaging is as environmentally friendly as possible, and they aim to avoid as much wastage as they can. As many products have to travel a considerable distance to reach their destination, the packaging has been carefully developed to include new spring elements within the cardboard boxes, to prevent the products from moving too much when in transport.
It was clear at this point that this company’s Headquarters felt like a Tardis, with so many elements to the business and so many people hard at work, and we’d only really scratched the surface! What really took me surprise next was despite the scale of the company, they rely on a local Pottery shop called Greyshott Pottery, about an hour’s round trip from their Headquarters. As Porta Romana is the only lighting company they work with, it was really encouraging to hear Porta Romana supporting a local business. I suspect with only 6 kilns, they must be especially busy!Lunchtime!
After a very busy morning it was time to take a break for lunch with Jackie (Sales Director), Olivia (UK & International Sales Manager), Holly (Sales Support Advisor) and Ali Milam (Managing Director). Whilst we were discussing what we’d experienced and learnt from the morning, Jackie also wanted to pick our brains with any feedback we could give them about any areas of the company. It was clear from the beginning that feedback is important to them, and both Jackie and Olivia seemed grateful for the discussion! It was evident that Porta Romana has a passionate and loyal team, with a desire to create beautifully handmade products to be loved for a lifetime.
With our white gloves off and reluctantly having to give back our lovely aprons, Olivia took us around the workshop to see what was in progress. I distinctly remember seeing one artist painting what looked like a table straight out of Beauty and the Beast, where she was asked to create her own decayed textured finish for the furniture! Whilst there was a feeling of intense concentration in some places, the level of skill and creativity was astounding, with artists transforming various materials such as metal, wood, and composites into works of art.
We then headed over the lampshade studio, where Gabbi Smith (Lampshade Supervisor) gave us an insight into the skillset required to make the lampshades to order. We were told that 95% of the lampshades are made in-house. Gathered lampshades also made by hand - initially this was done by an external source, but following this company going into administration, the lampshade team had to work out how to do it themselves overnight, quite literally!
Working with a considerable number of off-cuts can prove to be a challenge when considering wastage, so the team take extra care in ensuring any leftover fabric can be used for smaller shades. With every product made to order, this is no simple process. The team take extra care in ensuring the attention to detail, with the precise gluing, taping, and tucking fabric in. The lampshade department also undertake several bespoke shades that are designed by interior designers who are looking for something really bespoke and unique. It can take up to 6 months to learn the correct skills for making a bespoke lampshade at such a high standard. To achieve the perfect shade, we were also told how the team will use 4mm wirework, to provide extra stability, durability, and longevity.
It was interesting to watch the skill of making a lampshade first hand, with the level of detail and yet the speed in which it was produced. I could have watched this awe-inspiring team work all day!
To conclude our day, we had Zoe Burke (Business Development Manager), talk us through the importance of their Custom and Bespoke service within Porta Romana, and how the level of craftsmanship they possess within the company enables custom designs with fully interchangeable custom finishes. She explained that throughout their wide range of clientele, she notices how the customisation of products differ dependant on location. She iterated the trends they have realised where the Middle East tend to stick to classic gold finishes, Germany love their greens, and in Florida their blues!
After an eye-opening Discovery Day at Porta Romana, I felt so grateful to have gained such a wealth of insightful knowledge about this unprecedented brand, and a brand Tobias Oliver Interiors will continue to work with long into the future! It was such a wonderful experience and starting point as part of the Tobias Oliver Interiors Team, and I hope there will be more for the future! Many thanks to all at Porta Romana HQ - until next time!