Sustainably designed and traditionally crafted

From using traditional craftmanship, so those artisan skills don’t die out, to making kitchens that last decades, everything that George Robinson Kitchens in Cornwall does is focused on sustainable business practices and the future. Vicki Evans speaks to owner George Robinson to find out more.

Not only is creating a sustainable kitchen a delicate balancing act, there is no perfect formula to refer to for building a sustainable business. However, George Robinson, the owner of George Robinson Kitchens in Cornwall, and his team, take small but considered steps to ensure their designs stand the test of time and are environmentally friendly.

Reduce, reuse, recycle – it may be a clichéd tagline, but it is a helpful place to start thinking about the environment.

First is ‘reduce’. This can begin with reducing transportation of materials and using local suppliers. For example, the wood for George Robinson Kitchens designs comes from local sawmills that is transported to the workshop, which is based just a couple of miles outside Penzance.

On average, the company creates 12 to 15 kitchens a year – with each one carefully crafted by hand. Robinson likes the small nature of the business and how he still gets to work with customers and create designs.

“We are a little country workshop, but that is what we want to be,” says owner and founder George Robinson. “We travel all over the country, and don’t just work in Cornwall. We do jobs in London and the South-East, as well as with a few international clients.”

The company was started in 2002 by Robinson and his wife, Marta. He has always been in the woodworking industry, as he started at just 16 and has continued cabinetmaking ever since. He now has a small, yet highly skilled, team of four. Robinson is quick to praise each of them for their attention to detail when creating designs that not only meet the needs of their client but also the environment.

Reducing waste is also essential. Cutting the wood with maximum efficiency is vital so as not to produce unusable offcuts. “I want us to generate as little waste material as possible. I even make it a little game for the team to see who can use a sheet in the most efficient way possible,” says Robinson. The game, he says, can also reduce costs, as wasting materials can mount up to thousands a year.

‘Reuse’ can have many meanings, but in this context, it is about making sure the kitchen can be used again and again for decades to come. Robinson approaches this from two fronts: first, to create a timeless-looking design, and the second, using durable, long-lasting materials.

The two can sometimes go hand in hand. For example, oak is a timeless timber in terms of aesthetics, but has the added benefit of being solid and sturdy. 

In terms of carcasses, George Robinson Kitchens uses a mix of either MDF or birch plywood, depending on customer preference and project requirements.

“For longevity, it’s all about the materials we use,” says Robinson. “A birch plywood carcass should last for years. I used to say 20 to 30 years, but it’s longer than that. A couple of years ago, Ikea started to say the same about their kitchens, and by comparison, ours should last 100 years.

“For me, the oak timber we use is almost timeless. We do many oak kitchens. As long as the design is simple, it will last a long time. With painted kitchens, those can be repainted in a few years and brought back to current trends. I have gone back to kitchens that I made 15 years ago, and they still look amazing.”

No compromise

There are no compromises on quality even with something as physically small – yet vitally important – as the fixtures and fittings. Daro, Häfele and, occasionally, LDL are the main component brands used and Simonswerk for hinges. Quality components are vital, and in 20 years, the team has only had to replace a hinge twice. They may cost a bit more, but it is better to “buy nice than buy twice” – another way to help make that little difference to
the environment. 

Being a small-scale company does, Robinson says, give it more freedom to implement ‘greener’ processes. “We can recycle all our cardboard or even sawdust, and, being small, we can be as sustainable as possible,” he explains. “That is a tremendous passion of mine that we are not putting a footprint on to this world.”

Keeping up with traditional forms is a labour of love, but Robinson wants to keep the skills alive to pass them down. It does, however, mean that the kitchens are time-consuming to build. The small team can only really work on one or two kitchens a month, as so much time and dedication is required. One of their most significant projects this year will take around two months to complete, with the work being started in July for an October installation date.

As ‘bespoke’ is at the heart of the company’s design philosophy, according to Robninson, there’s nothing that the designers cannot do. From modern-looking handleless kitchens to country-house chic, any look can be achieved. Traditional techniques are always used, no matter the design. Robinson says: “If there is one thing that I will not compromise on if I am doing a modern kitchen, is that we still do a dovetail door. We do not use modern methods of screwing in
the door.”

Even after being in the industry for such a long time, Robinson is still thrilled at the thought of people actually using his kitchens. “It excites me more if someone is using the kitchen, and it is not just a show kitchen. A lot of the kitchen designs are based upon people who love cooking,” he says. 

Though kitchens are the main focus, the team also creates bedrooms, dining room tables, bookcases and vanity units. He says: “We tend to stick to kitchens because that is what we know and love.”

Surviving and thriving

Moving slightly away from sustainability and focusing on the turbulent last year, how has the business coped, and what lessons have been learnt?

“We have been fortunate that we are so busy,” says Robinson. “The internet has worked well over lockdown. On the first lockdown, we closed down for the first three months and then after that we have worked all the way through. 

“We have been busy, and I think that is due to Instagram pages and people sitting at home looking at the internet. We do get 40% to 50% of our business through word of mouth.”

The workshop showroom had to close last year, but a new one will open up when the team moves to a larger space over the coming year. At the moment, if required, customers can see a design in situ about 10 minutes away from the workshop at a lighting firm where they have collaborated to install a small display.

Robinson acknowledges that there is still a need for the business to have a showroom. However, he also sees the value of showing customers around the workshop, ashe believes it gives people a better appreciation for the crafts-manship that goes into each design. “I like showing people around the workshop, because it gives an honest view of what we make and how we make it,” he says.

“The workshop has the units that we are making at the time, so if someone wants to come in and see us, then we can show them a work in progress. We have some really lovely customers we are in contact with all the time, and if we wanted to show a potential client a kitchen in situ, we would take them to see those old clients.”

Social media has been a powerful tool for the company. Its Instagram is a blend of finished kitchen shots and behind the scenes pictures of the team in the workshop. Robinson believes that showing his clients the process is vital, whether that is through a tour of the workshop or photos on social media.

“I like to get a complete picture diary story together from the start – from buying the material to the final product,” he says. “I then give it to the customer at the end of the whole process.

“The kitchen is such a big room in the house that it takes longer than most people think. Some may think that we can turn around a kitchen fit in a week, but it can take a month, because we are entirely bespoke. We are in someone’s house and life for a month, and it is a big disruption, so showing pictures of the workshop and what goes on there helps them appreciate what the whole project involves from start to finish.”

Showing off the craftsmanship and the team behind the work is a way to get the customer engaged and understand the kitchen’s detailed process. It also showcases each bespoke design’s individual and human nature and how much care and attention has gone into every cut and joint.

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