I HEART WORK
Who are you: Rob Whitaker
What is your work: Creative Director at Fired Earth
What is your website: www.firedearth.com
Describe your work in 5 words? Authentic, expert, stylish, crafted, oomph!
Can you tell us about your company and what you do? Fired Earth started selling terracotta back in 1983, before quickly adding other floor finishes such as stone, and then wall tiles and paint to the range. By the late ’90s, we were established as the go-to-place for stunning wall and floor tiles, bathroom collections and paint - as well as tribal rugs and soft furnishings. Although we’ve reduced the soft furnishings side of the business, we’ve expanded into freestanding and fitted kitchens, and more recently wallpaper. There were 15 stores by 1996 and we opened our 62nd store in Richmond a few weeks ago. I’m responsible for managing each of the in-house teams that design or select all our products, and for the marketing and public relations side of the business.
Where is your office/studio and what is the view out of your window? Well, the offices are in a lovely village called Adderbury in North Oxfordshire, on the edge of the Cotswolds, so my drive to work from my cottage nearby is past deer and thatched cottages. However, my view is of the car park!
What is the first thing you do when you get to work? Make coffee. Then make more coffee!
What is a typical day at work? If it’s an office day, then I arrive around 8.30am and catch up on emails and social media first thing. Then, there’s often a review of a new product introduction or design with the relevant teams, for example, the bathrooms or paint teams. Lunch is always on the hop when I’m in the office, and then in the afternoon I might have a meeting with the press, or one of our suppliers will visit to discuss business and future ideas. The day is punctuated with tea and coffee and then the phone stops ringing around 5pm, when I normally spend the rest of the day thinking about everything from the launch of new products, to plans for a new store opening, or what the next window display should be.
What would be one of your top tips when choosing tiles or paint? Don’t focus too much on what other people think; you’ve worked hard for your money and the right to choose how you live and no one should dictate it to you. If you need help though, buy a few magazines and see how other people have done it. Another tip is to buy samples first and live with them for a while.
What are the tools of your trade? My eyes and ears - I look at everything from old photographs, historic buildings, new architecture and interiors to trends in travel, fashion or even food. My camera phone is very handy for sneaky shots and I carry a notebook called Creative Ideas, which has all sorts of random thoughts scribbled down. Also, my passport, since we do around seven or eight overseas trips a year sourcing and selecting.
What can’t you work without? My colleagues and their humour! Design is a collaboration and I’m good at ideas but not always great at the detail involved in launching ranges. We try to have fun along the way.
Why do you love what you do? I meet amazing people. Also, I really enjoy being able to help my colleagues focus on areas of work that inspire them or that will nurture them and build a platform for their future careers. Tiles can be surprisingly addictive once you realise how beautiful and decorative they are, and we have the opportunity to go to stunning places to find them.
Who or what inspires you? My grandmother and parents all worked very hard to provide for their families and I guess some of that rubbed off judging by the air miles I clock up. The dedication and quiet resilience of colleagues is admirable too.
What is the best advice you have received? When I was 21, an older family friend told me that rather than sitting back and waiting for something to be handed to you, if you want success you have to visualise it, work at it, track it and change course, if it doesn’t work. He also said to align your interests with your job as closely as possible and it will feel less like work! He was right!
What is one moment in your career you will always remember? A day when I met two Hollywood celebrities, in one day at our Fulham store in London. One was charming, relaxed and funny and came alone. An hour later the other was rude, cold and unpleasant and came with guards and about 30 paparazzi in tow! It was an odd day but an interesting insight into human behaviour and the choices we make about how to live.
What is the best part of your job? Seeing products on the shelf that we found or designed months earlier, fully formed, named and ready to go.
And the worst? Jetlag and I are not friends!
What’s your proudest career achievement? My first ever job was for Häagen-Dazs ice cream and I persuaded the marketing department to sponsor the Bath Music Festival. I was 21 and was handed responsibility for the deal and all of the follow through - it was an exciting time.
What are you working on at the moment? New tile collections, a new wallpaper collection and 10 new paint colours, as well as a new tile catalogue with lots of new photography. I’m also looking at new store openings and planning our travels for 2014 to find the next big thing!
What single thing would improve the quality of your life? A masseur on permanent standby, as I have a bad shoulder.
What have you learnt the hard way? There is no quick fix or short cut to having the career of your dreams; it’s hard work, hard work and more hard work - with just a little luck and kindness thrown in.
If you could do another job what would you like to do and why? I’d like to run an art gallery supporting new and emerging artists, and to write a few books alongside the gallery; it would be creative and be all mine.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to do what you are doing? Absorb as much as you can about the industry. Also, insist on meetings face-to-face even if there is no job available. Here at Fired Earth we’ve made roles for the right people when the roles didn’t exist.
If you could be someone for a day who would it be? It would be someone 6’2” (I’m 5’7”). I’d go to a concert and be able to see something!
What would you like to be doing in five years’ time? Either still creative lead here at Fired Earth, or reading extracts from my first book at the Hay Literary Festival!
If you had an extra hour each day what would you do with it? Sleep, or watch Mad Men.
How would you like to be remembered? As someone who was diligent in his work, did right by his family, and was a fun friend to be around…oh, and by throwing the most enormous party where everyone celebrates me, me, me!
Image of Rob Whitaker by Tim James/The Gray Gallery.
Thank you Rob for talking to The Lifestyle Editor.