ith the Great British High Street on a seemingly inexorable slide into the doldrums, this autumn’s launch of a brand new retail quarter tucked behind King’s Cross station is a bold move. Having said that, Coal Drops Yard promises, if anything, to set the gold standard for the retail experience of the 21st century. In this new monthly column, we highlight some of the exciting businesses moving in.
Nanaki Bonfi loves lava. Back in 2002 she set up Made a Mano, an apt name for her company, which undertakes a painstaking manual process creating tiles out of slabs of lava stone hewn from the slopes of Mount Etna. The end result is unquestionably beautiful, but the intricacies of the manufacturing method almost scuppered her plans completely.
“After fives years, including travelling to India, China and Estonia looking for producers who could work with this stone, I was devastated,” she tells us. “I had dreamed of opening shops around the world and sharing the unique and magnificent features of these tiles with as many people as possible, but production was simply proving too expensive.”
Etna lava stone is unique in that it has been compressed for anywhere between 300 and 1000 years before it is quarried. That means it’s less porous than other volcanic stone, so Nanaki can have it burnt at temperatures of 2000 degrees for up to 20 days, resulting in an almost indestructible finished tile, displaying a unique dark patina of minerals and metals.
Finding ovens that can operate at that fierce heat was one of the problems (they cost upwards of £200,000 a pop), let alone the fact that someone has to be on hand to micro-adjust the temperature every three hours. And on top of that was the meticulous application of her striking geometric designs: organic hand-blended colours applied one square metre at a time.
So why not take a few short cuts, we have to ask? “I came to terms with the fact that to create the product I truly wanted, we were never going to be a big company,” Nanaki says. “There are a lot of copyists out there, who will easily replicate a nice pattern, so for me it’s always been about how you work with the materials, exploring their unique properties and attractive imperfections.”
That uncompromising dedication to the integrity of her tiles is how she came to work alongside Tom Dixon Studio at their new home in the Fish & Coal building, becoming one of the very first Coal Drops Yard outlets in the process.
“Being here means we can sell direct to our UK clients,” she says of her small desk, surrounded by towering racks of richly colourful samples from her range. “It’s always one-to-one, and it’s like a candy store for architects and interior decorators because we can make everything bespoke, from blending colours to cutting irregular sizes.
We can make really big tiles as the material is so strong, and they can handle every kind of use, from working fireplaces to outdoors in sub-zero temperatures. You can flambé directly on the tiles and we also sell them as gorgeous chopping boards that don’t scratch – honestly, the knife would break first.”
With Asian origins but having grown up with an adoptive family in Denmark, Nanaki’s aesthetic is a striking fusion of her dynamic cultural mix. Many of the designs are inspired by her collection of thirteenth century kimonos, yet there is a stripped back, Scandinavian minimalism running through them all too.
For tiles sourced from Italy, this is a fairly eclectic global combination, something that has seen her work sought to decorate sites as far and wide as a department store in Hong Kong to a castle in Russia.
And despite the inescapable premium that producing such tiles incurs, Nanaki is quick to point out that Made a Mano’s prices, starting from £300 per square metre, mean lux favourites like Fired Earth’s hand-painted terracotta tiles still cost a lot more.
For gorgeous wall and floor coverings that are virtually indestructible, her work displays its worth. “I always correct people,” says Nanaki with a smile, “they won’t just last a lifetime. These tiles are forever.”