When Peter Bennion became a research chemist, it seemed he had made his bed in the world of academia.
But after three years the 26-year-old turned his back on a sensible career at the University of Sheffield and decided to explore his creativity.
He followed his heart and started to make beautiful bed frames from recycled wood.
“Working with wood and creating a special place was something I loved from being young,” he says, rather underplaying his talent.
At 15 when he decided to improve his bedroom, he didn’t merely put up a few shelves. To his parents’ amazement, he designed and made a wooden head-board, a pair of bedside cabinets and fitted cupboards.
Some 42 years on, he is still making elegant furniture out of beautiful wood, right here in Sheffield.
With Kay Wallace he is co-owner of Devonshire Green’s Natural Bed Company. A company which hand-crafts – from ethically sourced timbers such as oak, walnut and ash – more than 1,000 stylish beds a year from their Sheffield workshops.
People are sleeping in these chic, contemporary creations, not just in the UK and Europe, but across the globe – from Hollywood to New Zealand. Some 38 of its beds provide night-time Zen in a boutique hotel in Tahiti and several others are looking cool in villas in the Caribbean.
But what got him started?
The answer was that 70s phenomenon the waterbed. It was 1974; waterbeds were the latest thing – and no one had one in Sheffield, so Peter decided to ride the crest of the wave.
He sold his beloved VW Beetle for £500, bought a Mini van for £150, and used the balance to set up a furniture shop in Nether Green’s Oakbrook Road.
He named it Freewheelin’ after a Bob Dylan album.
“We sanded the floors, liberated vegetable crates and screwed them to the walls as shelves – a look which is in vogue again,” he notes with some amusement.
He scoured demolition yards for old ceiling joists and began the long, painstaking task of pulling out nails, sanding, planing and shaping the wood to create an original piece of furniture.
It was a good time to launch. Terence Conran’s Habitat had sparked a boom in small lifestyle businesses selling crafts and stylish, affordable furniture.
Peter was soon joined by Kay and the pair have run the business jointly for the last 40 years, each contributing different skills and interests. The business grew and they diversified into handmade exotic furniture, textiles and clothing from India and the bazaars of Marrakech.
They started travelling around the world and in 1978 with Kay’s energy and enthusiasm the business had become Bringing It All Back Home, an Aladdin’s Cave on Glossop Road named after another Dylan album.
A few years later they started making a new style of bed, the futon, and in 1987 they opened The Futon Shop on Devonshire Street. The versatility of the Oriental-style, folding mattress bed, and adverts in the Guardian created a healthy mail order side and sales across the country. The pair clicked on to the need for a website in the early 90s and pretty soon, business expanded again.
Still excited by furniture design they developed the collection, incorporating contemporary, solid-wood beds and in 2000 the store was renamed the Natural Bed Company.
That same year, Peter and Kay committed to a Millennium pledge to donate £1 from every bed order to a fund for people in need across Northern India and the Himalayas – the countries to which they have formed an attachment since their travels in the 70s.
So far, more than £10,000 has been donated to women’s health centres and a project to fund clean water and a teacher in a remote part of Tibet.
New beds have been made for an orphanage and a home for elderly refugees, a schoolgirl has been sponsored through college, and money has gone to old friends who lost their homes and livelihoods in the recent Nepal earthquake.
PROUD TO BE MADE IN SHEFFIELD
For the last 16 years the Natural Bed Company has been synonymous with elegant, enduring style.
The current collection boasts more than 20 bed designs, ranging from the Japanese-inspired Kumo bed – their original bed design – to the contemporary four-poster inspired by the one Peter’s wife Bev spotted on a holiday in Scotland.
The beds are hand-crafted from start to finish in the company’s workshops in Attercliffe by a talented team of 10. The company is justifiably proud to have held the prestigious Made In Sheffield mark since 2011.
“We believe in keeping local skills alive and manufacturing for ourselves means not only that each bed is unique, but we can respond to customers’ needs. We regularly make extra long beds for tall people, or made to measure for awkwardly sized rooms,” says Kay.
The business is about to go through yet another rebirth – by the end of March it will have moved from its Devonshire Street home of 29 years to a stunning new showroom, nearby at 125 Fitzwilliam Street. The official launch event will be from 6.30pm on April 7.
The decision was made after much soul-searching. Peter says: ”We love the character of Devonshire Street just as much as the people who tried to save it from the owners’ proposal to redevelop but when planning permission was granted we were left in a place of uncertainty.
“Even if we had renewed our lease our long term future here was not guaranteed. It was time to do what we had put off for years – move to bigger premises.”
The new, 3,000 square foot location is the perfect contemporary setting for the bed collection, plus globally-sourced bedding, mattresses, furniture and homewares.
Peter says: “We are excited to be moving with the times again, but our ethos is what it’s been since I made that first waterbed 42 years ago: ‘Keep it simple, keep it different and make it perfect.’”