Stephen Davis on the story of Southsea Deckchairs
PUBLISHED: 10:06 15 May 2018
From a Napoleonic barn, Southsea's striped style statements are being churned out at record speed. Faith Eckersall meets enthusiast and entrepreneur Stephen Davis aka 'Mr Deckchair'
Does Stephen Davies love a deckchair? You may as well ask if Donald Trump loves a tower – the man is besotted.
There he sits in his Portsmouth office, on a chair covered in rainbow striped fabric, surrounded by director’s chairs and the more traditional fold-up number, which are as synonymous with British seaside holidays as sandcastles and fish and chips.
He’s got them in his home; “We have the director’s variety for dining chairs”, and frequently causes anxiety to his wife, Roma, when he ‘starts taking one apart in a shop and the floorwalker gets really touchy!’
His is an international success story involving Napoleonic barns, strange old machines and stripes… lots and lots of stripes. He’s exported this design icon around the world, as well as to clients as illustrious as film director Sir Richard Curtis and the 2012 Olympics. And it all started here, in Hampshire, on Southsea prom.
“It was the summer of 1981 and I was at Portsmouth Poly studying politics and needed a summer job,” he says. “I really did enjoy it; chatting to people, making sure everything was OK, collecting the money.”
Davies is happy to admit that it was love at first sight, not just for the job but for the deckchairs themselves with all their sturdy, stripy gorgeousness. He did a few summers before drifting off elsewhere but after finding nothing else he wanted to do, returned in 1987 to his lucky break – the Southsea deckchair concession was up for grabs.
“It was the best job I’d ever done so I took it,” he says. But this lead to the responsibility of ‘actually running a business’ and it wasn’t long before he realised his deckchairs were wearing out.
“They were tatty, difficult to maintain and I knew they needed replacing,” he says. He was lucky again as a council official tipped him off about some pre-war ‘deckchair machines’ lingering in one of the council’s depots.
“I realised they would enable me to produce the deckchairs in quantity and so I bought them for £300,” he says.
That turned out to be the easy bit. It took nearly 18 months to persuade the council to rent him some premises – a Napoleonic barn off Burrfields Road – and then he set to work to produce his first product for Southsea Deckchairs.
“I had no knowledge of woodworking and so the first one took me three weeks,” he says, explaining how he called on all the knowledge he’d gained from the job about what made a good, strong, comfortable deckchair.
The council liked what it saw and so came the happy day when Davies laid out his first 50 red and white striped deckchairs on the prom. “I thought they looked beautiful; like strawberries and cream, and I know I had a big grin on my face as I put them out,” he says.
When the resort services manager forwarded an enthusiastic letter from one visitor, who praised the ‘wonderful’ new deckchairs, he knew he was on to something. The year was 1991.
Not long after, Davies embarked upon a tour of coastal resorts, snapping up orders for 50 deckchairs from Plymouth, 200 from Exmouth and 1,000 from Torbay. “I just took the orders then wondered how I was going to do it,” he admits.
Business accelerated again in 1999 when Roma joined the firm, bringing fresh ideas on colour combinations and products such as windbreaks, another British seaside mainstay.
Since she joined, the company has gone from strength to strength, tapping into the vintage and retro obsession and supplying rooftop cinemas, urban beaches and festivals, along with the 2012 Olympics down at Weymouth, and other clients, including screenwriter Richard Curtis, who ordered a job lot as gifts for people who’d worked with him on a film.
Southsea Deckchairs are used in advertising, they’ve been on Foyle’s War and Mr Selfridge and Davies is happy to admit that he’s probably become Britain’s ‘Mr Deckchair’ and proves it by demonstrating the correct way to put one up.
“There are three bars, drop the bottom one, drop the top and make sure it’s all fitted in and you’ll be fine,” he says, explaining that failure to follow this procedure is what can lead to ‘deckchair-related’ injuries. “People are sometimes too lazy to stand and try to do it while seated.”
Not that you’ll ever see your granddad falling amusingly through one of his chairs, unlike the flimsier, aluminium tube variety. “Look after them properly and they will be very long-lasting,” he says.
Deckchairs are such a part of public life it’s surprising to learn that they haven’t been with us that long. According to Roma they arrived in 1886 when John Thomas Moore took out a patent and started manufacturing them in 1887 in Macclesfield.
They were popular on ocean liners, too, gracing the ships that traversed the Atlantic, trying to win the Blue Riband and in 2003 Blackpool calculated that it had rented out 68,000 deckchairs in one year at £1.50 a day.
And so, then to the $64,000 dollar question. Why the stripes? Why not spots, stars, or flowers?
No one seems to know. All Roma can say is that despite their pleasing design and colours, the most popular fabric deckchair they sell is in plain, old, green. They’ve partnered with students in the Winchester School of Art to find new colours and designs and some of these are stunning but out there, green is still the favourite.
And even though some resorts have done away with deckchairs altogether – Blackpool dispensed with them in 2014 – Davies says we have not lost our love of them.
Sales at Southsea Deckchairs have steadily increased – they employ 13 people, use sustainable timber, and manufacture a variety of products including a double deckchair for lovers, mini deckchairs for children, Edwardian deckchairs with sun-shades and footrests, deckchairs with arms-rests and sturdy stools.
And, as I heave myself out of the deckchair I’m sitting in, to leave, as if to prove the point, yet another order comes in.
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