Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 57 seconds
Everyone has a story. Who do you turn to when a much-loved chair breaks – head to (a) Islington Waste Centre or (b) find a furniture restorer? If your instinct is to save and repair stuff then you need to meet local cabinet maker and furniture restorer Dominic Bennet. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill.
Dominic Bennet is repairing a leather club chair – expertly stitching in a jute layer above renovated springs. It’s actually my chair, and it was looking very sorry for itself after years of hard use at my home after being found in the street back in 2005, the exact same year that Dominic opened his furniture restoration shop on Mountgrove Road, N5. Yes, his workshop and shop are in Hackney, but Dominic has a long connection with Islington.
>To celebrate the 250th interview on ISLINGTON FACES readers (and all 250 interviewees) are invited for a drink (there are plenty of soft options) in the pub on Monday 2 October. Save the date and hopefully you’ll soon be sent an email with your invite. If you want to come along, and haven’t yet received an invite please email Nicola for event details!
Turns out that Islington was Dominic’s first proper London base while he was studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute. “I was born in Newcastle,” he says making clear he’s a Northerner. For the first few months of his uni life, Dominic lived in south London and then in 1988 moved to Islington. “I squatted with two guys in the Barnsbury Estate, one of those nice red Peabody buildings, at the top of Chapel Market, with outside corridors that were sitting there empty. The council had fitted uPVC windows and all you had to do was take out a little strip of plastic beading and the glass came right out. They’d put steel over the front doors but they were bolted from the inside. You undid that and had a perfect flat with a kitchen and all amenities. We knew all the neighbours and they liked us because they knew we weren’t having parties or taking drugs – we took care of the flats, paid utility bills and all the rest of it. After six months we’d get a letter with a court date saying the council would evict us which gave us a month to find another empty flat.”
While a student Dominic, now 51, lived in four or five squats in the same estate – something almost impossible to do now as late in the 1980s squatting was turned into a serious crime.
“I became a furniture restorer by accident,” says Dominic in his workshop which smells of beeswax and French polish. There are a double row of tools neatly stored along the wall by his workbench, shelves with rolls of seat caning, a yellow traffic sign warning about parking restrictions during the Bruce Springsteen 2008 concert at the Emirates and a giant tin of Hammerite paint. From his current chair makeover he has an eyrie-style view down to his shop, which is filled with the sort of wooden furniture that suits Islington and Hackney-sized rooms. Occasionally a passer-by pops in to ask about a repair, but mostly the only sound is Dominic and his tools.
Places Dominic Bennet likes in Islington
- Little Sardegna, 170 Blackstock Road is one of my favourite places. I went there recently as my partner and I had been craving their dishes. I always have seafood linguini and she had pumpkin tortellini.
- Chapel Market is an absolute favourite. When I worked as a furniture restorer for another company I would have lunch every day at Olgar Stores, an Italian deli on Penton Street by Baron Street. It did fantastic ciabatta sandwiches, but it’s gone now.
- I use Ron Grainger, a locksmith with a stall on Chapel Market. He fixes all the locks on my cabinets and makes proper old-fashioned keys. It’s near where Euphorium used to be.
- I used to go to Islington a lot more than I do now. I’m not such a fan of Upper Street but once in a while I go to the Crown pub, 116 Cloudsley Road in Barnsbury.
- I used to get everything – tools and wood locally from Hackney and Islington. Hackney was the centre of the furniture making industry in the UK with turners, joiners and manufacturers. Now everything is on the internet.
“After university I lived in the States and then came back, to Blackstock Road, with a wife and small child and needed a job to pay the rent,” he explains. “I knew someone working in After Noah, on 121 Upper Street, and they needed a van driver. I’d always enjoyed working with my hands so I also helped out around the workshop and found I was getting a proper, almost old-fashioned apprenticeship as a cabinet maker because the guy who owns After Noah is a furniture restorer, as was his grandfather.”
After a while Dominic struck out on his own, from the garage behind his new home on Mildmay Road. He then decided to find a better spot for his lathe and equipment. “I found that workshops were more expensive than having a shop on a quiet street with not much footfall,” he says which is how he opened Bennet & Brown on Mountgrove Road.
Twelve years on it’s a less quiet street now, as there’s a gallery (#90), mini mart (#80) and two coffee shops – Sage (#88) and Fink’s Salt & Sweet (#72) Importantly Bennet & Brown is still there, thanks to the 700 people who signed a petition to stop his landlords ending his lease and converting the building into a flat.
“I knew something was up when Guerrilla was being filmed [Sky Atlantic series about the Black Power movement of 1970s with Idris Elba]. The landlords’ agent started sending surveyors to measure every inch of the shop and the big basement. Eventually I got a letter saying ‘you’ve got to get out’. I decided I’d fight it. Crucially wonderful people went on line on my behalf to lodge objections on Hackney Council’s planning website.” As a result of this and newspaper reports in Hackney Gazette, Hackney Citizen and Islington Tribune the landlords changed their mind.”
Instead of turfing him out, Dominic secured a new five year lease. “I should have had a party. It was pretty stressful. The way London is I couldn’t have afforded anywhere locally it would have meant moving my workshop out beyond the North Circular,” he says with relief.
Thankfully Dominic’s shop of treasures – small things that fold out (functioning as an office desk by day and a dining table when friends come by), chest of drawers, wardrobes, dining tables and chairs plus quirky delights – are now still easy for passers-by to inspect, and even fall in love with. Best of all Dominic can keep on restoring Islingtonian’ family heirlooms, and lucky street finds that need some TLC. Do go and see for yourself.
- Bennet and Brown, 84 Mountgrove Road, N5 2LT. Call or check the website for opening times or to discuss a furniture repair.
- There’s also a Hackney showroom at Paradise Works, unit 5, 142 Lea Bridge Road, E5 9RB http://www.paradiseworks.co.uk/
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.