Putting the funk into other people’s junk

I had never been formally introduced to a piece of furniture until last week’s brief encounter with ‘Hans’, a lustrous red chest of drawers boasting a fine set of porcelain knobs.

‘Hans’ is the creation of ‘Funky Empire’, a second-hand, eco-furniture company that specialises in restoring and revamping the ‘stuff’ that most people wouldn’t think twice about tossing in a skip, or foisting onto The White Elephant stall at the village fete.

‘Funky Empire’, meanwhile, is the brainchild of Caro Barnfield and Jo Seifert: two extremely energetic girls who work full-time at Aldeburgh Music (Caro runs the Baroque Orchestra while Jo runs the Orchestra) and who both come from Germany originally.

I can’t help wondering what prompted them to move into the furniture world. After all, a couple of orchestras between them you’d think they have plenty on their hands already.

“We needed the space,” says Jo emphatically. Space? That’s a novel motive for setting up a new business.

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“Caro is completely obsessed with furniture. She can’t stop herself doing up furniture that people don’t want anymore, which meant we ended up with about 10 tonnes of furniture in the house we were sharing. We couldn’t cross the room. It was getting that bad.”

Apparently this obsession all started when Caro’s family farm was sold in Germany.

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“I inherited half of my grandmother’s furniture. I did everything to it. I stripped it. I painted it. I can distinctly remember the smell of the paint stripper even though I was only eleven. I still have it all and couldn’t imagine living without it. My wardrobe, kitchen table and chairs, my desk… (“Your massive desk”, interjects Jo)… they all go everywhere with me.”

Everywhere? “Everywhere.” Suffolk? “Yes, they all came to Suffolk with me.”

Okay. So ‘Funky Empire’ is a form of therapy for Caro? They both nod in unison.

Moving swiftly on, I ask them about the differences between living in Germany and the UK. In terms of the environment, that is. Because I have a hunch we’re lagging a bit behind Germany in the old eco-league. More synchronised nodding.

“I have to say I found it really weird when I first moved to the UK in 2006”, explains Caro. “In some senses it seemed like stepping back in time, especially with things like recycling. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary that I had to drive to Leiston to recycle my plastic. Although that’s changed recently.”

“As for public transport. Where I come from in Germany you can get everywhere by train or bus. It’s completely different here. In fact, it’s really hard to use public transport here. For example, if you get a train to Saxmundham you find out the bus to Snape left five minutes before you arrived. You then have to wait about four hours for the next bus to come along. It’s completely mad. That wouldn’t happen in Germany!”

Jo agrees. “And cycling can be suicidal too. Nobody slows down for bikes here and there are no cycle paths either.”

Again, moving swiftly on, I ask Caro how they got started. It’s all very well having 10 tonnes of random furniture lying around the house, quite another thing setting up a new business to down size.

She explains: “Aldeburgh Music offered us one of its spaces to hire for two weekends as a sort of ‘Funky Empire Exhibition’. That was great because we managed to sell one of the big pieces to someone who knew someone at Vogue who then rang us up and offered to do a feature on us! Which meant we suddenly had to get organised. We needed a website, images to go on it, and so on.”

Which also means they’re both now working flat out in their spare time (every evening and at the weekends) at the ‘Funky Empire HQ’ in Saxmundham (an old unheated barn) to keep up with supply and demand.

Where does the furniture come from? Back to Caro: “We started at Terry’s Junk Shop in Leiston. But now we get it from auctions, car boot sales, skips, friends, and friends’ families. Anyone who is throwing stuff out. We tell everyone we know that we’ll take anything however big it is.” They could live to regret that…

Then what? Who does what? Over to Jo: “We both do everything. We strip the furniture, sand it, and then paint it. It’s a completely joint thing and a really fantastic way to unwind after a day at Snape. I used to wake up thinking about new places to visit, I now wake up thinking about ‘Funky Empire’. What we can do next.”

Which is? What’s the vision for ‘Funky Empire’, bearing in mind that given its name it has serious ambitions.

“To put IKEA out of business!” laughs Jo. Not too big then …

“To keep evolving the Empire!” says Caro. “If someone had said we were going to be in Vogue we’d have thought they were completely mad. We’re just going to see what happens next.”

One thing that’s definitely looming large on the horizon is an exhibition of all their hard labour in the Peter Pears Gallery, which is situated along Aldeburgh High Street on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th May.

An ideal opportunity for anyone with a weakness for �ber fashionable “shabby chic furniture” (their description, not mine) to indulge his or her fantasy ‘Funky Empire’ style…

You never know, you might get to meet the inimitable ‘Hans’ if you’re lucky!

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