Twenty years ago, Astro Lighting began in the basement of a house in Sevenoaks, Kent, and today co-founders John Fearon and James Bassant are sitting in a meeting room above the lobby area of the company’s impressive new facilities in Harlow, Essex.
The creative duo believed from the outset that British-designed lighting was a viable market to pursue, and that belief – and lots of hard work – created Astro Lighting as it is today, one of the country’s premier lighting designers for the hospitality sector.
Fate often intervenes with young businesses, and for Astro, in the early days, they reacted positively to new regulations for bathroom lighting seeing it as a opportunity and soon they became market leaders with customers such as John Lewis and Habitat, among others.
Astro still boasts one of the largest bathroom lighting ranges available anywhere and sales are still growing. But the rhythm of the retail sector was not where John and James really felt their skills and demeanour were best represented. “In the very early days, when we were designing for Habitat and other department stores, we were driven to come up with designs and turn them into reality really quickly, and things were so rushed,” explains John.
“It’s great fun to be able to create things you’re really proud of – we have a rule that we don’t go ahead with any product if we don’t love it, if we wouldn’t have it in own homes”
“Every six months or so, it was a case of another new design, then another… After a few years of that, we decided that wasn’t what we wanted to do, and we started slowing things down until we got our designs absolutely right. For instance, one of our ten best-sellers has been in the range for about sixteen years – and sales are still going up!”
Defining that approach, James comments: “The way we design lighting is a very personal, emotional process. We feel we have an openminded and quality-oriented approach. It’s great fun to be able to create things you’re really proud of -we have a rule that we don’t go ahead with any product if we don’t love it, if we wouldn’t have it in own homes.
“Of course, our time to market slowed down a lot, which wasn’t ideal, but the product you end up with is as right as you can make it, then it will last and last, and that’s what we like, we like things that are more than just a great seller this season, then dying away.”
This shared vision of elegant simplicity and lasting design is something that will strike a chord among Astro’s target architect and designer client base: “We like things which have a timeless element to it,” James says, “take for instance Arne Jacobsen’s Vola tap which he designed in 1968 for the National Bank of Denmark, it still looks fantastic, innovative and fresh, as though it has just been launched this year, it’s still an architect’s favourite around the world. If we can achieve an element of that, it would be very pleasing.”
The hospitality industry has a strong relationship with Astro not only because of the thorough and considered way which the Harlow-based firm goes about its design work, and also the ways it services its customer base. It appears too that Astro’s modus operandi is very much akin to the way architects work in many ways – and this creates an natural synergy and empathy which in turn provides an easy meeting of minds.
“We are very much on their side,” explains James, “we have to produce a product, it’s a visual element which has to sit within an overall scheme, which has to function well and look great. It’s one of those funny things about lighting, it’s got to perform, it’s got to do a job, it can’t just sit there and look pretty – marrying those two requirements, means you should get architects and interior designers on your side. Lighting should be an asset which enhances an overall scheme.”
For customers looking for lighting showstoppers, Astro’s portfolio could be seen as conservative, unadventurous maybe – but that would miss the point really. There are myriad companies which create amazing, showy lighting, works of art in some ways – but Astro speaks a different kind of design language.
“Our design is accessible,” explains James, “we don’t do the scary stuff, the statement things, which are very nice to grab attention, they are usually very niche, and for some a little scary – we prefer to create ideas that most people would be happy to incorporate in their design. If it’s well designed – and we pay an awful amount of time and attention to detail, getting it right – and you refine, refine and refine, that’s how you end up with a really good product which is well resolved and you can be proud of.”
“There’s no particular magic to what we do, we create good-looking, quality fittings that are well designed, well made, and we keep them almost all of them in stock all the time”
To illustrate this, one stream of the company’s current design direction is its architectural or technical products, such as the built-in downlights, recessed lighting and its plaster wall lights. “We are finding that these are very popular with architects at the moment – mainly they want their building to be the hero, not the lighting,” explains James.
“The simple, geometric forms allow this type of fitting to blend well with many schemes and they do a great job, unobtrusively. And if it fulfils that criteria, it is not necessary to keep changing the lighting because it can last as long as the building.”
With the definition of hospitality spaces becoming evermore blurred, familial decorative styles are becoming popular. Take a typical guestroom with en-suite bathroom in a four-star establishment – there would be two-, three- or four different styles of fitting for the bedroom and a couple for the bathroom.
It is increasingly desired by specifiers to look for a single range for both spaces so that bathroom and bedroom have a clear design narrative running through.
Similarly in the public spaces, there is growing demand for a solution which provides floor-, wall-, and general task lighting which works together harmoniously. This is something Astro is more than adept at providing with a panoply of 35 families to work with.
In addition to the company’s impressive current product portfolio, and its regular new product launches and updated finishes, Astro consistently engages with architects and designers to create specific project solutions.
Typically, these are adaptations of an existing range, different finishes, a slight tweak and this works well. One of the primary benefits of working with Astro is the company’s impressive stockholding in its equally impressive newly-opened premises in Harlow, Essex.
“We need to respond to the internet of things and adapt our products to be more interactive, whether that be colour tunable white LEDs or improved dimmability”
The vast warehouse is full of stock, around 95% of products are in stock at any one time. This is, of course, a considerable commitment but it does enable Astro to deliver a comprehensive and thoroughly reliable resource to its customers – ‘a broad range with an indepth stock’ is how John describes it.
The customer is clearly at the heart of everything that Astro does. Every day and at every opportunity, the teams go the extra mile, which is probably why its customers return again and again.
An illustration of this is Astro’s impressive ground floor showroom which very professionally displays the company’s full spectrum of products from bathroom, interior and exterior options.
And how have Astro’s designs changed over the last 20 years? “One of the biggest changes over the years has been an increase in confidence to design larger products,” explains James, “which are less domestic in scale and more targeted at the contract and hospitality sectors.
“We have also refined our understanding of the common thread of creative thinking which lies behind Astro’s designs. Essentially we always strive for an elegantly simple solution to a design brief.”
Without giving too much away, Astro is continuing to develop what it feels is an authoritative collection which fulfils the majority of hospitality design briefs. Both James and John believe there is still considerable scope to develop new ranges.
“Astro continues to work extensively with designers and architects, we see ourselves as just a part of the overall design process, to create products that excite them and make them want to specify, after all, they don’t want to be specifying the same old thing.
“There’s no particular magic to what we do, we create good-looking, quality fittings that are well designed, well made – and we keep almost all of them in stock all of the time,” says John. “We still enjoy it, actually as we sit here today, it’s even more fun, more motivating than ever!
Of course nothing motivates more than success and we’ve gone from nothing to this amazing facility we are in today in 20 years – we think we’re still very early on in our growth phase – so we’ve got plenty to look forward to, and that’s all you really need.”
The building here is a physical manifestation of what John and James think of as success thus far – but they’ve also got a great team of people, from the design team through sales, marketing, warehouse and operational types – both cite their people as a hugely important and enjoyable part of the process.
What’s next? “We will innovate continually and expand in market areas in which we have always been strong – bathroom lighting for example.
A more technical aspect to the range will be needed, too: We need to respond to the internet of things and adapt our products to be more interactive, whether that be colour tunable white LEDs or improved dimmability.”
Astro’s future is all about developing new markets and realising manageable growth. Both John and James are aware that the Astro brand has grown very well in two decades, and for a few years now, Astro has been a standard bearer of British lighting design across the international arena.
Export partners are well established around the world and Astro entered a period of increased growth which recently culminated in expanding the reach of the business overseas by opening dedicated offices in the both the US and in Singapore – both specifically targeting hospitality.
But I am sure one thing will remain true as the company embarks on its next exciting chapter, that is to maintain its enviable operating standards from conceptual ideas through to customer delivery “¦ and of course, have a few wonderful light bulb moments along the way.