“We have always looked at things as an opportunity to learn,” says DKT Artworks' co-founder Sean Trowbridge. There is no doubt that this has been a steep learning curve since Trowbridge and his friends Steve Keeling and Niki Davies formed a partnership back in 1979. Working out of a garage in North London, the trio started by outfitting kitchens before developing a portfolio of paint finishes.
Now, more than four decades later, a multidisciplinary team of nearly 40 deliver a wide range of projects globally – including bas-reliefs, sculptures, murals, trompe l’oeil, paint finishes, gilding, verre églomisé, antiqued mirrors, hand-crafted mosaics, illuminated artworks, polished plaster – from their bustling studio in Balham.
In this exclusive interview with BOAT International’s Sophia Wilson, which is available to be listened to in full through Apple podcasts and Spotify, Trowbridge and Keeling talk through their path to success and growth in the superyacht industry.
Trowbridge and Keeling (Davies withdrew from the company in the early 90s) credit a lot of this success to their overarching principle of embracing every project as an educational experience. “The philosophy that we had then, that we have retained, is never look back and never hesitate,” explains Trowbridge. “If you are doing something and you think this isn’t going well financially, you just do it until the end and honour it. We never try and cut corners and think about making money from a particular project. We just think we are learning here. This project isn’t going to make us a lot of money, but it will serve us well in the future.”
This year marks 25 years since DKT Artworks first dipped its toes into the superyacht industry, when Andrew Winch asked for assistance on 52-metre Feadship Solemates. "We knew nothing about superyachts at the time,” admits Trowbridge. Winch commissioned DKT Artworks to create a Mediterranean stencilled floor with a “sun-bleached” aesthetic and after having stencils approved, a team flew out to install their design.
“When these unknown artists turned up at Feadship and they saw us putting the paint on the pristine floor they had created and then rubbing it back off you could see them thinking ‘what are these guys doing’,” recalls Trowbridge. “We did think we might not get invited back, but thankfully it went well. Andrew Winch was very happy, the client was very happy, and therefore so was the yard.”
Solemates proved to be the start of an exciting new chapter for DKT Artworks with projects with Pascale Reymond following soon afterwards. Trowbridge and Keeling now estimate that by the end of the year they will have worked on more than 100 superyachts.
Among the superyacht projects there have been numerous challenges as they tried to combine intricate pieces with motion, forces and strict regulation. This has proved especially true when it comes to staircases. DKT Artworks was responsible for an intricate, four-storey, vine design staircase on Here Comes The Sun and Keeling highlights another staircase project as being one of his most challenging.
“It was over five decks in glass and we knew from the beginning that with so many decks there is a lot of twist, especially when the boat is on high seas,” says Keeling. “We had to work with the designers to accommodate the flexing while also making sure it still had the right kind of appearance. We also had to work with the glass suppliers on the technical side.”
Keeling recalls a particularly stressful moment when one of the panels cracked before heading out on sea trials. “We now think someone had walked past with a ladder or something and knocked it. It wasn’t a good start, but all is well that ends well. After several years it is still in one piece, but I think I probably lost a couple of years sleep on that project.”
Trowbridge and Keeling are understandably proud of their superyacht projects but they are quick to emphasise the breadth of DKT’s portfolio of work. “We have never wanted to have all our eggs in one basket,” says Trowbridge. “We greatly value the superyacht market but equally in terms of inspiration and other things we don’t want to close other avenues. It varies on who has got work and who comes to us. At the moment we have got a very nice split of superyacht, commercial and residential.”
With DKT Artworks going from strength to strength, the pair have now decided it's time for the next step for the company. “On 14 July we will be becoming an Employee Ownership Trust,” reveals Keeling. “It’s an interesting model, based on the John Lewis model, but essentially rather than us selling the company employees can buy into the company.”
Part of the decision behind the strategic move is to reward the employees that have helped to build DKT Artworks. At the moment the average employee longevity is 14 years, with some artists having been part of DKT Artworks for more than 30 years. “The reason for doing it is partly because we have to acknowledge that we are not going to be there forever, we have to look to the future and make sure that we have something in place. We are also very happy to acknowledge that it is not just Steve and I that have made DKT what it is. We want to make sure the company can carry on.”
There is no doubt that the move to an Employee Ownership Trust, a move which coincidentally has also been made by DKT’s first superyacht partner Winch Design, is an exciting next step in the company's educational journey.
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