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The Ups, Downs and Ups of Life at SplinterWorks

How one product and the internet saved the day at a British design studio.

The Ups, Downs and Ups of Life at SplinterWorks

For Miles Hartwell and Matt Withington, the SplinterWorks journey has been fueled by sublime highs and moments of wondering what on earth they were doing. “There have been tough times,” says Hartwell, who leads the studio alongside Withington in creating sculptural furniture and objects that cross the boundary between design and art.

“I look back almost fondly now at the time just after we’d poured all this money into the bathtub,” continues Hartwell. He is speaking of the Hammock tub, a carbon fibre bath that hangs suspended in mid-air, and which has graced the pages of many a magazine. The tub is probably what SplinterWorks is most known for, and now, it is being specified in hotels and homes all over the world. In Asia, a whole host of Hammock baths will feature in two new hotels in Macau. The Hammock has also been specified for a home in Shanghai and it’s available to buy in Hong Kong through colourliving.

The tub has been their greatest success story – but it was also nearly their undoing. Hartwell and Withington made the first physical Hammock bath for Carrie Vik, wife of billionaire Alexander Vik. At the time it was just a rendering on their website, initially conceived for a carbon fibre company that made cars and products for Formula 1. Says Hartwell, “[Carrie] kept phoning and we said, ‘If you’re really serious about this, how about you get the first one at cost, and in return you let us have all marketing rights?’ What then happened was that it cost us three times as much to make as we thought. When you start throwing in the marketing costs, it was just horrendous.”

At the same time as all this was happening, a couple of big jobs that were due to kick off for SplinterWorks got pushed back. “We had a massive hole in our cash flow, we were haemorrhaging money. Matt and I had to stop paying ourselves,” says Hartwell. “We were at that point where we had so much stuff that could be successful, but we were on the verge of losing it – we were about a week away from shutting the company. To pay for the train tickets to get to a meeting in London, I had to sell my smartest overcoat for 150 quid on eBay. It was the middle of January and my fingers were blue.”

That meeting, it turns out, was a turning point for SplinterWorks: it led to the creation of a number of sculptural benches for a law firm. It was also around the same time that the Hammock bath took off, thanks to the power of the internet.

“We got it photographed, and Joanna, who does our PR, sent it out to her press list. About 45 seconds after we sent it out, all these people came back and said that they loved it. A blog called Contemporist put it online within 15 minutes,” says Hartwell. “And then it started… the phone was going, we were getting all these requests. We had this alert set up on our website to alert us to high traffic. What I used to call high traffic back in those days was 10 people a day. I kept getting these alerts about high traffic but I was so busy, I didn’t really pay attention. The next day I got a call from the guy who hosts our servers, who said we’d crashed all the servers. We were getting about 10 requests per second.”

In 2016, they had another similar experience. “We kept noticing people had all the same the questions about the Hammock: how do you get into it? How do you get out of it? Where does the water come to when you’re lying in it?”

So the pair decided to make a video of how it could be used, and they posted this on their Facebook page. “At this point, we were getting 150 to 200 people a day on the site, and about 10 enquiries a day. Our high traffic alert was set at 250 people a day,” explains Hartwell. “I was in Rome at a conference when we posted it. In the airport lounge on the way home, I looked on our Facebook page and we had had 6,000 people look at it; we’d only sent it out at lunchtime. An hour later, 12,000 people had viewed it. By the time I’d flown home, 24,000 people had seen it. We’ve now had 30 million views. Mental.”

Other SplinterWorks products have also garnered plenty of attention from media and consumers: there’s the Dime cabinet, the Stiletto desk and the Bodice Rocker. But perhaps the next big thing will be their swimming pool slides. “It’s the difficult second album,” admits Hartwell, also acknowledging that there has been huge interest. “In 2016, we made three slides, and last year we did four.” After plenty of time spent experimenting, they have found that fine balance between creative designs for these twisty, bendy slides, and meeting international safety standards. “We’re making them from 316, a marine-grade polished stainless steel that’s corrosion-resistant and tough as hell. It took a long time to figure out, but now we’re there, and I love this job. It’s brilliant.”

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