EKB Business

1 April 2008

HIDDEN GEMS Alvaro Ziani de Ferranti is the Indiana Jones of the materials world, travelling the globe in search of exotic stones and hidden gems. We visit his London showroom and persuade him to open the treasure chest Amelia Thorpe

Head past the gas works near London’s Chelsea Harbour and the huge rollercoaster-style pipework in the sky, and you are in for a treat. In the shadow of a gas tank sits an elegant Victorian building, once the engineering office, now the home of De Ferranti. “We are a one-stop-shop for rare and unusual materials”, explains owner and md, Alvaro Ziani de Ferranti, surrounded by tiles and panels of stone and ceramics, from the weird to the truly wonderful. The tall-ceilinged room is painted an atmosphere blood red, and treasures are stacked up against every surface.” It’s like an “Old Curiosity Shop” – that’s the concept behind it”, he says.

Alvaro, 38, is something of a self-styled Indiana Jones, nipping off on adventures all over the world in his quest for new stones. “I love travelling and sourcing new materials”, he says. “There nothing like arriving in a country I know nothing about and going to visit quarries and stone carvers in the middle of nowhere”. Recent travels include a search for stones for a project for the Jordanian royal family in a medieval town in Rajasthan. “The whole place was covered in a sheet of white marble dust”, recalls Alvaro. He also has journied into the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to buy hand-dressed flag stones from local Bedouin, and a visit to Tel Aviv where he crossed over into the West Bank. “I went to a very unusual project which empowers local women and trains them to run their own small mosaic and artistic stone businesses” he explains.

Travelling is something that comes easy to Alvaro. He spent much of his childhood in Portugal and now speaks multiple languages, including English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and a smattering of French and he is currently learning Greek. Alvaro says that his career in tiles and stones is all down to his mother.  After gaining a business studies degree he was busy – but not happy – selling heavy weight machinery to customers in Eastern and Central Europe, when his mother suggested that he turned his hand to selling Portuguese tiles, “She was very enterprising and saw that there might be a market for Portuguese ceramics in England”, he says. So he took a stand at the House & Garden Fair and met the founder of Paris Ceramics, Steve Charles. “He gave me my first order, which was for £3,000 worth of tiles with heraldic motifs”, recalls Alvaro.

The pair joined forces and set up business together about eight years ago, before parting company last summer. “I was very lucky – I had an apprenticeship with one of the best people in the business”, he says. Alvaro is quick to point out that his split with Steve Charles wasn’t acrimonious; rather that it was “always on the cards”. Now Alvaro is clearly enjoying his freedom and his goals are ambitious. “The plan is to have a shop on the east and west coasts of America, as well as one in London”, he says.

On display around the room are samples of a carefully selected range of limestones – the showroom floor is covered in his distinctive bitter chocolate limestone – marbles such as Rouge Griotte from France and Antico Giallo from Tunisia. Also on show are antique reclaimed stones such as a 200-year-old Carrara white marble floor, plus as an eclectic collection of traditional and contemporary mosaics, ceramics, terracotta and pietra dura. There are sample wall panels of English saddle leather, Indian bronze and copper for floors and walls, samples of bones and horn surfaces, Dutch Delft tiles, very finely hand-painted Portuguese blue and white tiles, Italian Majolica tiles, even frescoes. “The last goes on and on”, says Alvaro. “And we also supply custom-made objects to commission, such as rock crystal basins, teak baths lined in hammeredbrass, petrified longs carved into baths, decorative wall panels made with pieces of marble such as you might find in the Ducal Palace in Venice”.

Such an unusual mix of surfaces is aimed at designer appeal. “Only about 10% of our clients are private customers”, explains Alvaro. “We are not on high street, quite deliberately, because we like being a hidden gem”.

It’s also true that he sheers clear of most “slab work”, because he sees it as a saturated market. “Our focus is away from the volume areas”. He says. “We will cut slabs, but only of materials not widely available. “With rare stones very much on his mind, the quest to find the unusual and exotic will continue, creating what he describes as “a very chameleon-like” business. “What we do is changing all the time according to what I find”, he says. “the search never stops”.


Business profile
De Ferranti

Who are we? Alvaro Ziani de Ferranti; md and owner

Where are we? E1 The Engineering Offices, 2 Michael Road, London, SW6 2AD

Tel: 0870 321 0511. www.deferranti.com

What we do Luxury surfaces for interiors and architecture – including stones, mosaics, ceramics, metals and leathers.

Business history Founded about eight years ago by Alvaro and his then business partner, Steve Charles, the pair parted company last summer. Alvaro is now the sole owner and md of De Ferranti. Current turnover is about £1m, and he plans to open showrooms on the east and west coasts of America, in addition to his existing London base, all with a similar concept. Most of the materials are supplied  to residential projects, as well as a small number of hotel projects. About 90% of clients are designers with the remaining 10% private customers. Materials are supplied to projects from Moscow to the south of France, from Dubai to America. Prices start from about £120 per sq m for limestone flooring, about £200 per sq m for ceramics

Staffing levels Four, including Alvaro, administrator Sue Frey, and sales people Orlando Boyne and Anna Threlfall

Showroom statement Treasure trove

Favourite customer “That would be telling”

Least favourite customer “Let’s not open that can of worms”

Strange but true “A client asked us to make a whole bathroom with Chinese erotic tiles. Actually, they were pretty pornographic”


Alvaro’s design ideas

Ø    Mica wall covering can be used for feature walls, even cabinet fronts

Ø    Or why not use petrified woods slices, pictured below right, set into resin slabs as beautiful counter tops?

Ø    Unusual handles on cabinets or tap heads can make a distinctive feature: we have some rockcrystal ammonite designs, or some cast in silver with iridescent mother-of-pearl mosaic details

Ø    Think about creating a stunning floor as a striking backdrop to a kitchen design, such asGerman silver set in herringbone pattern, bitter chocolate limestone, hand-painted Italianateceramic tiles or a stencilled limestone floor with a faded pattern. There are many options for a striking feature wall in a bathroom, such as panels of decorative bone diamonds set with horn dots, pictured below left

Ø    Thin marble adhered to glass can be back lit to create a beautiful effect for a wall panel or counter top

Ø    Shell and mother-of-pearl tiles, pictured left, can make beautiful  accents and borders


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583 Kings Road, Chelsea, London SW6 2EH United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)207 384 4424  |  Fax: +44 (0) 20 7371 8395  |  E-mail: ask@deferranti.com