'Out of darkness cometh light’. It’s the motto of Jay Blades’ adopted home of Wolverhampton, but he says it could also describe his own life over the last three years.
WATCH: Jay Blades talks about his career
Famous on TV screens as the country’s favourite furniture restorer, on shows such as The Repair Shop and Money For Nothing, he’ll be seen next week on Celebrity MasterChef. But back in 2015 it was all very different for Jay.
A spell as a community worker had seen Jay create a charity called Out Of The Dark, giving youngsters skills as furniture repairers to offer them an alternative to petty crime. But the loss of its funding saw the charity collapse at the same time as Jay’s marriage.
“I came to Wolverhampton about three and a bit years ago, and I came here to lick my wounds. Basically everything fell down for me. My marriage broke up, my business broke up, and I was homeless. I left my ex-wife the house and everything like that.
“So I just drove in the car and decided that I was just going to keep on driving. And then I stopped because I needed to get some petrol and where I stopped was Wolverhampton.
“But luckily I had a friend here who I had sold some furniture to about five, may six, years ago. And he took me under his wing and just said: ‘I’m going to get you sorted Jay. Don’t worry about it’. So he took me into the family and kind of adopted me as his brother.”
The friend was Gerald Bailey, owner of the Diffusion fashion chain based in the city. He owns the Victorian former Post Office sorting hall building in the city centre and lets Jay use it as one of his workshops.
It has been transformed into an Aladdin’s cave of beautiful handmade fabrics and furniture in various states of repair, from recently bought near-wrecks to transformed signature pieces ready for delivery.
“I have this fantastic space to work in,” Jay enthuses. “The light is incredible. It’s my creative place. I also have another workshop near the PDSA shop in the city centre. Wolverhampton is my home now. I was living for a time in Tettenhall with Gez’s mum, but I have my own place in Telford now.”
Shortly after his arrival, his big break came knocking. “I was asked to appear in the pilot for a new show called Money For Nothing. People had seen some video The Guardian shot of me working with youngsters on furniture back in High Wycombe which led to a lot of offers. It’s all grown from there.”
The key to Jay’s success has been the furniture repair skills he has taught himself and picked up from a string of master craftsmen and women over the last eight years.
“I’d always done repairs; they call it ‘upcycling’ now but when I was a kid we called it ‘make do and mend’. I was born and brought up in Hackney and we were pretty poor, so that’s what we did.”
After working on a building site Jay then because a community worker, in particular working with young people involved in crime, which led to his charity which aimed to give youngsters practical skills. “It was a way of showing them a way to make a living, restoring a piece of old furniture and selling it for maybe £150, rather than dealing drugs or stealing.
“Furniture just seemed natural. I was in High Wycombe and it’s always been a centre for furniture making, with firms such as Parker Knoll, Ercol and G-Plan.”
“I love learning the skills of furniture restoration at the same time as we were teaching the kids. I was being taught by master craftsmen and women. A 92 year old taught me how to cane the back of a chair. Another one was Rose, a woman who had worked on furniture at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. Watching her work was beautiful.”
Those skills have allowed Jay to build his own business, Jay & Co, taking tired old bits of furniture and turning them into bespoke items to grace homes up and down the country.
“I can’t afford my own stuff,” he says. “It starts from around £175 for the most basic chair but most of it is in the hundreds. It’s hand made with my own distinctive signature style – a pompom, one leg of a piece that is a different colour to the other three, or a coloured seam. People buy it to have a one-off, individual piece of furniture.”
Along the way Jay has built up an encyclopaedic knowledge of British furniture and fabrics, designers and styles, fuelled by his passion for the subject. “Being based in the West Midlands is absolutely fantastic, because the people are friendly, the services are brilliant, the furniture that I find is unbelievable – I shouldn’t really promote this about how good the furniture is or everyone is going to come up here. I’m talking about the raw materials. I’m finding some real gems out there. When I find gems it’s like I am able to create something beautiful.
“I’m a regular visitor to Compton Hospice shop, finding those little gems, also at local auctions.”
One such gem he recognised it as a chair by West Midlands designer Robin Day. With wife Lucienne, Day worked on the 1951 Festival of Britain, creating much of the seating for the Royal Festival Hall and inspiring a new generation of creative design.
“The chair was up for auction with some side boards. The bidding started at £4. It went up to £7 and the woman I was bidding against dropped out so I got them. I had a chat with her and found she only wanted the sideboards, so I gave them to her. That chair? Probably worth around £400. It’s a classic.”
Noted for his sense of style – and one of few men who can carry off a flat cap and shorts combo – Jay says his personal fashion is a tribute to the working men of the 1920s and 30s, when a three-piece suit was the order of the day. “People expect me to get paint and varnish all over myself, but the old-style craftsmen who taught me were all about care and accuracy, using just enough on your brush for a smooth coat. That way you don’t get it all over yourself, it goes where it is supposed to.”
Part of his distinctive style is the strong use of colour. “We have to add colour, say one leg of a chair, a button or a pom-pom. That is my signature, the brand I have been building,” he explains. As well as one-off personal commissions he’s also sold his furniture in high-end London stores such as Heals.
“Everything is a vehicle. I love to show young people who are focused on sport or music that they can focus on something very creative. They can focus on fashion, on interiors, design, anything along those lines. So that’s what I like to focus on.
“The TV stuff? I’d love to be the Jamie Oliver of furniture, so giving back to the young people, giving back to communities. Showing them it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg; you can create something from nothing, and you can also have fun while you are doing it, because that is what I like to do.”
“If I’m working here in my creative workshop then I turn on some classical music, dance around. That gets me in the mood to work. Or I’ll get my bike and ride around in here. It helps me work on my ideas.”
And, although the charity is no longer running, Jay is still committed to working with youngsters. “I still mentor quite a lot of young people – and some not so young – but I tend to do it online now because I am all over the place filming most of the time, or working here in Wolverhampton.”
Stretching out his arms to take in the vast space around him, he says: “This building here is my creative workshop. This is where I come to get ideas, to create stuff. So I do the TV work but I also do private commission work. People will ask me to create a piece of furniture out of the furniture that they have got or something that I have got in stock.”
He is particularly proud of four chairs he has recently been working on for a client. “It is for a young lady whose father had designed four chairs, when they lived in Africa.
“The chairs are more suited to a warmer climate, resembling a deckchair with a simple frame which is stylish and beautiful. So when she asked me if I would be able to add some cushions to the seat and also to the back I knew this was gonna be a tall order. But an interesting and exciting challenge, the kind of project I relish.”
He is clearly proud of the way the chairs have come out, still comfortable and stylish as well as paying homage to her father’s original design.
It reflects his passion for well made furniture in all its forms, a craftsman’s delight for something that is made well. Another of his projects is re-covering a swivel chair, which he delights in revealing is the same type as was used by the deadly villain in the early James Bond movie Dr No. “It’s the most comfortable chair in the world.”
But, like everything he works on, there’s always a strong personal element.
He works with often expensive fabrics with rich designs, but sometimes just to cover an element of a piece. In some cases, it is hidden on the underside of a seat.
“All my furniture is all about having fun. If I don’t have fun creating it no-one’s going to see it and it doesn’t get created by me. So everything I look at, that I have created, brings a smile to my face – always.
“I am having a lot of fun in Wolverhampton. I’m creating my masterpiece. I don’t know what it’s going to be but I’m creating it.”
He smiles as he looks around his workshop. “Wolverhampton is home; I’m not going to go anywhere. I’m going to be a Londoner in the West Midlands. For the last three years I’ve had an amazing journey and I think it’s because of where I am based.
“My spiritual home is Wolverhampton. ‘Out of darkness cometh light’ is the city’s motto, and basically that’s me. I’ve come out the darkness and I’ve created something.”