Ken Bolan is a man of many stories. There was that time he flew a van of antiques to Switzerland and almost had to cut the top off it when it wouldn’t fit on the plane; the time he had a run-in with an enthusiastic customer who turned out to be an immigration officer; and the time his showroom flooded the day before its grand opening. “I won’t tell you about crashing an aeroplane,” he says casually, “or being held up by three masked men in a house in central London – not my own…”
Bolan’s choice of career has seen him travel the world, amassing anecdotes as he goes. And, at the age of 70, following the closure of his iconic showroom Talisman London in 2019, he has begun a new chapter in his own story by launching Ken Bolan Studio – online for now, and, once restrictions allow, by appointment only from his new HQ near his home in Dorset. To him, it’s “just another adventure.”
A serendipitous journey
Born to a family of academics in Scotland, Bolan left school at 15 after deciding that a scholarly life wasn’t for him, and initially worked at vintage car showrooms, first in the UK and later in Switzerland. It was there that he got the idea to go into antiques. “I was walking down Bern high street one day looking at the antique shops,” he recalls. “They had Sheraton-looking furniture that was actually Edwardian, but they were selling it for Sheraton prices. And I thought, ‘I can beat these guys’. So I took what money I had, came back over here and bought a truck.”
He started out by renting a cellar in Bern to show his pieces, and advertised in the local newspapers. “I meant to advertise ‘good-value English antiques’, but I didn’t quite get the translation right, so what it actually said was ‘cheap English antiques’,” he says with a chuckle. Nonetheless, his lucky break came when he met two society ladies who took him under their wing and introduced him to everybody he needed to know. Within a few years, he had four shops in Switzerland, which he closed when he and his late wife, Yolie, moved back to the UK to open his first Talisman shop in Gillingham in 1982. It became a mecca for interior designers and collectors from all over the world, but following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, business changed dramatically, so he expanded to London, opening in an Art Deco garage on the New King’s Road in 2006.
Key to Bolan’s success is the fact that he has always dealt in spectacular statement pieces. He remembers a stunning Swedish cabinet that he sold to the sculptor Elisabeth Frink, which she paid for in instalments, sending him a drawing with each payment. He also sources more accessible, yet equally special, objects. “In my new studio, I’ve got a set of six Victorian candlesticks for £140: that’s the price of a meal out,” he says. “But they’ll make a home. The pleasure you’d get from them every time you have your own party – they’re good value.”
He also has a nose for what is about to become fashionable. As well as reviving a taste for statuary in the 80s, he went on to introduce painted Swedish furniture, which became wildly popular in the UK throughout the 80s and early 90s.
Lately, he has been quietly buying up military-style campaign furniture. “I used to sell it in Switzerland in the 70s because it fitted into the style and proportions of Swiss apartments,” he says. “When I came back here I stopped buying English antiques, but at the beginning of this year, I had a feeling about it. A friend’s daughter said, ‘How do you know it’s going to be the next fashion? I love military furniture!’ I said, ‘I just know how it’s going to be.'”
In addition, Bolan collects rare pieces that he refers to as his ‘discoveries’. The day we meet, he has just acquired two 600-kilo church bells. Notable pieces he is planning to market include a “sensational” piano that belonged to the composer Dimitri Tiomkin and a 14-foot mosaic sculpture by Elisabeth Frink.
The beginning of an era
Talisman was also known for such unique pieces, and its closure in summer 2019 was, says Bolan, “an enormous move – physically, financially, and every other way.” By the time he decided to close, he had over 1,000 items in stock. “I could tell you the cost, the trade price and the retail price of each one,” he says. “I was also running 27 staff. It was quite a burden.”
Part of the appeal of his new venture is that he can buy what he likes without having to think too commercially, yet he has retained a foot in the London market. He is now leasing the former Talisman showroom to the piano dealers Coach House Pianos, but also using it to showcase a selection of pieces that complement the instruments: several enormous mercury-glass mirrors lean against the walls, a sprinkling of top-quality bronzes are displayed on desks and sideboards, and an imposing 18th-century cabinet adds to the grandeur of the space.
His new studio in the West Country has taken a little longer than he expected to set up, in no small part due to the pandemic, which slowed the process down somewhat. “At one point during the lockdown, all my guys said, ‘We don’t want to come in,'” he says. “Their fear was for me, not them.” But he is feeling more than sanguine about the prospects of the industry, and his own business, going into 2021. “People have been rediscovering their homes this year, and finding that home life is a pleasure. I think that will have a long-term effect on our industry; I’m fairly confident we’ll all do business.”
Ken met Caryn, his beloved wife, five years ago. She is a television producer and an independent woman in a man’s world! Recently, Ken turned 70 and Caryn, in her wisdom bought him a JCB for his birthday. Ken says, “I reckon that will do me for the next 25 years.” What comes up again and again in each story he tells is the phrase, “I’ve been incredibly lucky.” And he sees no reason to stop any time soon.
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