At Work With: Mark Tremlett, Naturalmat
Based in the picturesque town of Topsham, Devon, Naturalmat was founded by Mark Tremlett and Peter Tindall in 1999. Dedicated to sustainable practice, natural materials and artisanal craftsmanship are still very much at the heart of things at Naturalmat. Here, we ask Mark Tremlett about his passion for sustainability, the fierce mattress market, and what keeps him awake at night.
Can you tell us how Naturalmat began?
I started out in marketing, but I always had it in mind to do my own thing. My father was a boat designer and builder where I grew up in Devon, and I saw people buying very expensive boats but sleeping on a very poor-quality mattress, which didn’t make any sense to me. Plus, the materials people were using and still use today – polyurethane foam covered in vinyl – is the most unpleasant thing you’d ever possibly want to sleep on, so we started looking at materials that existed that would work and would be more comfortable, but crucially they had to have good breathability and ventilation. Synthetics don’t breathe, and they absorb heat and moisture which are the two things you want to avoid in any sleeping environment, let alone on a boat. In our research, natural materials were the obvious alternative, because they’re self-ventilating, they’re breathable and longer lasting and completely sustainable. So that was the catalyst, and I had good contacts in the marine industry, which kicked it all off.
When you founded the business in 1999, was sustainability a relatively new proposition at that time?
It was. Terms like ‘sustainability’, ‘eco’ and ‘organic’ were the domain of marine biologists in Aberystwyth wearing sandals – not consumer brands. I don’t think Planet Organic had even opened in Notting Hill by that stage. However, sustainability was very important to us, not because all of the buzzwords flying around today, but because natural materials were intrinsically better than anything else available at the time, and are still better than those available today, so it was in the fabric of the brand from the get-go.
How difficult was it to source sustainable materials for your products when so much of the industry used artificial alternatives?
Not easy at all. In the beginning, we did a lot of scratching around to find out what we could use and we settled on three fundamental ingredients: the first one was latex foam, which is quite hard to get as a small manufacturer and there are a lot of different latex types you can get, but we wanted one with very natural latex components. The second was coconut fibre, or Coir, which was something that had been used primarily in the upholstery industry, but then had pretty much died out in the UK, save for one supplier. Now we have a direct source in Sri Lanka, which is the only certified organic source. Coir is a fantastic material, it works as a natural spring, it’s got a very open structure, it’s breathable and provides excellent support, plus it lasts a long time. It does everything that a metal spring will do, but crucially for us when making mattresses for boats, was it wasn’t going to rust. Finally we use lot’s of local wool. It dawned on us that the fields around us were full of sheep so we had to find a way to get this local resource into our make up. Uniquely we buy from local certified organic farmers within a 50 mile radius and manage the whole process in-house, from fleece to felt. Wool is a fantastic insulator and keeps you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot, so is the perfect material to use for mattress tuftings.
We did a lot of testing, like bouncing around on them, lying on them, and setting fire to them as well to see what happened, before sending them all off to get officially tested and certified.
You remain committed to craftsmanship and artisanal methods and processes, such as hand-stitching and joinery. How influential were your Devon roots when you established these standards for Naturalmat?
I come from a very long line of people who’ve made stuff in Devon. My father set up his boat company in the early 60s, and before that my family worked in leather and paper, all in and around Devon, so I come from a long line of makers – it’s in the blood. We are also control freaks and like to do everything ourselves. On the supply side we go direct to source, because in mattress making everybody buys from two main wholesalers in the industry – we don’t do that – so it gives us much better control over the quality of ingredients that comes into us. On the manufacturing side, we have our own joinery shop and our own upholstery shop, so we do everything here and we know exactly what has gone into a Naturalmat mattress.
The Naturalmat banner also incorporates the Nursey, Marine, USA and Hotel brands: how do they differ to the core offering, other than their specific markets?
In the early stages, I’d given up my day job to focus on the business and about a year down the line, my girlfriend got pregnant. We were looking at what babies sleep on and saw that everything was made from polyurethane foam covered in plastic and that wasn’t what we wanted for our baby. Around the year 2000 we made a nursery mattress that I think was the first one to pass all quality standards as 100% natural – so very quickly we became a nursery company rather than a marine business. Then we fell into hotels through a chance meeting with Simon Woodruff, who set up YO! Sushi. He lived on a boat in the Chelsea Harbour next to a friend of mine, and we became the bed consultant for his new hotel chain. Once we had thrown ourselves into that market and were making large mattresses, it made sense to make them for regular consumers on the high street. It was all quite organic.
What have you made of the boom in mattress companies in the past few years, and have you seen a change in customer expectations when they buy a Naturalmat product?
They have had a very significant impact on the market, there’s no doubt about that. The impact is mainly driven by the investors, who have poured hundreds of millions of pounds into these new businesses and about 80% of it has gone on marketing. So, what that has done has changed the whole way that consumers think about their mattress, their sleep, their bedtime – and that is only a good thing! It has raised a huge amount of awareness around mattresses, sleeping, and by coincidence, wellness. As a result, sleep as a lifestyle topic has changed enormously, which is great. The other side of it is the quality of those mattresses is pretty poor. It might be better than a high street retailer, so the customer is getting a little bit more for their money, but the convenience of the delivery and the free 100-night sleep return means these companies experience a huge number of returns. Thankfully, because of the quality of our mattress, we don’t experience that. Traditionally, the UK had very poor sleep culture – we pay less money, and we keep it for way longer than any other country in Europe, and that is now luckily changing thanks to this boom.
We understand you have Tala lights on display in some of your showrooms. Have you found that the right lighting can improve the shopping experience for the customer?
Definitely. Traditionally, mattress showrooms are not conducive to choosing a mattress, so we try to make the customer feel as relaxed and at home as possible. We focus on three things: lighting, smell and sound. We like very atmospheric light, so Tala is great for that. We have a sleep aroma that we created out of lavender and eucalyptus and then we have our own soundtrack, which we made by taking sounds from our base in Devon. We’re positioned on the banks of the river, and we’re near a UNESCO World Heritage site which has an RSPB reserve, so we have wonderful recordings of all these migrating birds, and the general Devon sounds and atmosphere like the water and the breeze and other relaxing sounds. The combination of all of that is to get the customer to relax and spend as much time on the bed as they possibly can, so they can feel the benefit of our mattresses because that is the only objective way you can make your decision.
What does the future hold in store for Naturalmat?
A big part of our business was working with hotel chains. That has obviously gone quiet
What’s your bedside read at the moment?
Hmm, I’d say ‘Hair trimming for beginners’
What are you most looking forward to doing when lockdown is lifted?
Having supper at Bocca di Lupo in Soho. Sitting at the bar, watching the chefs performing all their wonderful wizardry.
What keeps you awake at night?
Probably the notion that if the boss of a mattress company didn’t sleep well and that got out, that would be big news. No, I do sleep very well.