Meet the Makers: Albert & Edward

Duncan McKean has quite a story to tell. A naturally warm, enthusiastic raconteur, he tells the tale of how he came to sell upcycled antique lights at Greenwich Market with captivating frankness. We meet in the upstairs dining hall of Ikea on Greenwich Peninsula, where he’s taken time out of an overstuffed schedule to fit out his new studio-shop in Kent’s lovely seaside town, Whitstable. As it turns out, this is just one of many projects he’s currently juggling.

So, in a nutshell, what is Albert & Edward? ‘I make quirky lights out of interesting items. I take relics from the past, illuminate them in different ways, and bring them back to life.’ Some antique dealers, knowing whom Duncan is, are reluctant to sell some pieces to him, feeling that to enhance and modify them is somehow sacrilegious. But Duncan’s respect and love for these historical artefacts is simply different – turning them into new pieces doesn’t destroy their uniqueness but gives them new life.

To say Duncan’s career has been varied is like saying bees need to keep busy. A trained carpenter-joiner, architect and interior designer, he’s also been a life-long collector, inheriting the bug at 14 from his granddad, Gilbert. Collecting’s actually a disease, he cheerfully admits!

But what tipped him over into full-time collecting and upcycling was a terrible accident. Training for triathlons, he came a cropper on an early-morning ride between Folkestone and Canterbury. Landing hard on his head, he acquired transient global amnesia, effectively ending his career as a teacher of Design Technology.

It was Duncan’s partner, silversmith Lisa Eastburn, who suggested he turn his hobby into a job. He first sold his illuminated antiques at a fair in Blackheath in 2016. From the outset his unique creations, ‘went down a storm!’ More fairs followed, then a stall at Greenwich Market. Next came an email from a company called Media 10, asking if he’d like to speak at Grand Designs at the ExCel Centre.

The next leaps were an approach to appear as a designer on BBC One’s Money for Nothing, and stage appearances at events including the Goodwood Revival. Ever since, ‘it’s just been a rollercoaster, really!’

The intriguing name, Albert & Edward, was coined by Duncan’s son Nelson. Formerly living on the junction of Canterbury’s Albert and Edward streets, Nelson organised ‘Albert and Edward’s Garage Sale’. The title tripped off the tongue yet sounded old fashioned enough for an antique-upcycling business. So, Duncan happily admits, ‘I nicked his idea!’

Duncan quickly learnt there’s little point trying to imitate others’ work. What makes his upcycled pieces special is his own loving, creative vision – working with their distinct qualities to make something new and freshly relevant. Others, seeing his success, have copied his work unashamedly. Initially, this made him furious. Eventually, he realised they’re mainly cheating themselves: ‘You’ve got to love your thing to be able to evolve it. I’m continually evaluating my work, moving it on. There are things I did in 2016 I don’t do now.’

Duncan’s target market is ‘anyone from ten to 100.’ Nostalgia often attracts customers: at present he’s illuminating two WWII telephones, artefacts that trigger fond memories in those old enough to remember them. ‘It’s bringing history back to life. A lot of collectors would collect my stuff, but it would be sitting on a shelf or in a museum. I’m taking that thing out of the museum, illuminating it and giving it another life.’

Duncan is insistent on staying true to his passions. He only buys antiques and ephemera he personally loves – never what he imagines will appeal to the market. His mantra is, ‘buy what you love, and that passion will come through!’ And, occasionally, what he loves seems to arrive by divine providence (although serendipity and persistence are indispensable).

Once, hearing of a deceased estate that straddled two adjacent properties, he truly stumbled on the motherlode. The previous owner lived in one house and filled the other to the brim with artefacts salvaged from decades working at the GPO. The entire property overflowed with all the kinds of relics Duncan loves. So, he borrowed some money from his Dad, Jim, and bought the entire contents of the house as a job lot!

Duncan thrives on the vitality and busyness of Greenwich Market. ‘The difference between Greenwich Market and having a shop is the market is like fishing in a big pool with loads of fish. When you have a shop it’s fishing in a smaller pool with not many fish coming through.’

Duncan also loves the market’s cosmopolitan character. ‘People from all round the world come here. That’s why I love Greenwich Market – it’s a different array of people. It’s world-renowned, it’s a unique market, and a privilege to be trading there.’

Greenwich Market also revived Duncan’s creative ardour. During the COVID closure, and with TV work coming in, he admits he ‘got lazy’ – expecting custom to come to him. It wasn’t until he resumed trading at Greenwich that he was revitalised, realising that it was the community, cosmopolitan customers and imperative to energetically market his work that kept him inspired and successful.

The analogy Duncan uses to illustrate finding the right place to trade is, ‘The Knowledge’ – the comprehensive test trainee black-cab drivers must pass to work in London. ‘You have to find out what works for you, and Greenwich is the right place. It’s the epicentre of what I do.’

One of his many stories vividly illustrates the special character of trading at Greenwich Market. ‘This one young lad had scruffy trainers on and looked like he could do with a good wash. But he was such a lovely lad. He was so interested in what I had. I gave him a history lesson. He said, ‘one day, when I’ve got some money, I want to buy one of your lights.’ So, I packed up a £135 camera light, chased after him, and said ‘Excuse me! Here: have that!’ He was rapt and came back later with a sausage roll for me. And I just thought: if I’ve inspired him, it’s fantastic. It’s not all about money.’

Duncan’s most cherished creations are his ‘art walls’. Essentially three-dimensional collages of everything he collects – dials, coins and curios of antique engineering – each tells a story, and all give him tremendous creative satisfaction. He displays them on Grand Designs and at solo exhibitions and is delighted with the admiration they inspire. One Whitstable restaurant loved them so much it bought four one-metre square compositions to decorate its dining room.

It’s safe to say that Duncan’s expert eye for historical relics, married to his restless creative ingenuity, will lead to plenty more such sales. He’s a man whose passion for what he makes is palpable, and in Greenwich Market he’s found the ideal place to share that love with customers, clientele, and the insatiably curious.

By Hugh McNaughtan

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