Hugo Burge made his name in the travel industry. Inspired by aspects of the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement he is now dedicating much of his energy to helping nurture artists and makers. One aspect of this is his project to establish a workshop for the making of rush seated chairs in the stables at Marchmont House. Another is his decision to join our board of directors. We asked Hugo about his interest in arts, craft and design and his thoughts on how we can help to support Scotland's creative community:
Tell us a bit about your background
I live at Marchmont House in Berwickshire, which my father and I have been renovating for some years now. One of my ambitions is to make it “a Home for Makers and Creators” in the Scottish Borders.
I’m keen to support sustainable creativity in the arts, crafts and early stage businesses. Nowadays I’m a director of Marchmont Ventures which covers a range of business and charitable interests, with the ultimate purpose of encouraging sustainable creativity.
After studying geography at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge I went into business. Eventually I became CEO of Momondo Group, the travel search business operating the momondo and Cheapflights brands, which was acquired by Booking Group for $550m in 2017. I led the company for six years prior to the acquisition, but my involvement dates back to 2000 when it was a two-person Wandsworth-based attic operation. I started Cheapflights’ North American business, opening its Boston office in 2003 and led the acquisition of the Danish-based metasearch company momondo in 2011.
Back in 2006 I co-founded HOWZAT Partners in 2006, which has now made over 70 early stage digital investments. Early stage investment in purpose-driven companies is a particular interest of mine.
You’ve also had some interesting prizes and accolades over the years
This year I was inducted into the UK Travel and Hospitality Industry Hall of Fame, after being honoured in 2016, with the Travolution Industry Achievement award. In 2008, I won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, in the Travel Industry Hall of Fame.
What’s your family background?
I grew up in London but never really felt like it was home. I feel very much at home in the Scottish Borders, a place I have come to love over 30 years. I also have a weakness for the Hebrides, where I would love to spend considerably more time.
One of my ancestors was Reverend Gray, a Presbyterian minister at Fochabers, but other than that the family connections to Scotland were not that strong. Having spent my early years in a relatively modest house in Fulham, it never occurred to me that I would end up as the custodian of somewhere like Marchmont House.
It’s a family that has always been full of distinctive characters. My grandfather, James Burge QC was the basis for John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – he also defended Stephen Ward in the Profumo Affair.
My father was, and still is, a brilliant businessman but it was my mother who valued and nurtured creativity. I have brought these two worlds together in a way that feels very right for me.
How did your interest in craft and design develop?
Design was my favourite subject at school and influenced all my other subjects. I feel strongly that an education with a creative element is essential to bring out the best in ourselves.
Perhaps I have a frustrated inner artist that has been yearning to be expressed. I have always had a soft spot for wood and woodwork, but it was at Bedales School in countryside, with an amazing teacher called David Butcher and in the Ernest Gimson Library that I came to truly love wood. I then began to learn more about the stories about makers and their stories - it all resonated strongly and I became curious to learn more. In particular I have fallen for the humble rush seat chair and its ascendance to icon of the arts and crafts movement.
How did you discover Wasps?
I bought a piece of art and discovered that the artist, Fiona Millar, was based at the Wasps studios at St Mary’s Mill in Selkirk. I loved her distinctive style and wanted to know more. I found out that before getting a Wasps studio she had worked from home on the kitchen table.
It opened my eyes to what Wasps are doing and really tweaked my interest. Having space with other artists can be a brilliant way to find inspiration and to have an outlet for your work. I was so impressed that there was this group of artists in a rural community who were thriving with the support that Wasps was providing.
What do you hope to help Wasps achieve?
Having learned about the great work they do across Scotland I am keen to help them grow their impact. I love how Wasps has developed, starting with modest council grants, and with unwanted buildings in declining areas. They have not only supported artists but promoted regeneration and, in the process, become a viable and self-sustaining organisation. I find that social purpose and ability to make a difference inspiring. I want to be part of it and help write the next chapter.
It also struck me that people had not heard of Wasps, which seems amazing - it’s the biggest provider of art space in Scotland and indeed the UK. It needs championing, supporting and recognition. It also feels like the start of something big, with the ability to create change on a large scale (on a personal, city and regional level).
I would love to see more Wasps studios, particularly in rural areas. The rural artist and craftsman is someone who really catches my imagination to support.
I hope to bring enthusiasm, a passion for the work of makers and their untold stories and also - I suppose - some experience from business and making things sustainable. I have defined my interest as building sustainable creativity - Wasps seems like a good a fit.
Can business do more to support artists and makers in Scotland?
The business community can make an enormous difference, for example by thinking about what art they have on the office walls or in the entrance hall or the meeting room. Buying from local craft makers does so much, it helps you become part of the local community to support creativity. It’s an easy way and an interesting way to make a difference.
Do you see purpose driven business as important?
It’s easy “to do business for the sake of doing business” and get into a rather stale mind-set. I admire purpose-driven business that look at what they are trying to achieve in a bigger sense. Not just what they are doing but why. Having a purpose driven business, that can make a difference, is exciting, invigorating and can do amazing things - keeps you hungry to make a difference, a splash and stand out too.
What about art and craft businesses themselves?
While I love art and crafts for their own sake, creativity can make more of a difference. It can have a have a wider impact and reach more people if it is sustainable in a commercial sense.
It is about being valued as a maker and being empowered to grow what you do, to think bigger and make more of a difference. If we can shine a light on makers and help them thrive we not only help them, but create a more interesting society and a more thriving balanced economy. We can support artist in so many ways - giving them better tools, better affordable spaces, confidence, support, community, commercial awareness and - of course - exposure.
Does this still matter in a digital world?
I love the design and technology that are shaping our future, but the grounding values of the arts and crafts are as important as the iPhone. We need balance.
During the Industrial Revolution the Arts and Crafts Movement was born out of the necessity to achieve balance. Today we are going through a digital revolution and it’s time to achieve a new balance. It’s time for a resurgence in the arts and crafts, perhaps based round core values of celebrating good craftsmanship, the hand made, nature, community and sustainability. We need to think about how we can live in balance with nature. I think that’s probably more pertinent than anything today.
Are we providing young people with the right education to achieve this balance?
People complain about the arts and crafts being removed from education and the focus on STEM. I understand the value of STEM, of being computer literate and being part of a global economy. But not everybody wants to be part of the global digital economy nor should they be.
Yes we need to be best in the digital world, but we also have crafts where we can be the best and they complement each other. We need both. And even people who are working on computers and in the digital world would benefit from having a creative mind and from having worked with their hands. Somebody said to me recently that computer coding is a craft. You are going to be able to think more creatively and clearly if you have done design, woodwork or art at school.
Craftsmanship is so undervalued that apprentices are hard to find, because kids are not encouraged to think that being a maker is something to be proud of. We all need to do our bit to celebrate those who make our world more beautiful, more practical and bring it together - starting in education, but also in and around our local communities.
I was recently talking to a joiner who has had apprentices for the past 40 years but cannot find any now. We are in danger of ignoring the importance of craftsmanship for the sake of a purely digital world.
Do you feel the creative economy is under threat?
Yes, and part of the threat is a race to the bottom. We should learn to value a locally made piece of craft that will endure, has a maker’s story and has longevity. Flimsy and mass produced items have none of these qualities. These values are important and need our commitment.
Artists’ earnings have not changed in 10 years, leaving them more struggling than ever - as a society, if we value our artists, makers and dreamers - and I believe we should - then we should tell their stories, seek to support them and make an effort to appreciate the value of their goods.
Artists in turn need to step up, feel the value in their work, see the bridge between their different world views and the commercial world around them, not because they want to sell out or change their dreams, but because they have a role to play and can make a bigger difference if they do.
- Click here to see a film about Lawrence Neal a rush seated chair maker whose skills Burge is seeking to preserve. It was something he felt compelled to do after learning about Neal’s story and his work. Burge later decided to support apprenticeships that would allow Neal to pass on his skills.