Simon Purkis was relaxing on an Indonesian beach as the sun went down, playing chess with an old school friend turned traveling companion, when the idea for luxury chess sets came to him. As the fading light eventually made it impossible to differentiate between the pieces, Purkis realized what was needed: an illuminated set.
He returned home with the germ of a plan, quit his job in mergers and acquisitions in the City, and in 2012 established Purling London. The company is now the global go-to for handcrafted chess and other classic game sets to be found in Bergdorf Goodman and Harrods.
Delight in Design
“I’ve always loved design. I was a chartered engineer before I moved into finance and I realized I wanted to do something creative,” says Purkis. “At Purling we want to bring back the delight of playing games, but as artifacts they can also be used for interior design, accessories, and gifts.”
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That creativity has come through working with contemporary artists who hand-paint chess pieces to create one-off works of art. The company has collaborated with names including Mr. Doodle, who has worked with Adidas and Fendi, Sophie Matisse, and Thierry Noir, the first street artist to paint on the Berlin Wall.
The company offers heritage sets, too, with exquisite hand-carved ebony Staunton pieces—the byword for chess. Purling also produces checkers, backgammon, cards, and darts. “The process for all our games is similar: traditional forms are given a contemporary twist,” explains Purkis.
“Our cards might carry the classic English pattern but will have a color contort, a blue and gray palette with magenta hearts and diamonds overlay. For Bergdorf Goodman we used a purple colorway to give a flavor of the store. Dart flights are monogrammed, and with a new backgammon design we have, the board could be hung as if it were a painting.”
Playing for Quality
Purling’s confections are ordered not just by individuals, but also for film and video shoots, installations, and hotels, and companies that want branded sets to provide entertainment for guests and clients. Pieces have also been exhibited at Christie’s. “For the auction house’s Russian art sale, we made a chessboard for them to display an antique Soviet-made ‘Reds and Whites’ porcelain set,” says Purkis.
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Purkis’s enthusiasm and love for his work is infectious, and refreshing in today’s digital world. “Classic games are an antidote to the mobile age. They bring families and friends together for quality time that all ages can enjoy.” So did he ever make his illuminated board? “We did. But the light cast shadows over the pieces so we discontinued it,” says Purkis. Knowing what works, it appears, is the secret to the perfect game.
Banner image: Butterfly motifs recur in the work of British design company Khamama, as seen in this intricate Purling London chess set. Greg Funnell