There’s a scene in 2020’s The Queen’s Gambit when redheaded chess maestro Beth Harmon speaks to a journalist about her affinity with chess. ‘Chess can be beautiful,’ she says. ‘It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares.’
She’s talking about the art of chess in the abstract sense – the careful dance of pawn over knight and rook over queen until the sequence concludes. But chess can also be beautiful in an aesthetic way – especially when brands like Purling come along and transform chessboards into sculptures and artworks.
‘Everything has to be beautiful.’ I’m speaking with Purling’s Finance Director, James McCarthy (himself a chess whizz), who has beamed into the brand’s Kensal Rise headquarters via Zoom. We’re surrounded by a rainbow of chess boards and pieces; behind me, a space-inspired board hangs on the wall like a portrait, its UFO-like pieces suspended by magnets.
‘A Purling set has to involve art and it has to be high quality,’ he continues. ‘It’s a beautiful chess set that you can play with – but leans a bit more towards the art side.’
Pondus magnetic set (L) | Finance Director James McCarthy (R)
Purling makes the kind of chess sets you want to own. Founded in 2012, its raison d’être is to make the world’s most beautiful games from the world’s finest materials; its products include Gatsby-style playing cards, an all-matte black chess set, and a £45,000 chess table designed in collaboration with artist Daniel Brusatin.
To describe a typical Purling chess set is like trying to describe a typical chess game: each is a unique combination of pieces and patterns. Sure, there are ‘standard’ sets where the pieces (hand-carved by artisans in India) are uniform and the board (mostly alabaster, sometimes maple) is neatly chequered. But even these have subtle twists – whether a splash of Purling purple (carefully blended by Creative Director Gosia Łapsa-Malawska to feel ‘not religious, but elegant; royal without being regal’) or the slight flaring of the nostrils on the brand’s signature knight.
And then there are the art sets. Designed in collaboration with contemporary artists and steered by Gosia (herself an artist and curator), these are the headliners; genuine artworks encased in 64 squares. Gosia shows me a secret garden-style board embossed with aquamarine and gold; a brutalist-style set by artist Daniel Caesar with pieces like bullets; and a board patterned with mountains by Greek artist Eleni Maragaki.
Creative Director Gosia Łapsa-Malawska (L) | Eleni Maragaki set (R)
And then there are the bespoke sets, where the team spends up to five months creating boards and pieces according to whatever design, colour scheme, or idea you like. This could be anything – from a fully personalised wedding gift to pieces designed to match the interiors of your home.
‘We’re all about timeless elegance, quality, and understated luxury,’ says Gosia. ‘All the sets are produced in small quantities and give the client that feeling of having something unique.’
It’s no surprise that demand for beautiful chessboards has rocketed recently. Since 2020, the public opinion of chess has transformed; it’s no longer a geeky game and has instead become – dare we say it – trendy. And that’s all thanks to the dual-pronged catalyst of the pandemic and the release of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.
‘The Queen’s Gambit made people realise that chess wasn’t just about being intellectual,’ says James. ‘It’s also psychological. It’s a sport. And that coincided with the Covid period when people were at home, which was also part of the growth. So, all in all, chess has become quite sexy in a way.’
To throw some numbers into the mix: by the end of 2020, sales of chess sets were up 1100%, the number of games being played on chess.com doubled, and the average viewership of live chess games had increased tenfold.
And with an influx in interest came an explosion of chess boards to the market. Gone are the days when owning a chess set meant having a fold-out plastic board rattling around the back of a cupboard. Chess sets can now be beautiful and luxurious, with brands from Louis Vuitton to Cartier designing boards that are more to be admired than played.
‘It’s not just about a game. It’s also about art.’
– David Taylor
‘It’s a natural brand extension,’ says David Taylor, Purling’s Operations Director. ‘With luxury brands, people buy into that brand and that product because it’s a status symbol and reflects their lifestyle. So, for those brands, [creating a chess board] is a natural extension into their customer’s lifestyles.’
He tells me about customers who have bought sets to deck out their yachts and private jets; pop stars who commission bespoke Purlings for their living rooms; and people who have bought boards as gifts or heirlooms to last for generations.
But these people can’t all be prolific chess players – even Purling’s CEO admits she’s not the biggest chess head. So, I ask them, why would you want a bespoke chess board if you can’t play chess?
‘It’s a conversation piece,’ explains James, pointing at the UFO-like board hanging on the wall behind me. ‘Take the Pontus design. I could set up a position on the board and people would come in and try and solve it. And then I come across as somebody’s who’s interested in art, somebody’s who’s interested in chess, and I suppose someone who is an intellectual.’
‘But then at the same time, I can take it off the wall and play it. If you couldn’t play with it, it wouldn’t be a chessboard anymore. But I think that people ought to simply get joy from just seeing chess sets and art.’
David agrees. ‘It’s not just about a game,’ he says. ‘It’s also about art.’ And nobody does the art of chess better than Purling
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