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Interview with CEO of Wiseman London

13th October 2021
Islay Robinson GROUP CEO

Islay Robinson

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GROUP CEO

Islay Robinson

Howard Wiseman is the owner of a specialist business based in London. Over the past  35 years, it has firmly established itself as the world’s leading bespoke maker of fine musical instrument cases.

Wiseman Cases was recently selected by Rolls Royce & Bentley to take part in their “strive for perfection” exhibition and publication to celebrate world-class manufacturers who share their values in engineering and production.

The experience and expertise gained on Wiseman’s journey so far have resulted in the recent launch of a parallel business that now promises to make a carbon fibre Wiseman Case for anyone for any purpose. Using the strongest, lightest and most beautiful carbon fibre. What can Wiseman London make for you? 

We caught up with Howard to see how the case business evolved in the first place and what is on offer to any client who has a special commission in mind that does not involve a musical instrument!

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Where does your passion for the music industry come from?

I was introduced to the bassoon when I went to secondary school. I received some great teaching, and by the time I was sixteen, I was completely hooked. By then, Music had caught up alongside my passion for sport! I won a place in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and that experience made up my mind to go to music college and train for an orchestral career. 

How was Wiseman Cases born, and what has the journey been like?         

There was never a conscious decision to form or create a business. However, there came a point when I had to carry my bassoon to school most days. Once a week was traumatic enough. The case was huge, heavy and the handle ripped my hands up. I needed a solution with a one-mile walk on either way of a peak time train journey to school. So one weekend, I turned down a family day trip to stay at home and tackle the problem. I had been gathering some materials and fittings together over the previous weeks, and by the end of the day, I had re-housed my bassoon into a small tubular case made from a drainpipe, all leather-bound, velvet lined and with the wooden ends carved and drilled to receive the various joints of my instrument. It was half the weight and one-third of the volume of the original case, and with a shoulder strap, problem solved. My life was transformed, as I no longer dreaded my daily commute to school.       

My Bassoon teacher was most impressed by my case and commissioned one immediately for himself. I was offered more money for that first case than I had ever earned. Looking back now, that was the birth of the business, and the orders steadily flowed in. First via my teacher, then on the family landline telephone, letters through the post, from all over the world! By the time I was seventeen, I had cases in the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, and I already had cases going out to the USA. This solution for my problem had quickly turned into the dream holiday job for a schoolboy.

Two years later, I went to study at the Royal Academy of Music. By then, I had quite a waiting list and guaranteed work lined up for every holiday break. I had a strict no-case-making rule during term time.  As I left the Academy four years later, I invited my eldest brother to work with me on the cases, so we set up, in my parent’s back room, with one end each of the table tennis table as our workbench. It was lovely to see my brother working alongside me and constantly producing the cases even when working as a bassoonist or a sports coach (yes, I kept my other passion going).

I remember being very embarrassed when members of the Wind section from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra arranged to meet me at “my workshop”. Luckily, they thought our table tennis-based workshop was “quaint”, and they all ordered cases (which are still in use over 30 years later!). The journey over these past 35 years has been just amazing.

We have steadily grown and have only made cases to order. Before long, we found ourselves making cases for just about any and every combination of instruments in the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra, as well as for very valuable violins and violas. Work has always flowed in thanks to word of mouth and repeat customers, so much so that we now have a team of twelve highly skilled craftsmen and administrative staff operating from our workshop in south London.

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What makes the brand unique?                  

The brand is unique in that all items are made bespoke to the client’s requirements and colour scheme. They have a choice of materials right down to the colour of the stitching. The cases themselves have a distinctive and unique design that makes them stronger, lighter and more compact than any other on the market. The tubular and curved designs do away with vulnerable and flexible flat panels, whilst the cases generally operate as two equal clam-shell halves, each with equal storage capacity. In this way, the cases open up like a tray, avoiding the bulk and awkwardness of a redundant lid when the case is opened. The materials are incredibly light and strong; the carbon fibre that we use is of the highest grade to make jet fighter planes and Formula One racing cars.

As well as being incredibly beautiful, this material is famous for being ten times stronger than its weight in steel. In addition, all Wiseman products have carried a lifetime guarantee and a free overhaul service for the past thirty years. 

Who are your clients?

Our clients until now have predominantly been professional jazz and orchestral musicians, as well as serious amateurs. We also regularly make wonderful carbon fibre cases as an optional extra for some of the world’s leading musical instrument makers to offer to their clients.

However, there have been many clients who have sought us out for other specialist purposes. This has included commissioned cases for microphone equipment, photographic equipment, presentation cases for valuable necklaces, carbon fibre instrument parts, weaponry cases, valuable sporting trophy cases and sporting equipment flight cases.

My favourite commission was making a case for the 800-year-old ceremonial sword and mace for the Irish Parliament. The experience we gained in 35 years of designing cases, along with our expertise in carbon fibre, means that we can make a case for almost anything.

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Who are some of the most noteworthy musicians you have worked with?

We have worked with musicians from most of the worlds’ greatest orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as many of the most famous jazz musicians. Two clients are of particular note. One is the instrument itself as well as its’ current owner. This is the Ex Vieuxtemps violin made by Guarneri del Gesu, which sold for a record $16m (the most expensive instrument in history). The current owner, the International Soloist Anne Akiko Meyers, sent us a CT scan of the instrument to be fitted perfectly. Whilst designing and making this case, it was impossible to escape the real sense of responsibility that had been passed our way, protect this famous instrument through the rigours of modern travel, and ensure that it would be safely passed on to future generations of musicians. The client was delighted with our unique and hugely protective case design and the huge advance that we provided in how the instrument was supported within the case to protect the violin from relayed shock in the event of a bad accident/shock the case.

The other particularly pleasing collaboration was with the world-famous musician, Anoushka Shankar. After a number of consultations with Anoushka and her various Sitars (a couple of them having been passed down by her father Ravi Shankar of Beatles fame). We made two stunningly beautiful, strong and light cases that Anoushka has described on her social media as being “life changing”. These most fragile instruments are especially vulnerable when flying, and our case provided an unparalleled level of protection alongside effortless handling by the artist. 

Could you highlight some of your most unique/stand-out products? 

Some of our cases are just incredible in terms of compactness. Many musicians have to carry multiple instruments, which can cause serious issues when travelling by air in particular. Our saxophone cases are a great example of how we utilise every spare space inside the cases. Take an alto saxophone, for example; the size of instrument that everyone learning the saxophone at school plays. The Wiseman case is the same volume as a regular case for this instrument. Still, we can fit inside: the alto saxophone and additionally, a soprano saxophone, a flute, clarinet and a piccolo and storage space for accessories.

This is a typical set-up for musicians playing in shows, and our case enables all instruments to be effortlessly carried as hand luggage on any flight. It saves carrying five cases and cuts the weight and volume in half. Our larger cases, made from carbon fibre, are also life-changing. For example; The largest woodwind instrument in the orchestra (every orchestra has one) is the contrabassoon. This instrument is a nightmare to transport very heavy, fragile, and extremely expensive (at least £30k). In a gig-bag, it is easily damaged. In a flight case, it is almost impossible to move around by hand. Our carbon fibre case is so strong and light that it replaces both the gig-bag and the flight case all in one, half the volume and one-third of the weight (with superb long-board wheels and a suspension system that provides the ultimate protection to relayed shock within the case). Like the Sitar case, this case can simply be checked in under the plane and effortlessly walked away with on arrival. It is life-changing. It will also hold the bassoon inside the case too without having made the case any bigger to enable this. An incredible magic trick that changes the life of any bassoonist. Another stand-out product is our carbon fibre wheelie cabin-friendly luggage case. There is plenty of decent luggage available on the market, but almost none that are truly crush-resistant. The Wiseman luggage case is very light but rigid exactly what is needed if you are transporting fragile cargo in your case such as, photographic equipment, laptop computers, antiques, pottery or glass etc. Items you simply could not safely transport inflexible luggage cases. These cases are stunningly beautiful if desired as a fashion accessory, but above all else, they provide a tremendous level of protection whilst remaining very light. We use medical-grade wheels that have a far greater load-bearing strength than normal luggage wheels, as well as marine grade stainless steel locks that make it almost impossible for the case to open accidentally.

So, what is Wiseman London able to offer?

Carbon fibre is the perfect material from which to make a light and highly protective case. We launched this new venture, “Wiseman London” at the recent Elite Show at High Wycombe Air Park. Visitors were very excited by the prospect of being able to commission almost any item from carbon fibre.

There was particular interest in bespoke luggage and storage cases to fit specific spaces in aircraft and performance cars and a real demand for extremely lightweight and compact shotgun and rifle cases. There was also interest in beautiful, lightweight briefcases and bespoke unique clutch bags.

However, one of the highest request items was for a lightweight and compact Golf club and equipment case suitable for international travel, including our fantastic long-board wheel system and hidden tracking device to assist the airport in locating lost clubs. Unfortunately, nothing is suitable or convincing on the market, with golf clubs frequently damaged or lost. 

One of the world’s leading figures in golf has already followed up from that show. He has explained that the one missing cog in the smooth running of international golfing travel is the lack of any really protective and easily portable flight cases. However, some of our instrument cases are already close in shape and design to exactly what is needed.  

We can brand and personalise any commission in a variety of ways, depending on your own request. Anyone interested in a commission or project can contact Howard directly on [email protected]  or visit the website at www.wiseman.london     

Call us +44 (0) 203 758 9393 or submit your details and a broker will get in touch.

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