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Furniture: an industry in search of Authors


Three months after the Salone del Mobile in Milan, after having absorbed the shock wave of the overabundance of productsevents- brands and visitors, we can sit back and examine objectively the situation on the furniture industry in Italy (but not only), so to determine some possible future trends (with no claim to completeness). As confirmed by Federmobili, of the more than 372,000 visitors who had access to the Milan exhibit, approximately 123,000 were Italian, a figure on the rise, confirming the slight recovery of the industry underway in Italy.

The data provided by Federlegno Arredo show that in 2015 the furniture macro-system has recorded a turnover of 24.924 billion euros, of which 50% was achieved through export. 2015 has also seen an increase in exports of + 6.1%; the companies at the end of 2015 were 30,943, with a total of 181,327 employees.

An industry in redefinition

Leafing back through the data of the last 10 years, it is easy to see that since 2007 – the last year when it was recorded an increase in turnover (from 23 to over 26 billion euros) – to 2014, the production of furniture in Italy has done nothing but decline, and with it, also the number of companies and number of employees decreased. Fortunately, export rose from 46% to 57% (now it stands at just above 50%), but this good growth was not enough to compensate for the drastic reduction of the domestic market. The apparent consumption of furniture in the domestic market has in fact shrinked by 40% – from more than 17 billion in 2007 to about 10 billion in 2015. And defaulting businesses have created a loss of more than 50,000 jobs, for a total of more than 5,000 companies. These numbers show us that it is reductive to speak of it only of a crisis: it is quite clear that this has been an epoch-making change.

A global change that is affecting in depth even the operations of the furniture industry working model, which was a quite simple scheme that used to work since World War II: the designerindustry- distribution-sales-royalties model.

Originated just after the Second World War, when Italy was in the midst of reconstruction, and there was a need for everything, the system of payment of royalties as a percentage of sales of a product worked quite well, and, since there were abundant gains for everybody, no one had to complain. But in more recent years, even when the gains began to dwindle, the media exposure of the products, perhaps shown at important exhibitions like the Milan Furniture Fair, could compensate for the lack of a monetary reward for the designer, with the promise of more orders in the future thanks to the added visibility.
Then, the Great Recession has decreed the triumph of increasingly low-cost production. It has redefined the market size, drastically reducing the size of the internal market as explained above, pushing the Italian manufacturers more and more towards the high-end/small-numbers production, further reducing the volumes sold and the possibility of gains for the designers in the furniture sector.

Designers entrepreneurs and e-commerce

That’s how different designers, established and not, have begun to address this sticky issue, focusing on their business skills. It is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it is already showing some success stories. They range from the designer who designs and entrusts the production to third parties, turning his name into a brand, to the designer involving other designers, acting as a publisher, and also dealing with the distribution and sales. For the moment, it is mostly made of smaller objects or individual pieces, such as chairs or lamps, but it is still a growing trend to consider. Moreover, some of the most far-sighted professionals are experimenting with new business models, to overcome the productionsales- royalties model, trying to shorten the supply chain, thus promoting the possibility of greater gain for designers.

Smaller Objects was founded on the initiative of the longtime standing Swedish designers Claesson Koivisto Rune. As the name implies, it offers mainly small objects for the home, designed by the trio and various other designers as well. The novelty lies in the business model, quite different from the traditional. Smaller Objects styles itself as a sales platform – of course the objects must have the right characteristics to fit in the project – and the designers directly follow the production. Smaller Objects recognizes designers 75% of the sale price, against the customarily small usual percentage involved in the royalties payment model. There is no doubt, however, that the management of a well-structured production requires a commitment of different kind on the part of the designers, who are asked to engage actively as entrepreneurs. The model, as explained by Marten Claesson, is inspired by the sharing economy.

Another model “that respects the craft dimension” and involves the designer as a publisher and entrepreneur is also Something Good, an initiative by Giorgio Biscaro, Zaven and Matteo Zorzenoni. Something Good is a platform which brings together designers and Italian companies, to produce accessories and objects of great quality, in small quantities. The amount manufactured, of course, may vary, but the philosophy of the project is to produce objects in limited quantities, to maintain high quality and exclusivity.

Next to the quest for new business models, the Big Depression presented the need for the Western industries as a whole to confront with the new Asian markets, both as new prospects for the sales, either as competitors intrusive and too competitive, thanks to much less restrictive labor laws, and lower electricity generation costs. Not forgetting the immense possibilities offered by the development of e-commerce, although certainly not easy to deal with.

Qeeboo takes its cue from the consideration of all these aspects, and the solid experience of international business by Stefano Giovannoni, a famous designer who has explored various fields of activity and types of products. Building on its long and thorough experience, Giovannoni in 2015 had the idea to develop a series of furniture pieces – chairs, armchairs, lamps, accessories – all in plastic, designed by a team of famous designers, including Marcel Wanders, Nika Zupanc, Richard Hutten, Andrea Branzi, to be manufactured with advanced industrial techniques.

Thanks to the partnership with a Hong Kong manufacturer, and direct sales through its own website or dedicated platforms, the products are being marketed with surprising, very low prices, so will be quite affordable for much more people. As claimed by Andrea Branzi, you can really have “democratic design”. Among the designers who have turned their name into a brand, with some success, we can also mention the Englishman Lee Broom, the Italian Giampaolo Benedini, who is working on a collection of lamps and accessories for online sales, and Sebastian Wrong, who has developed a new collection of lights in cooperation with the Danish manufacturer Hay, and the legendary Tom Dixon, of course (who achieved a big success).

The new frontier: childhood

Hunting for new customers, what could be better than to capture the attention of those who will be future consumers of furniture and design? That’s the reason why several companies have put dedicated collections aimed to children. The first has been Magis, which turns 40 in 2016, and since 2004 has developed the Me Too, a whole furniture line dedicated to children, designed by international designers with the help of pedagogues and specialists in childhood.

But this year, Kartell too has presented a series of products aimed at children, ranging from one version “miniature” versions, with fitting colors and special decorations, of products which are already present in the manufacturer’s catalog, to toys specially designed and built with the Kartell philosophy, such as the rocking horses by Nendo, or the cars by Piero Lissoni. Miniature versions of design icons are also offered by Vitra, with the iconic Panton Junior chair.

Companies looking for a (new) identity In a climate of change so widespread, even the oldest companies, the most established brands, are seeking renewal and a new identity. Two of the most famous and prestigious, have made the choice to appoint two globally renowned international designers and architects as art directors.

Cassina, since last October, has appointed Patricia Urquiola as art director and creative director of the Poltrona Frau Group, collaborating directly with Giulio Cappellini, who is still art directing his namesake company. In addition to addressing the redefinition of products, the task of Patricia Urquiola also includes the design and the redesign of the Group showrooms in the world.

A similar choice – albeit with a totally different character – is by Molteni & C., which has chosen the Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen as art director. A strong north- European imprinting, with its a minimalist rigor, characterize the architect-designer projects, who will coordinate the image and the retail concept for the international brand. Who will be also designing some products, of course, including the new modular sofa Paul, the cupboards Quinten and the Jan table. The vision of an architect will be an interesting development for the iconic Brianza company, which has in its history ties with the greatest names of architecture, like Tobia Scarpa, Aldo Rossi, and Luca Meda.

(Published in Furniture & Furnishing, Singapore, Sept/Oct. 2016).

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