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Can the UK build a world-beating furniture industry?

The British furniture industry lags behind Europeans despite a wealth of design talent. Why? 

26 Jul 2016

It’s perhaps an interesting time to reflect on the fact that Europeans simply do some things better than Britain and in a way that we would do well to learn from. This includes the making and selling of furniture.

It’s a sore point for individuals in the upper echelons of the UK design industry who, for some time, have questioned why the UK sits outside the top five European countries for furniture exports. The UK’s furniture industry is currently worth £10bn, compared to £14bn in Germany and £12.5bn in Italy.

This has been a source of considerable frustration given the UK’s possession of what is widely reckoned to be the hard bit: talent. There’s tons of it here. And given the particular brand of raw, irreverent, eccentric and often exciting youthful design talent that the country is famed for, it’s left many wondering what needs to be done.

Little demand for daring design

One take on the underdeveloped UK design industry is that British bad taste is to blame. Anyone selling stuff to consumers needs a sufficiently sized domestic market to gain a footing. And a historic lack of demand for decent furniture across the UK in the way there is for, say, upmarket clothes has hindered the blooming of British furniture brands.

The dearth of independent furniture shops is a point picked up on by commentator Peter York. ‘If you go to any decent-sized town in France or Italy, there are a lot of chic people willing to pay a premium for better design and quality. We don’t have that.’

Heal's Poster

York believes that it’s rooted in the infamous British class system. ‘Apart from a small group of well-heeled people in north London who have supported good design, the overwhelming picture has been rich people in the upper classes with antique things in antique houses and that’s it. It’s all wrapped up in social class.’

Liberty and Heal’s have, for some time, been the sole distribution points for independent British designers trying to do something ambitious with furniture.

But that’s been changing in recent years as Ikea and home makeover shows have sparked something of a revolution when it comes to mainstream consumer attitudes. Another bellwether is John Lewis, whose homeware department has seen a surge in the number of contemporary and independent designers jostling with the more floral and chintzy pieces. It points to a shift in consumer appetites and a fattening of the retail ‘pipe’ for emerging designers to break through.

Break from tradition

It’s the business of making furniture that’s thought to be the bigger obstacle, though.

The UK’s expertise in furniture has historically been in upholstery and woodwork. Many of today’s young designers are following that very British tradition of arts and crafts. It remains a difficult form to build a business that scales.

Reiko Kaneko ceramics

Even supposed centres of excellence, such as the Potteries in Staffordshire with a rich ceramic heritage, have struggled. Factory closures have stemmed from the difficulties of either producing at volume at competitive prices, or creating a globally desirable ‘Made in the Potteries’ brand.

Some young designers are trying a model where they sell very small, affordable and replicable products on the back of their credentials for making expensive, one-off, hand-crafted stuff. Nic Webb is a high-end textile designer based in Camberwell who uses old-fashioned tools in his work. Another is Georgia Kemball, who laboriously stitches throws that sell for around £1,000 each. She’s found a weaving mill in Bristol that takes her designs and makes cheaper fabrics on machines that can be sold for more accessible prices.

But it’s a long way from the northern European model of marrying high-end design with big-batch production. It’s this manufacturing approach that has underpinned Europe’s big furniture brands such as Vitra, which had profits of £160.5m in the first quarter of 2016 according to the FEMB, and Denmark’s Republic of Fritz Hansen, which announced £64m profit in 2014.

A lot of this is reckoned to lie in something much deeper; a left-leaning European ideology that believes in good design for the masses. The idea of producing for the masses led to designers exploring materials and methods suitable for large-scale batch production, which in turn yielded the infrastructure to propel designs into businesses that operate on a massive scale. It’s also the very ideology that formed the genesis of Ikea.

Italy meanwhile has cultivated a reputation and skills base around chic design and manufacturing for decades, resulting in a city like Udine in the north-east of the country having a reputation for making chairs for Italian brands with a global footprint like Cappellini and Moroso.

It’s the absence of belief in design for the masses, big-scale thinking and the expertise and know-how in this area that’s reckoned to have boxed UK design businesses into the niche corner of handcrafted and high end. The other option for UK designers is to outsource manufacturing to China, which many cite as the reason for the focus on small objects, which carry cheaper shipping costs.

The founder of design fair Tent London, Jimmy Macdonald, believes the manufacturing boat has sailed for the UK: ‘Italy is a manufacturing economy and we’re a service economy: it’s two different things.’

Building brands

Today’s British designers are, however, getting savvier. Notions of pricing, positioning and product strategy are less alien among designers than they once were. Buoyed by the success of the UK’s best-known modern homeware designer, Tom Dixon, others have looked at the template that Dixon’s team have built as an inspiration.

One example is Lee Broom, who started his product-design business in 2007. In 2013 he opened his own space in Shoreditch to showcase his work and gain direct access to customers.

Lee Broom chair

Although Broom points to the global financial crisis as triggering a pop-up culture among designers and retailers as lots of central London spaces became available, the cost of shops large enough to house furniture in London remains a particular frustration.

It does mean, though, that a more commercially minded breed of designer has evolved. One that’s thinking about shops, e-commerce, marketing, social media, pricing and their brand. ‘Young designers are becoming entrepreneurs. They’re far less focused on designing for those bigger brands now,’ says Broom. ‘Instead they’re interested in the idea of being in charge of their own destiny and making money as well as seeing their creative vision through from beginning to end.’

But this hasn’t always been the case. There have been calls for London’s globally renowned design schools to introduce modules on business management and marketing rather than unleashing highly talented design students into the world without any idea about the mechanics of a business and the commercial forces in the furniture industry.

Young guns

How to harness that youthful talent, though, remains the big question in any debate on building a bigger domestic economy around furniture and homewares.

York says the most radical design talent is still coming out of London but it’s only half the story.   ‘People get picked up at the gates of St Martins and driven to Turin.’ If not poached by big firms in Italy or northern Europe, many young designers with aspirations to build their own businesses are moving to cheaper cities.

‘We’re seeing a lot of young designers moving to Berlin,’ says Katie Barber from British design store The New Craftsmen. ‘The city is doing a lot to attract young creatives and it is much cheaper.’

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The towering costs of a flat and a studio in London have been well documented and the fact they’re most immediately felt by young creatives. The biggest cost is the loss of what Barber says is ‘the natural instinct coming out of London’s amazing art and design schools’.

Seen and heard

There are, however, some positive signs. Design fairs such as Clerkenwell Design Week and Tent London attract buyers and media from around the world, showcasing British talent.

Tent London has blossomed from 80 exhibitors to 500. Although still some way short of the big Italian fair Salone Internazionale del Mobile, which attracts 1,300 exhibitors and more than 300,000 visitors from around the world, Tent has been a boon for British design. ‘We’ve always wanted to be an incubator for new designers and then the big brands wanted to show alongside that emerging talent,’ says Macdonald.

Lavitta Chair by Poiat from Super Brands London - www.londondesignfair.co.uk

But its the emergence of the shared workspaces more commonly associated with tech startups that could be the most effective way to galvanise young talent into something more commercially muscular.

Cockpit Arts runs two sites in Deptford and Holborn that work as co-working and incubator spaces for craft, collectively housing 170 designers. Designers say the collaboration and guidance from working with their peers is as valuable as the access to tools and equipment. It receives no grants or government subsidy, operating almost entirely from rents paid by designers for using the space.

The obvious next step would be to give a leg up to this incubator and accelerator structure with the kind of government support that’s been such a catalyst for London’s aspiring tech companies.

Incubators, shared workspaces, mass manufacturing processes and business modules in design college may just unlock a formidable furniture industry in the UK. In the meantime, much of the talent will continue to look overseas.

Read more features on UK craft and designers in Courier Aug/Sept 2016.