Furniture history (continued)

The lifting of import controls in the 1980s – and the tidal wave of low-cost Asian furniture imports that followed – inevitably forced local manufacturers into a long period of what could politely be called ‘rationalisation’ … effectively resulting in a downward trend of key economic indicators. (The long-term strengthening of the New Zealand dollar also hit hard as large retailers increasingly pursued volume buying offshore.)

IMG_1751-sml CNC technology has revolutionised production by replacing various carpentry machines. Photo: © Central Joinery Limited.

A decline in the number of employees engaged in the industry, a steady reduction in the number of manufacturers, downsizing of staff numbers and a significant increase in imported furniture’s share of the market … were all indicators of an industry in trouble.

Downsizing often reflected a shift from long-run production into custom-made/bespoke manufacturing … introducing new machine technology and applying the principles of ‘lean manufacturing’ to increase productivity. And some manufacturers moved into market niches less affected by imports – notably kitchen cabinets and bathroomware, and office/shop/hospitality fit-outs and maintenance.

Design Mobel

Prominent among the niche players was Design Mobel, which concentrated on producing bedroom furniture with sustainability to the forefront (planting a native tree for every bed sold). And as Michael Smythe noted in his book New Zealand by Design: “A triple-bottom-line approach – people, profits and the environment – was applied from the outset and, as the name implies, design added value.”

Design Mobel went on to win a number of sustainability awards and in 2008 was bought by a bigger player in the market … Sleepyhead.

Some players would focus on supplying to commercial (rather than retail) customers – notably aged care facilities and retirement villages, a sure-fire opportunity given the demographic changes now upon us.

And in the field of educational furniture, Hawkes Bay manufacturer Furnware took advantage of administrative reforms in 1989 (Tomorrow’s Schools) when the company went from one customer, the Ministry of Education, to 2,500 customers. It survived the harshness of economic deregulation … going on to prosper by emphasising innovative design, added value and understanding customer needs.

Design Mobel & Morgan Furniture Left: David Trubridge’s ‘Float’ – outdoor canopy bed by Design Mobel (water-resistant totara and Italian fabric). Photo: © Design Mobel. Right: Distinctive 1960s ribbon armchairs in solid mahogany by Morgan Furniture. Photo: © Mr Bigglesworthy.

Morgan Furniture

Others, like Morgan Furniture (maker of the La-Z-Boy recliner chair), would move manufacturing operations offshore (to Thailand and China), citing high exchange rates and production expenses, and ever-increasing compliance costs.

The company was founded in 1944 by Jack Morgan, who began making and selling lounge suites from small premises in central Auckland. By the 60s, Morgan Furniture was attuned to the popularity of the Scandinavian style, producing quality furniture that’s still appreciated today.

As the effects of cheap imports began to hit hard, the company’s success with La-Z–Boy was extended to include a range of sofas. And in 1993 it made a significant move into the Australian market, securing the Jason operation.

Morgan Furniture emphasised strong product branding – taking pride in its quintessential Kiwi nature, and always being prepared to embrace change and stay ahead of market developments.

At one stage the company employed more than 300 manufacturing staff in New Zealand, notably in upholstery – before the decade-long shift to offshore production, which culminated in the closure of its Auckland factory in 2009.

“Up is the only way out”

If there was general agreement that low-cost bulk supply of New Zealand furniture was a lost cause given our uncompetitive economies of scale – then a new approach was needed. In 2004, Auckland designer Neal Smith noted in F4 magazine that … “a new ‘intelligent’ era is emerging because the Chinese phenomenon has eliminated the competition at the bottom to middle end of the market. Up is the only way out; where quality is a fundamental factor but where a unique story is sold, not the product.”

He would later talk of emerging young designers freeing themselves of marketers whose historical analysis of sales simply produced more of the same (timber+DESIGN magazine, December 2014).

“It had nothing to do with design even though some companies used designers to create the illusion of moving forwards. Any attempt to break out of the ordinary was crushed by marketing managers who read the future by looking at the past.”

Smith added that designers were “pushing the accepted boundaries of existing materials, investigating new materials, and taking advantage of new production technologies.” Many are comfortable partnering with local manufacturers … taking advantage of their production experience/expertise and flexible lead times (compared with outsourcing work overseas).

And, critically, designers are presenting their work to international markets via direct Internet sales. (Some manufacturers, like Woodwrights of Motueka, have also embraced the online sales model after witnessing a downturn in furniture retailing and reduced margins due to supplier rebates and a competitive market.)

essenze

In 2004 a strategic partnership with designers emerged in the form of essenze … founded by Clare Mora, who put her business training and retail experience to good use to promote “handmade and low-volume manufactured objects” (Smythe).

Essenze took a financial hit following the Global Financial Crisis … but, as the economy began to recover, Mora started “working with craft artists and designers to develop products capable of scaled-up manufacturing so that viable volumes could be supplied to international markets” (Smythe).

Plywood Bowl – Drop Sequence Whiteout-sml Christopher Metcalfe’s ‘Arbolito’ fruit bowl: available from essenze, working in strategic partnerships with designers. Photo: © essenze.

Business integration

It would go on to become part of the Pollen Group in Auckland – later the PLN Group, which combines research, design and manufacturing in a vertically integrated approach to conducting business. Chief executive Blair McKolskey says the group is constantly refining the three processes “in a disciplined approach that ensures we invest an appropriate amount of resource into each project”.

PLN currently partners with a number of local designers/firms “on projects beyond those that use our internal design team”. The group’s “connection with top designers like David Trubridge and high-tech manufacturers like Revolution Fibres [nano fibre technology] has resulted in innovative, award-winning products like Hush light and the acoustic work pod collection”.

PLN exports its products and solutions to a number of countries and maintains a presence at international furniture fairs and exhibitions. “They are primarily market research journeys for us,” says McKolskey, “and help us keep in touch with worldwide developments. We don’t generally use them to promote products, although we did have a stand in Chicago last year. Generally it is left to our partners in each country to decide on promotional strategies.”

In marked contrast to PLN’s vertical structure, the industry remains somewhat fragmented with many manufacturers employing five or fewer people. McKolskey says: “As long as the industry remains heavily ‘atomised’, there is unlikely to be any scale to these operations that will let them effectively develop and implement strategies to change their course [for example, by running design or research programmes to add value]. Some will manage it, others will not.”

Minister1&2 The Hon Dr Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, visits the PLN Group’s showroom and factory … accompanied by the group’s chief executive Blair McKolskey. Photos: © PLN Group.

Ikea

Ikea’s recent announcement of its intention to investigate opportunities in New Zealand (possibly a mega store or online sales from a large warehouse) will most likely put pressure on the smaller domestic manufacturers … further testing the industry’s recuperative abilities.

McKolskey says Ikea, given its brand recognition and success, will take a significant share of the market – and it will be interesting to see what proportion it takes of the imported and domestic segments.

He adds that Ikea has understood and used a localised production strategy in larger markets like China and India. “The proportionate freight costs of low-cost furniture to New Zealand could be motivation for them to explore [localisation] if local manufacturers can reach its cost/quality requirements. That would be nice to see.”

Michael Smith

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