Furniture Talk

Hi I am roger billington partner and ceo of sw design based here in Shenzhen, my PA Jeanne is here to help with the presentation.

I have been invited today to talk about trends in furniture design and or manufacturing and inevitably sales and the use of furniture.

I suspect the real nature of the talk is about where furniture design is going so rather than discussing trends, which can be transitory and not necessarily help the debate, I will make a prediction or provocation.

The prediction is based on volumes of my international knowledge and experience and more recently my living and working experiences in china.

It is also based on my observations of society in china, some of the preconceptions of Chinese design and manufacturing and where the furniture industry is, present day, in china.

It is also based on bigger issues, like sustainable manufacturing and recently developed technological improvements and processes like rapid prototyping and lean manufacturing.

I believe my prediction draws together many of these issues and paints a very rosey potential for the future of furniture design and manufacturing in china and, consequently, its place in the world of design.

My comments are not judgmental simply views of china and china industry and where I believe the future lies for, in this instance, the furniture industry.

China has long been known as a place where manufacturing for the world has included copies of modern, classical and traditional furniture types from around the world. It would be fair to say that the design of original pieces  is generally restricted to lower end sales and so suffer from a lack of design input and therefore avoid being relevant in a global design market.

A social issue is that of recently acquired wealth in china, within one generation many Chinese have gone from poverty to immense wealth. For them the purchase of, sometimes, indisputably high quality reproduction furniture has been seen as a way of demonstrating personal prestige and status and has offered a ‘design’ solution to those who crave the recognition and enjoyment  brought about by this style of interior design and furnishing.

The issue, 30 years on from the onset of personal wealth, is for some the growing desire to invest in furniture and interiors that reflect an entirely different position for the wealthy and, sometimes, not so wealthy. Many Chinese have travelled overseas, they have seen and felt the real antiques so faithfully copied and desired by their counterparts and through this they understand the differences in quality, value and desirability. It is these people who I believe are the next generation of furniture investors, not simply purchasers. They want to see furniture as investment and as an heirloom, a valuable piece which can carry on a families tradition as it used to do in china.

This longevity of use and relevance also addresses other issues previously mentioned. To continue to produce furniture with a life cycle of between 3-7 years is not only, not sustainable, it is not desirable for an increasing number of eco aware people, here and overseas.

So how to begin to address my prediction, at SW Design I have instigated a policy of internship for the graduate designers. Each year we bring in 2 recent graduates from NZ, Oz, India, Korea and we interface these designers with our Chinese teams. They each have different qualities and skills and by integrating them like this I believe we benefit both groups, through this we certainly have gained a reputation for design which demonstrates the strengths of diversity, innovation and internationalism.

The solution to the furniture design dilemma is, I believe, a similar model to that of my company. I strongly advocate the installation of designer maker opportunities for students, an international ly recognized process. This practice of making and designing opens innovative approaches to design that the western design school system has proven to work and this is essentially what we do at SW, training and learning go hand in hand with practice. At the end of WWII, a bankrupt Italian government invested heavily into furniture design in its schools of architecture and design, that is why Italian furniture is so successful in the world market and why it is copied all over the world. The designer maker model is practiced there as it is in most design schools around the world and in a similar manner this is what I predict would future proof the furniture design sector in china.

If furniture production in china is to address the topics above and if it is to gain a place in the world of design, action needs to be taken similar to the Italian governments. The development of environmentally responsible processes and the production of Chinese furniture that meets global standards of production, design and quality control can only be brought about by either a review of this part of the design education system or the supply of a private institution that focuses on these issues and so ensures a future based on value added craftsmanship and innovative design rather than fashion or reproduction.

If my prediction comes true not only will the furniture industry benefit, as in schools like RCA in the UK and Design Center in USA, transportation, fashion, interiors, architecture and industrial designers will be encouraged to think creatively through programmes that challenge them to think and innovate therefore insuring a place for china in the future design world. We have started this process at SW, it works, to do it for the future of furniture design in china needs a commitment to my prediction similar to that in Italy from either government or industry…..  


For the furniture industries long term good health I predict the need for a sound design, technology and research based manufacturing sector. China should beware of concentrating on a “make for others” industry and develop, in house, innovation and design strengths by reviewing current design educational policies and so become a member of the internationally growing body of “creative industries”. In doing so an independent and world class industry would be prepared for the imminent social and economic changes we face in addition to more astute buyer demands in a dynamic and increasingly responsible world of consumers.

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