Who is the man behind your furniture?

Article written by Lizzy

Stating that a piece of production furniture always starts with the designer may have been true some 50 years ago, now however chances are it started in some marketing department. This statement would not only be valid for production furniture but for a large proportion of the production objects sold today. This article hopes to shed some light on the evolution of furniture design.

In order to really be able to analyze the evolution of the furniture design scene it is necessary to run through the evolutions of the product market and their marketing strategies, as many of the design practice evolutions find root in these market developments.

Some 150 years ago the furniture market still existed primarily in handmade crafted furniture today the majority has been industrially manufactured. In those early days the maker or craftsman was most often also the designer of the furniture. He worked with the current materials mainly solid wood, some cast and forged iron, and at times the integration of natural fibers and glass. His greatest challenge was dominating the craft; joinery, marquetry, lacquering, veneering, turning, carving, etc… The designing part was relatively small compared to the time it would take to make the piece.

With the industrial revolution however this changed drastically. New processes and new materials requiring expensive equipment and larger investments were now being frequently used within furniture making. Were it started with steam bending around the mid eighteen hundreds, slowly incorporating steel tube bending and curved plywood by the nineteen thirties, it rapidly moved into an extensive range of materials and processes, ranging from bend/pressed/cast aluminum, fiberglass, any type of plastic moldings, until today where any process and material (laser sintering, magnesium injection and so much more) are good for making furniture. The craftsman slowly sees himself pushed into a corner. He can not compete anymore with the vastly changing industry. The possibilities in materials and processes became too divers and the investments require a too high production for him. Apart from that the craftsman’s main specialty is wood and he has little chance to learn or become proficient in industrial methods and materials. Moreover he falls short when it comes to understanding the industrial concept, to draw and design for mass-production, to reduce processes and augment economic value. A profession which seems to stand much closer and which is already used to working with subcontractors, industrial processes and being familiar to working primarily from a drawing board is architecture. As the need to be able to make it oneself become redundant and the importance to stylize and streamline industrial processes rise we see many architects engaging into furniture design. The craftsman who did not enjoy an extensive design education sees himself more and more forced in a purely constructional position. Slowly the design part is breaking loose from the making and becomes an activity in its own right.

With the rise of the industrial production also other concepts came into play. One in particular would be influential for the designer: marketing. With mass-production the need to position and differentiate a product from its competition gained increasing value. Right behind the Second World War we have the first companies to break with the traditional idea to produce a product and then find clients for it. In that period this was still possible because the industrial production was at its height and demand was still larger than production could provide. However this would start to change rapidly. The first companies to break with these conventions like Procter & Gamble and Kellogg’s adapted a strategy that made the consumer their central importance. This strategy listened to the consumers and responded to their necessities, still today a fundamental marketing practice. We could see that the consumer became the focal point of marketing. Even better he became a participant in the product, ideally the hero of the product. Of course this was fairly conventional and short sided thinking. If we question why, we can recall the words of Henry Ford: “If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have asked me a faster horse but never a car.” Very few times heroic ideas solely come from listening to consumers. People can not say what they want. Their ideas are based upon logic, familiarity and known experiences. There is of course no discussion that consumers need to be heard and respected, but the real challenge for today’s company is to create original ideas that are received by consumers as heroic ones. The most exciting companies today will create products with passion and believe their customers will follow this passion. They take the position to guide their consumers. A company needs to do things their customers would never think of, to surprise and excite the consumer. One can not surprise people with something they asked for neither can you excite them with something they expect to receive. Leading companies are consumer informed but ideas driven.

Designers equally had to adapt to these changing marketing practices. Where in the beginning concerns were primarily about the form, to transform an industrial looking product into a more esthetical one, designers were slowly asked to respond to market signals. At that moment we can see a definite shift within the design scene. Styling gained sufficient importance that companies hired people to do just that. The in-house designer as they are called works together with the marketing department and the production department. From that moment on there became a clear definition between an in-house designer and an independent freelance designer. Where the in-house designer’s main occupation lies in the area of styling the freelance designer is challenged with an increase demand of competence. Apart from styling he is expected to dominate the industrial processes and needs to be able to exploit their capabilities, and as the marketing strategies develop he is pushed from market researcher to market visionary. Where in the early days an independent designer or architect with good ideas or a good product was fairly certain to find someone interested, today the matter became a lot more complicated. Young designers of today with independent aspirations are really faced with a challenge. The days where a production company would engage in a collaboration based upon a few inspiring drawings and invest a lot of time and money to develop these drawings into a feasible product are scarce. Today’s designer will need to present a fairly well resolved product, technically and esthetically, with the necessary renderings and construction drawings. Additionally, the market his product is intended for has to be carefully defined. The product can not compete with the other items the company produces, and naturally needs to bring something innovating to differentiate itself from its competitors. In other words the designer needs to know the company well, needs to know which production processes and materials it dominates and are cost-beneficial. Besides this, he will need to know the different market segments the company addresses, which products cover these market segments, which are currently in development and which segments have room for additional innovative products. The chances a design would fit these requirements, if designed without prior knowledge of the company are very small. Basically the designer needs to have an intimate relationship with the company in order to receive the information necessary to present a successful design for that company.

Nowadays however to establish such relationships is not so straight forward. First of all the number of companies working together with independent designers are fairly small. The majority works with in-house designers. Companies like Vitra or Alessi, that do work with independent designers do this for 2 main reasons: first to introduce new innovative ideas coming from the designers broad overall market view and not only from the sector bounded view, and secondly equally important, for publicity reasons. Working with independent designers is a statement. It unmistakably shows the company values design and is prepared to invest in it, which also confirms its solvency. The strength of this last message depends largely on the reputation of the designer, and therefore many companies will only work together with renowned designers. On top of all this the young designer finds himself in a society that has been over-bombarded with communication. Communication became so vast and intrusive that successful companies will receive weekly if not daily projects from designers all over the world that would like to see their product being produced. The market for the young independent wannabe designers is a tough one, and it is not easy for them to add their names to the very selective list of successful freelance designers that exists today. A list that exists for a large part of designers which rose in times where the market was more flexible, money was still available for lavish experimentation, and product failure didn’t immediately mean economic drama. Many of today’s freelance designers who can afford it will engage in auto-production and put their own products on the market. Like this they can slowly built up a reputation and have their name circle on the design scene.

Although at current the market is still tough I strongly believe there is hope for the young designer. The invasive entry of oriental products and more specific oriental copies undermining many western production companies makes the west realize a new strategy is needed to defend their markets. “Trading Up,” as Michael Silverstein of the Boston consultancy group wrote seems to be the answer for many companies. It finally seems to seep through that for certain items people are no longer content with high volume low cost products which have flooded our markets for the last decades. Smaller more exclusive and a bit higher priced runs targeting specific market groups slowly find their ways into a hard competitive production environment. Design no longer is added value in these markets, it became fundamental. Companies also start to realize that the culture of design and that of business are totally different, and that designers contribute a richness with an independent established philosophy.

It seems that furniture design in this respect has followed pretty much the evolution of the product designer and to some extent this is true but there are differences. From a purely constructional point of view production companies expect independent furniture designers to know the ins and outs of the furniture piece. Products however often have complex electronics or mechanical devices developed by specialized engineers. The function of the product designer limits itself in those cases to hosting the device and creating a shell. The majority of those shells are made out of plastics. Furniture however as mentioned before uses a very wide range of materials, still relying for a considerable part on wood or wood derivatives, materials almost none existent in products.

Although production furniture has alienated from crafted furniture it does neither belong to the product market. In production terms the furniture industry is fairly defined, in design terms however it has always enjoyed a peculiar situation. The profession furniture designer does not really seem to exist. A look towards education confirms this. Courses in furniture design limit themselves often to a section in another discipline like interior design, architecture or others, but rarely exist as a discipline on its own. In the industry itself we can equally see there is no standard as where furniture designers come from. The furniture design field seems to be a fusion of the most diverse backgrounds, ranging from architects, interior designers, industrial product designers to artists, crafts people and autodidacts who made the leap. This mixture makes the furniture design scene a vibrant and exciting area of design. It’s a battling juncture of personalities that will not fold under economic pressure or be controlled by dominating industrial societies. It gives hope for the young designers and encourages them. Many furniture designer will agree, it’s rewarding and worth every effort.

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