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Craft Furniture Design

5/26/2014 1:08:20 PM
Article by John Howell

Furniture design has taken two distinctly different paths in the last century or so. The approach that has served the furniture industry at large is to employ furniture designers to come up with new designs, usually twice a year. The manufacturer analyzes the design in terms of manufacturability and makes adjustments as necessary. Once the bugs have been worked out, the manufacturer will make a prototype of each piece and present it to retailers. These retailers determine what they think the public will buy and make an arrangement with the manufacturer(s) to purchase those items. They stock their showrooms and hope for the best. The process is risky for manufacturers because they have to invest significant time and money into a design without knowing if it will be accepted, first by the retailer and then by the public. It’s equally risky for the retailer who must sell these items in order to survive. The result is that designs have been conservative, with changes being modest and gradual.

The manufacturer most commonly presents new designs at furniture markets. The biggest and most important is held every spring and fall in High Point, North Carolina. The market takes on the excitement of a fashion show with retailers, designers, and decorators all looking for furniture and accessories that they hope to sell to their clients.

An interesting phenomenon takes place where many manufacturers exhibit their new designs all in one place; especially when there is uncertainty about what will be accepted. Many manufacturers look to see what the other manufacturers are presenting because they think their competitors may have some insight that they don’t have.

I attended the show last week as a member of the press and was not allowed into some manufacturers’ showrooms without an appointment. Here they are to display their wares and they won’t allow the press to see what they have? It’s bizarre. Of course, in that situation, nothing remains secret for long.

The long-term consequence is that a lot of what is shown in one manufacturer’s showroom is virtually distinguishable from another. That’s why the public ends up with choices that tend to become homogenous. So, the nature of this scenario affects the actual designs in several ways:

  • Designs are geared towards mass production, most of which now occurs offshore. Wood selection has little dependence on the design. It mainly depends on what’s readily available at the location of manufacture. This discourages designs that accentuate the finer characteristics of wood.
  • Designs that can utilize existing tooling are encouraged.
  • Radically new design is discouraged because it’s risky. As a result, products tend to become homogenous and price points often become the most important factor.

The other path that furniture design has taken is the continuation of traditional methodology. It’s usually employed by smaller, custom shops. The shop normally gets a commission to fabricate furniture for a client. The design may be accomplished by an employee of the shop or an independent designer, as in the case with mass production, but the scenario is different. The interaction between the fabricator and the client is more direct, even when an intermediary design professional is involved.

One variation on this scenario is for the shop to build furniture on speculation and then try to sell it through an outlet such as a website, consignment shop, or furniture show open to the public. In any case, this design process encourages several characteristics quite different from the previous scenario:

  • Design is geared to one-off or limited production runs. Tooling is less of a consideration as it always needs to be flexible in its application.
  • Innovation is encouraged since the clients who seek these custom shops usually want something that stands out from run-of-the-mill furniture.
  • The custom shop will pay closer attention to wood selection as part of providing a product that stands out above mass produced furniture.
  • Price will not be the primary issue. However, there are limits to what can be charged. One way to improve the cost of labor intensive processes is to outsource them to specialty shops that utilize automated machinery more efficiently.

The design work itself can be in the form of anything from sketches drawn by hand to a full 3D model with renderings, depending on the resources and abilities of the designers and draftsmen employed. Modern technology can help us improve efficiency in both of these scenarios. One example is the development of readily usable and affordable 3D modeling programs. Furniture can be designed in full detail, leaving no geometric details vulnerable to misinterpretation.

The other important factor in improving the design process is for the designer to be knowledgeable in both woodworking and design techniques. Just as the craftsman knows his abilities, so too should the designer know the capabilities of automated machinery. Both need to know good practice in wood product design. These abilities in the designer will result in far fewer design corrections down the line. I believe the future of furniture design will favor the second scenario as the trend towards locally produced products continues to develop. We see this trend in the food industry where locally produced products are becoming more strongly favored over mass marketed products. Furniture designers will be more responsive to the actual tastes and needs of the customer since they’ll be able to get feedback more directly. In upcoming articles, we’ll continue to explore how developments in technology along with shifts in the marketplace can make custom shops and semi-custom shops more price competitive as compared with the established furniture manufacturing industry.

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