Industry Focus: Contemporary British Furniture

by Katie Treggiden in News & Noteworthy

The UK furniture industry is more substantial than those who bemoan the loss of British manufacturing might realise.

According to the British Furniture Confederation, furniture production contributes over £7billion to the country’s GDP. It employs 71,000 people within 6,205 companies. A further 18,800 people working on a self-employed basis and an estimated 25,000 interior designers generate a £2billion a year.

However, despite a lot of talk in the industry about “buying British” the reality is that imports rose by £0.4billion 2009 – 2010. Combined with a shrinking home market for furniture, this has resulted in a decline of 35% in UK furniture manufacturing 2007 – 2010. 2008 alone saw a 22% drop in furniture production. There has been a partial recovery since then, but output in 2010 was still lower than prior to 2008.

"People are beginning to see the value in buying something which is made in Britain, made to a high standard and not a mass produced piece which is generic and shipped in from Eastern Europe or China."

The good news is that exports are on the increase from £754m in 2009 to £849m in 2010 – primarily to the Republic of Ireland and the USA, followed by Germany and France. Perhaps the “buy British” message resonates better abroad?

We spoke to some of our favourite contemporary British furniture designers for their thoughts on the industry and what the future might hold…


What qualities do you think define contemporary British furniture design?

John Miller, MARK: The best thing about contemporary British furniture design is it is not definable. That’s a cop-out I know, but depth and diversity is definitely our strength. We are lucky to work in an industry that contains so many highly driven creative committed individuals.

Paul Case, Paul Case Furniture: A really great thing about British design is that designers do seem to want to create genuinely strong design – appealing, functional, honest and hopefully a little bit challenging to consumer preconceptions as well. We are good at using our imaginations and the national and international furniture markets appreciate that.

How do you think the furniture industry in Britain has changed in the last ten years?

Tom Raffield: There are a lot more small scale designer makers and furniture manufacturers around now with brilliant ideas and buzzing with creativity as they try and make their mark in the contemporary furniture design world.

Another big change has come through computer-aided design manufacturing tools being used more. When you marry these modern manufacture techniques with more traditional methods of working, you get some really interesting and innovative results.

Paul Case: I think the British industry and the British consumer have grown in confidence and identity a lot – it’s been a team effort. There have always been Brits like Jasper Morrison and Matthew Hilton pushing the design boundaries but I do think that as far as the wider public are concerned we do have to thank a foreign influence. Love them or hate them the IKEA “chuck out your chintz” ads were pure genius because they were so on the mark for the majority of British homes at the time – full of out of date tat!

What do you predict for the industry in the next ten years?

Paul Case: I hope the confidence and identify will grow further and I think it will. British people are getting more and more aware of interesting and appealing design. Also the design and making sides of the industry are getting increasingly professional and imaginative.

However I am aware of several furniture courses and colleges being closed down because they are expensive to run as compared to a classroom based disciplines. Just in the North of England I am aware of Leeds, Burnley and Carlisle making significant cut backs in what they offer and so this could create problems going forward if young people don’t come into the industry.

Ayo Ogunde, The Sofa & Chair Company: Personalisation is becoming easier to achieve so bespoke furniture will become more prominent. Craftsmanship is gaining more appreciation and consumers are looking to original design for their product selections.

John Miller, MARK: There will be a shake-down of the proliferation of brands we’re seeing at the moment. New start-ups will keep coming and many will last 2-3 years. A few will follow Hitch, Modus, Naughtone and become successful and longstanding on the UK scene.

I think there will be a gradual repatriation of manufacturing into the UK in small part due to an inclination of people to ‘buy British’ but more because of economic factors – rising fuel prices, and rising wage levels in overseas manufacturing centres.

Why do you think people are more inclined to “buy British” now?

Ayo Ogunde, The Sofa & Chair Company: With the state of the current economy and the huge influx of global trading and imports onto British soil, we are flooded with choice and competition. Unfortunately all too often the products’ design, quality and integrity is lost due to competitive prices and various international standards. This has become more evident recently and consumers are investing in British design for quality and craftsmanship.

Tom Raffield: People are beginning to see the value in buying something which is made in Britain, made to a high standard and not a mass produced piece which is generic and shipped in from Eastern Europe or China. Realising not only will the piece physically last longer as it is made to last but also knowing you are buying British and that often time and workmanship has gone into it, it becomes more meaningful and is cherished rather than becoming obsolete after a few years.

John Miller, MARK: I think this is always a strong message in times of recession. I think one needs to be wary of it though – people should buy the best and the British manufacturers need to make sure they are the best. Buying based on loyalty alone will not keep standards high.

Why do you think people should buy British?

Tom Raffield: Because Britain is home to some of the best furniture manufacturers and designers in the world. The skills and expertise that go into these pieces are unique to Britain and this is something we should admire and be proud of.

Paul Case: Because as much as diversity is a good thing, so is identity and in fact one can’t exist without the other. The world and our towns would be very dull without both diversity and identity. After that there is of course the fact that buying British is good for UK jobs and skills and the wider economy.

Ayo Ogunde, The Sofa & Chair Company: Britain has always been known for good solid products – the expression ‘belts and braces’ springs to mind. Despite being in a recession I would always hope people see spending a little extra on honest, good quality British products a sound investment as buying cheap can often mean buying twice!

John Miller, MARK: We need to define what British is. Made in Britain? Made overseas by a British Company? Designed by British people? Polished and put in a box in Britain? I want people to buy British to benefit the British workforce, skills base and economy. I would like to live in a country where people make things, not just work in the service sector. So people should buy British-made; which may mean looking under the skin of an apparently ‘British’ product.

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