Designers frustrated by mass-market approach

IN something of an irony, the one thing on which many in the furniture production business agree is that they work in a fragmented industry lacking a strong and unified voice.

This fragmentation is most acutely felt among those working at the fine furniture studio end of furniture production. More artisans than manufacturers, these people hone their craft tucked away in studios scattered from the hills of Perth to Margaret River and Bridgetown.

While these operations may be small scale, and many of the operators have no intention of growing their business beyond themselves or their family, their well designed, usually one-off pieces attract increasingly large price tags and are sold all over the world.

Wood craftsman Greg Collins exports 50 per cent of his work and many of his pieces have made their way from his Margaret River studio to the homes of some of the world’s rich and famous, including the Prince of Belgium and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to Mr Collins, the weak point of the mass-market industry is design, with many producers more timber merchants than designers.

“Too many people are relying on the size of the timber; that in itself is not a design solution,” he told WA Business News.

Mr Collins said the industry would have to turn to techniques such as veneering and micro lamination – techniques that he and other fine craftsmen have been using for years – if it was to stretch the resource further and survive.

Studio furniture producer Neil Erasmus said that, while he agreed the scale of old-growth logging should be reduced, the finest furniture was made from the oldest wood. It was a shame, therefore, that there was no flexibility in the system to selectively log old-growth trees for the fine furniture industry.

He said there was a need to change the perception of consumers in the local market.

“The problem is that most people buy jarrah furniture by the kilogram rather than by the design,” Mr Erasmus said.

“When looking at a jarrah table, one of the first things they do is to lift it up to see how heavy it is – we have got to change that attitude.”

Mr Erasmus said he expected sluggish industry growth to follow the restricted supply of timber and a fall-off in quality.

Jah Roc furniture company joint founder Gary Bennet said that while research and development and change of design was vital to the industry, it did not translate to the factory floor overnight.

He has concerns that a lack of government support will lead a significant number of furniture production businesses to face closure under the new timber allocations.

Mr Bennett said it was the big manufacturers that would feel the pinch because they did not have the flexibility to reduce numbers.

“They [the Government] have spent over $100 million shutting the milling industry down and invested just $1 million on the furniture industry,” he said.

“It is a green industry, it looks after the forest and with support can continue to convert a State resource forever.”

Mr Bennet said it was ironic that the Government had spent funds on promoting jarrah overseas and then moved to greatly restrict the resource that gave the market an edge on the global furniture market.

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