BroomeJenkins’ Barry Jenkins says there could be more opportunities for manufacturers to cross sector boundaries in the furniture industry
The furniture industry we know today is the result of a mix of need, opportunism and ingenuity. Based around a few generic types of product – bed, chair, table and cupboard – a variety of highly specialised products have evolved to serve distinct market sectors such as healthcare and education.
Taking a user-centred approach, it is easy to see that furniture for primary schools will differ from, say, office furniture (while essentially being the same), due to the size of the user and the environment in which it is used. It is also easy to appreciate the need for specialisation within the healthcare sector, where hygiene is paramount and with nursing staff and patients having specific needs. But some sectors that were once separate are beginning to overlap in terms of application and function, thereby challenging the boundaries that define established industry silos.
For many years the office sector has been exploring the crossover between home and work, creating more domestic-styled work settings and breakout spaces as an alternative to regimented lines of desks. Equally, the idea of the ‘home office’ as a category is also now established. Having emerged in the early 1990s, it has developed largely due to IT and the internet, both impacting how, when and where we choose to work. As a result ‘loose’ furniture is today used extensively in the office, and IT, desks and task chairs have moved into our homes.
It is clear therefore, that given the generic nature of most types of furniture (when it comes to function), that there are opportunities for manufacturers to slip from one sector to another. This is especially true given the common materials and processes used throughout the furniture industry. Therefore, it is easy to assume that if a manufacturer is serving one sector, then they can readily serve another. But to succeed takes more than manufacturing ability or design.
Although a product used in one sector may be functionally similar to a product in another, each slice of the market has its own peculiarities of volume, price, and performance. On that basis, we must also think of the furniture industry as being divided in terms of B2B and B2C. Unlike other consumer goods, where the manufacturer’s brand is known to the consumer, traditionally in the UK, the retailer (Ikea, Habitat) has been more prominent.
In the contract sector the manufacturer’s name (Vitra, Herman Miller, Bisley) is more prominent. However, Vitra possesses both the brand presence and product portfolio to have moved successfully between office and home for some time, and Herman Miller, in a drive to become more of a ‘lifestyle brand’, has recently acquired high-end US retailer Design Within Reach. In doing so they acquired “a consumer focused retail infrastructure” showing the boundary between manufacturer and retailer can also shift.
Although Herman Miller now has a retail presence in the US, it has been supplying UK retailers like John Lewis for some time with selected corporate sector products that have gained a place in the home office, such as the Aeron and Mirra task chairs. While computers were originally designed for the office, one notable manufacturer, Apple, understood the potential of IT products moving from business to consumer.
In some areas of today’s furniture industry, this opportunity also exists, and will give rise to products that are designed for multiple sectors with a range of applications. One example is Bisley’s Stage system, which is designed to work in both domestic and workplace settings to create open and closed storage, credenzas, workstations and bureaus in a range of configurations and finishes to appeal to consumers and SMEs alike.
Designing in this way spreads commercial opportunities for the manufacturer and designer. But although an adaptable, well-designed product is a good place to start, this returns us back to the question of distribution. Cross-sector opportunities exist in the furniture industry, whether through product design and development or through acquisition. But however the transition is made, understanding the sector and having both the right products and the right market presence are vital to success.