Furnishing our dreams

With the advent of the British Furniture Council, it seems that there might finally be a chance for the industry to take the market towards a better mix of high design and mass-market flatpacks. Jeremy Myerson reports on developments so far and suggests a

SBHD: With the advent of the British Furniture Council, it seems that there might finally be a chance for the industry to take the market towards a better mix of high design and mass-market flatpacks. Jeremy Myerson reports on developments so far and suggests a way forward

You have to hand it to Ray Leigh, architect, furniture designer and one-time managing director of the Gordon Russell workshops in the Cotswolds. His vision of a British Furniture Council, representing all sides of a fragmented and often divisive ú6bn industry, has been instrumental in establishing a new national body to speak for furniture with one clear voice.

Many would say that without Leigh and the many perspectives he brings, a council representing the interests of manufacturers, retailers, distributors, designers and educators would have had no chance of getting off the ground.

And it nearly didn’t. The one-day conference to launch the new body was bogged down in the usual confrontation between the high-design furniture Modernists (led by OMK’s Rodney Kinsman) and the pile-’em-high flatpack retailers (MFI’s John McConnell), with education dodging blows in the middle.

But then sanity prevailed and a consensus of sorts was reached, chiefly, I suspect, because Leigh has been there and done it all. Nobody would dispute design credentials which include training at the Architectural Association and a partnership with Dick Russell. But Leigh has also had a spell at the helm of the Gordon Russell company – the first designer to run it since Sir Gordon himself in the 1930s – and is well versed in manufacturing and marketing.

Leigh was also instrumental in pulling Gordon Russell out of domestic retailing to concentrate on the more lucrative and quality-conscious contract market at the start of the 1970s. He saw the rise of the sheds and didn’t like what was coming. In retrospect it was a good decision: by the late-80s the company had a large price tag on its head and is now owned by Steelcase Strafor. But if Leigh couldn’t make it work in retail markets for his revered Cotswolds craftsmen – and from a position of relative strength in terms of product reputation – who in contemporary furniture design and manufacture can make it work now?

I would love to be able to buy OMK’s Detroit table at MFI prices, but it’s not going to happen. These are two different worlds which may collide on a new national representative body because they share the same generic, but they don’t speak the same language. It will be an early test for the council to define what everyone means when they talk of quality, innovation and professional design skills throughout the industry.

One of the main reasons traditionalists invariably use to explain why the British buy so much repro rubbish instead of good modern design is that the UK has the highest home-ownership rate in Europe and people spend more on mortgages than on furniture. But, as James Woudhuysen of the Henley Centre told the British Furniture Council conference, it just isn’t true. Britain doesn’t have the highest home-ownership rate in Europe. People buy repro tat because that is mostly what our furniture industry offers.

The issue of home-ownership is just a crutch the industry leans on – the real questions are to do with research and development, new materials and new technologies. If you compare the furniture industry to, say, the car industry, then it’s easy to see that sleepy craft attitudes have prevailed.

Twentieth Century Furniture, the new book on British furniture by Clive D Edwards (Manchester University Press, 1994) takes a similar line to Woudhuysen. It explains how UK consumers have marginalised an industry which is perceived to be poor on service and quality. Furniture, he says, “has often been seen as a necessity, rather than a desirable competitor to cars, holidays and leisure equipment”.

That kind of thinking finds an unlikely ally in John McConnell of MFI, who told the British Furniture Council conference to “know your enemy”. He flashed up slides of three bewhiskered gents: Henry Ford, inventor of the motor car; Thomas Cook, creator of the package holiday; and Thomas Edison, grandfather to a million electrical goods. McConnell’s argument was that rival claims on discretionary spending are what the UK furniture industry should really be fighting, rather than itself.

Perhaps one of the first things Ray Leigh’s brainchild, the British Furniture Council, should consider is this: a generic advertising campaign which promotes the importance of furniture in our lives and celebrates the diversity of styles that are currently available in the UK. If MFI and Rodney Kinsman can share the same conference platform, surely they can share the same billboard.

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