#017 / 1999

review by Ken Guenter

Markets Northwest 99

A furniture conference held February 5, 1999, at Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre

Though Markets Northwest 99 was not aimed at my sector of the market (fine woodworking), I decided to attend after some recent conversations with an acquaintance on the problems of running a one-person operation. As the idea of becoming a larger manufacturing unit was seen as one solution, I went to Markets Northwest as if I were an emerging manufacturer.

Furniture maker/designer Ken Guenter has been producing limited-edition furniture for twenty years and has exhibited in galleries in Western Canada, Washington and California. His work is in private and public collections throughout North America. Located in the Comox Valley, his Of The Woods workshop welcomes visitors who wish to view his work in progress.

His jewelry box (shown) has art deco references and is made from birds eye maple, Honduras mahogany and ebony - 9cm x 30cm x 56cm.

Participants were welcomed to the conference by Mel Kemp, President of Canwood Furniture Factory Inc. From the start of his presentation, I suspected that Mr. Kemp was from a world I was not comfortable with and my suspicions were soon confirmed. Quality seemed to mean "cookie cutter" consistency; productivity"as much as possible"; and design "green or blue". Canwood is a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant of ready-to-assemble solid pine furniture. I suspect FRBC is holding Canwood up to be the model for the future of the furniture industry in BC. If this is to be our place in the world market, I fear we shall be forever destined to produce for the hinterland.

Most of the program was comprised of presentations by industry representatives that either mapped out success formulas or described the state of the industry today. Chase Crossingham, Canadian marketing manager for Furniture Today Magazine, began his presentation accompaniedy with a song by Celine Dion, selected to represent a successful Canadian product, made so with proper marketing. Bill Stoltz, Business Development Officer for the Canadian Consulate General in Atlanta, offered an overview of opportunities in the Canadian furniture industry through a series of charts and bar graphs.

After several presentations laden with statistics, I was looking forward to the retailers forum, which I felt might give the emerging manufacturer some sense of what the market required. Who knows best about it than those on the frontline--the retailers. The retailers chosen were from the low-to-moderate price point for interior furnishings and, with the exception of one, all were purveyors of pine furniture. They spoke of the trend in "casual furniture" and felt that if they could find "reliable" manufacturers, they would all be more successful. I would have liked to have heard from a more diverse group. Retailers whose businesses offered any sort of design service and were concerned with the fine furniture market were conspicuously absent.

Other speakers during the day included Dr. David Cohen from the UBC Faculty of Forestry. An engaging speaker, Dr. Cohen addressed the Japanese market and how the social and economic factors of this region enter into international value-added markets of our region.

For me the highlight of the forum was a presentation by Sylvain Faucher from DISMO International in Quebec. His firm uses an interesting model that connects manufacturer, designer, and retailer to develop original products that are tailored to market needs. This was the only presentation to acknowledge that design is an integral component in a successful manufacturing process. Unfortunately the time for this session was far too short. Comments during a very short question period made it obvious that some in the audience would have liked to hear more. An excellent overview of the workings of DISMO was included in the conference package, so some additional information was available.

The last sessions of the forum were given in such rapid-fire succession that it seemed certain interests had to be acknowledged, even if the usefulness of the information suffered in the speed of the delivery. BC Wood Specialties used an impressive Powerpoint presentation to deliver information on their catalogue of training opportunities. Robb McColl, current manager of the BC Centre for Wood Products Design, presented some work from anonymous students of the Kooteney School of Arts Design program. I think his presentation would have been greatly enhanced had he acknowledged those up-and-coming designers.

The event did not make me want to give up my role as a studio furniture maker. While I did not carry away any jewels of wisdom from Markets Northwest 99, I did get some sense of what some of the larger industry players have in mind for the future of furniture manufacturing in British Columbia. It would seem that the attitude towards our diminishing forest resource has changed little. More thought must be put into the products that we produce with this valued resource. This means looking beyond our own backyards for inspiration, information and expertise.

Markets Northwest 99 was organized by Mike Jahraus of Forest Focal Point and made possible by funding from FRBC and several furniture industry suppliers.

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