Held annually in bone-chilling January, the UK Furniture Show at Birmingham's massive National Exhibition Centre (NEC) showcases furniture and accessories for the "mainstream" and dedicates only one hall to contemporary design. Despite this "minor" profile, the contemporary furniture housed in Hall 9 is of major significance, thanks to cooperative production programs.
Unlike London's trend-focused, glitzy 100% Design show in September and its emphasis on non-stop promotion, the Birmingham UK Furniture Show has included projects where designers, government and education institutions worked together on process and production. As featured in furniturelink, two examples of this approach were present in Birmingham in 2005 and again in 2006 - the Isos Collection and Furniture/Metropolitan Works. New this year was the 2006 Design Selection, organized by the Design Group of Furniture West Midlands (FWM) and chaired by freelance designer/educator David Rowe.
(left) Fifty series prototype sofa designed by Jon Crawford
(right) s240 easy chair designed by Jon Crawford for MRF Ltd.
Rowe explained FWM's role. "[FWM] was set up by Advantage West Midlands (AWM), a regional development agency of the [UK] government. Each area of the UK has a regional development agency, and its purpose is to encourage industry, under various sectoral headings. We [FWM] are part of the higher added-value cluster to encourage higher added value, mainly through design."
The higher value-added clusters in the Midlands consist of jewellry (Birmingham), glass (Stourport), ceramics (Staffordshire), leather and saddlery (Walsall), clothing and apparel (various areas) and the furniture industry (spread across the entire region); furniture is represented by FWM.
(left) Slot chair designed by Jarod Griffiths for Sagal Group
(centre) Opus2 postural chair designed by David Rowe for Amedeus
(right) Leo chair designed by David Rowe for Gordon Russell
About the UK government's industrial support strategy, Rowe said, "As British companies find it more difficult to compete at the budget level, the way to compete is to rely on the expertise of entrepreneurs and designers and people with fresh skills . . . to create higher-value products through new design, to stay one step ahead of the competition by innovation and added-value. So this, in a sense, inevitably lifts it [the product] up market, leaving the cheap end to the foreign imports, because there is no way [the lower-end British producer] can compete [with that]."
The 2006 Design Selection exemplifies the strategy of promoting higher-cost design-led products in its exhibition of the best and brightest of furniture design talent from the West Midlands region. Rowe elaborated, "We invited about 30 to 40 companies and designers and had responses from 28 and from that picked 12. An organization in Staffordshire called Different by Design (link broken) is associated with us and contributed some money, so they were included as well." Ian Standing (architect), Peter Ashen (designer/maker) and Hannah Jaskalinen (retailer) made the selections. "There was no limit on the number of designers involved, but it was limited to one choice per company [manufacturer]."
SBB-01 coloured glass sideboard by Peter Wardleworth for Glassdomain Ltd.
Rowe described other projects organized by FWM. "We have held various events, including 'meet the buyer,' where we took over a conference space fitted out with large trestle tables and invited companies in the West Midlands who make 'bits' and 'processes,' rather than finished furniture, to exhibit what they could do, and it was amazingly successful. Manufacturers who attended discovered things they were having done miles away could be made right on their doorstep."
"[We took a survey of ourselves] recently, and everybody around the table, about 12 to 15 people, said they had benefited commercially from being part of FWM - it wasn't just a talking-shop - and mainly through networking and helping each other."
The success of such design-led strategies can only mean that more than Hall 9 will be needed to showcase contemporary design at future UK Furniture Shows in Birmingham.
© furniturelink 2006 (text) images © respective manufacturers