CIFF Office In Review

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Chair of the Month

Lightspace breakout furniture at CIFF. Photo courtesy of John Sacks.
Lightspace breakout furniture at CIFF. Photo courtesy of John Sacks.

CIFF is a group of furniture related shows held in March/April and September each year with separate sections and dates for domestic and office furniture as well as areas for production machinery and components. Each section is large enough to keep the most avid enthusiast happily engrossed for the shows’ duration without needing to look at any alien products. CIFF Office is held at the Canton (the former name of Guangzhou) Fair Complex, although from 2015, the September elements of the CIFF shows will be moving to Shanghai.

Perhaps because of the size of everything Chinese, the tendency is to divide everything up. For instance, eight halls displayed nothing but office seating – enough to sate the most enthusiastic appetite. Desking, tables, and storage covered another eight enormous halls and “accessories”, a further three.

The trend of Western shows in recent times has been to reduce their timescale; in contrast, this year, CIFF Office was extended from four days to five. Despite this, the crowds were massive, sometimes, overwhelming, especially on the first few days. Some of the larger companies coped with their hoards of visitors by roping off areas of their booths for ‘VIPs’ where entry was restricted. This lead to the somewhat incongruous situation where visitors were prevented from seeing the exhibitors’ newest products, as if they were state secrets.

Perceptions and attitudes change over time. However strongly views are held, the truth will eventually alter opinions. It can take years, or even generations, but slowly, inexorably, people’s minds will be changed. Reality and perception are never in line; if they were, the marketing men would be out of work. They’re always trying to push the perception so that appreciated values exceed the reality. Hide your light under a bushel and the market will think little of you, or worse, not know you at all.

The ethereal concept of quality, so hard to grasp or promote, is like that. After World War II, fuelled by massive demand for almost everything, Japan’s manufacturing industries quickly grew to become a major world force. Their prices were very low and competitors in Europe, slower to rebuild after the war, struggled to compete. Stories of the poor quality of Japanese goods took hold, partly generated by some real howlers and partly, no doubt, encouraged by rivals. It took many years for perceptions to change and it is difficult to imagine now, when Japanese manufacturing quality is almost revered internationally, that there was a time when anything which carried the slogan, ‘Made in Japan’ was considered rubbish.

Today, China’s manufacturers are going through a similar process of evolution. The birth and explosion of capitalism at the end of the 20th century released enormous energy and low labor and operating costs allowed China to grab a very large share of world markets. In many (most?) cases, goods were sold on price alone, designs were ‘emulated’ from the West and quality was suspect. Standards and norms were ignored and service levels depended on the customer being prepared to buy large volumes, on long lead times and inflexible colors, finishes, payment terms, and attitudes.

Is this changing? Oh yes! Higher labor and other costs have reduced price differentials and are forcing Chinese suppliers to pay more attention to their customers’ demands. Designs are moving from ‘me too’ towards originality, albeit occasionally verging on the quirky. The real change however is in manufacturing quality which is frequently now at, or near, world class. This will, in due course, come to be understood by the buying public who will, over time, reconsider and reassess their perception of goods from China to the extent that high manufacturing quality from Chinese manufacturers will be taken for granted.

And what about design, innovation, originality? This year, all the stages of the transition from poor imitations of Western products to demonstrations of a spirit of genuine independence were on show. There were unfortunately still plenty of copies of Herman Miller’s Sayl and Mirra chairs, Dauphin’s Perillo, Vitra’s Eames side chairs and many others, but there were also examples of the dawning of self-expression. Some of these, such as Adriano Baldanzi’s work with Bojie Furniture’s new stacking chair and Lightspace’s breakout furniture from several Dutch designers, were the result of co-operation with the West.

Many of the exhibition stands were very large, well designed, and attractive. Last year we saw real grass turf laid underfoot. This year it was the turn of the sandy beaches strewn with stones. Not only did they set off the furniture very effectively, they seemed to be perfectly practical.

Several exhibitors, for example My Idea Office and Jiulong Yousheng, were showing exciting creations from a new generation of design graduates from Chinese universities.

Why are Chinese manufacturers taking faltering steps away from ripping off US and European products? For many, it’s the highly practical reason that they want products they can export to the West, which is seen as increasingly difficult if they are offering copies.

This is not an international show. Yes, there were plenty of visitors from the USA, Europe, South America, the Middle East, and India, but, unlike 2013, when a sole Danish company was showing their height adjustable tables, there was not one office furniture exhibitor from outside Asia. A badly missed opportunity, as the overseas exhibitors participating at February’s 100% Design in Shanghai will testify, they were rushed off their feet.

There were some Western products on show, represented by local partners and importers. Onlead showed SBS’ HÅG chair and My Idea were partnering Codutti‘s executive furniture from Italy, but as neither was particularly prominently presented, these products were not attracting much interest.

There was little in the way of clearly discernible trends in desking and workstations. Various variations on the bench theme could be seen, many with desk-up screens and some with an Asian twist, but there were also many small cubicles and freestanding workstations in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours. Jiulong Yousheng from Foshan were using beautifully crafted diecast aluminium for bench and table frames and black, stitched PVC, pressed onto MDF and combined with stainless steel inserts for their stylish reception and desking products. Six of their very clever, individual, flip-top sectional tables clicked together to form a full or partial circular meeting table.

Sunon showed some attractive desking, especially their new Spark range, as well as ‘Jane’, a new line of modular breakout furniture with sofas, stools and mesh screens to create temporary or permanent enclosures.

The Japanese giant company Okamura had a large, bright, attractive stand showing familiar classics such as Contessa and Baron chairs, as well as some stylish new models.

Breakout seating has arrived in China and there were many brightly coloured sofas, stools, and ancillary pieces, as well as a few half-hearted attempts at enclosures. One of the best companies in this sector was Linyu who were partnering with Xinda Clover. Their chairs and sofas showed some attractive designs, quality upholstery skills, and intelligent use of die cast aluminium.

One interesting feature was the number of companies showing furniture for children with ideas taken from office furniture. Boije’s B1 children’s task chair was one example, with its seat height and arm, and rake adjustability. Another was Milon who showed a chair with sensors that sounded alarms and played messages – in Chinese of course – when the occupant’s posture became less than perfect.

For delightful seating comfort, nothing could beat EMA’s task chair with its heated massage mechanism and a wide range of programs to soothe, mold, and manipulate your body into paroxysms of pleasure.

For future years, the show organizers and exhibitors need the self-confidence to open the event to exhibitors from around the world. All would benefit – the visitors from seeing the world’s best products, the overseas exhibitors by gaining access to a truly massive market, and the local manufacturers, from the improvement to their businesses which be stimulated by being put up against some serious world class competition.

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