Sizing Up China’s Growing Furniture Force

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Chair Of The Month

Our correspondent reflects on her time at the 35th annual Chinese International Furniture Fair.

Photo by Linda Wallack.

If you define success by size alone, then the 35th year of China International Furniture Fair (CIFF) was a giant success! The show covered over 1.1 million square feet and featured 2,120 exhibitors from 32 countries and regions. That’s a large show by anyone’s standards, but add the crowd that attends the event and it is overwhelming.

I am used to seeing some of the Chinese companies exhibit their adjustable height hardware on NeoCon‘s 8th floor. Those displays don’t do justice to what these companies produce for CIFF. While there are many small booths, the large manufacturers go all out to showcase their capabilities.

Half measure isn’t a part of the visual vocabulary. These large showrooms were built over several days. I’m not talking about a couple of furniture walls between manufacturers: I mean spaces with their own ceilings and lighting and power.

Photo by Linda Wallack.

There were showrooms with balconies, sales rooms, and entertainment areas, as well as stairs, raised floors, and sunken seating areas. I can’t imagine the number of people required for construction but I’d pay to watch. Most of the showrooms are built with wood and drywall; taped, spackled, painted, powered, lit, and furnished in three days! With codes and permitting, there’s no way this could be done in other countries. Stairs and ramps without rails and two story spaces that I’m quite certain didn’t have structural review.

There are things here that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else.

There were large welded (and duct taped) showroom fronts, big screen video walls, and one showroom with real wood panels, chandeliers, and vinyl marble floors that looks like it could be a set for a TV show like Scandal.

The show’s success was also visible by the number of people that work at and who attend the show. This is an open event so there are a lot of locals present, especially on the weekend when the show opened. Many attendees work in furniture manufacturing or are sourcers for companies from around China. I heard accents from international designers and buyers from Australia to Italy, India to America, there is an ever growing international crowd.

There are things here that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else. Like a car show, there are models posing on chairs, and girls in all types of gowns posing and walking around with matching outfits holding signs. There are really pushy people in the public area trying to give you their catalogs and collect business cards, some in costumes more suited for a Halloween party.

There were many babies and children at the show, which is unusual. Looking at the detail of a conference table while a baby is crying next to me is an experience I would prefer not to repeat.

The experience of attending the show makes more of an impression than the furniture itself. Until these manufacturers bring in more partners for design and thought leadership, their capabilities will impress by scale of production alone.

The focus for furniture in North America and Europe in the last few years has been in merging home style and work environments, providing spaces that work how you want to work with more opportunities for personalization. I was curious to see how that mindset would be translated here. My impression is that they are a couple years behind the market. Yes, there were lounge spaces with higher acoustic surrounds, powered lounge benches, and demountable partitions but those spaces were few, and none of it was market-leading.

The showrooms with large ornate wood furniture and giant executive desks that are larger then most people’s offices in other countries still exist, and they were as busy as the showrooms that displayed benching systems and video conference lounges. There is still a big difference between the executive spaces and those for the worker bees. Several sales people told me that in China it’s important to have solid wood executive offices. They said whether in government or corporate offices it doesn’t really matter: the open areas are getting smaller, and the executive offices, are becoming more modern, but not smaller. I guess size really does define success!

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