Young furniture designers shaking up an ancient trade – London Loves Business

by admin on September 27, 2012

London’s furniture livery pledges to help students and apprentices in order to boost industry

Inspired by her cramped room, furniture-design student Elizabeth Ret began a personal mission to reinvent the most basic of household staples – the chair.

Combining technology with conceptual design, Ret created an armchair-sized unit able to seat one person comfortably, while also storing countless books, pens and computer cables. Her innovative and usable, if somewhat eccentric, design has won her the title of UK’s Young Furniture Maker of the Year. The 24-year-old Londoner now hopes the award will help her CV shine when she finishes her Masters at Bucks New University, “the place to be for furniture design,” she said.

“Like many young people my biggest goal is to get a job,” said Ret who, with a string of internships already under her belt, is not discouraged by the prospect of doing more upon graduation. Such are the times in many industries and Ret still believes “it’s all about getting your foot in the door – everyone understands that.”

Luckily for her, as a field leader, Bucks has been able to offer lots of industry connections, but Bucks is not doing it alone.

While to most the thought of liveries conjures up images of medieval crafts and old men in cloaks, the furniture industry’s City of London guild is still very much alive and kicking. Known as The Furniture Makers Company, its livery, founded in 1951, not only supports universities and offers bursaries for students, it also sponsors prizes like Ret’s.

“The livery is a charity and our work is all about helping the industry to help itself,” said Jonny Westbrooke, a livery clerk. “That is what a guild should be, and it is all about giving the youngsters an opportunity to grow.”

The livery has been busy trying to shake off the recession and engage the next generation of furniture makers in order to bolster design and innovation. Boosting apprenticeships is at the top of its agenda.

“We are very keen to reinvigorate the apprenticeships world and set a clear set of standards that will make your qualification worth having and make the industry want to take you on at a sustainable and worthwhile wage level,” said Paul H S von der Heyde, the liveries junior warden, set to take the helm in May 2014.

“We are going back to our roots and saying, yes we can do this, yes we can set the standards,” he added.

The livery has also pledged to go into schools to try and plug a disconnect with industry and to work with students to help them get that all crucial first job. How exactly this will be done, however, is not yet clear.

Since merging with the Furnishing Industries Trust in February, the livery has been undergoing a period of great transition, although it expects to finalise its plans in the coming weeks and promises to provide even more mentoring and support to SMEs.

Furniture making in the UK continues to be dominated by small firms with 10-20 employees. A crucial part of livery policy over the next few years will therefore be ensuring that the government lives up to its pledges to cut red tape that stops SMEs from growing or taking up apprentices, explains von der Heyde.

As the head of The British Furniture Confederation, it will be his job to act as the industry’s mouthpiece on the issue, and he has absolutely no trouble talking about his ongoing crusade to end “deeply damaging” government subsidies to energy companies.

In bids to boost energy security and reduce carbon emissions, the government started subsidising energy companies to burn British wood in 2002. In principle, burning trees only releases the carbon stored by the trees not leading to a net increase in emissions, but the practice has set the price of wood soaring.

Since 2005, the price of the kind of wood used in the construction and wood panel industries has gone up by more than 50% in the UK. If the subsidies are not modified, this could go up by 100% within a few years because of rising demand, warned von der Heyde.

The furniture industry continues to be a huge part of the British economy, producing somewhere between £7bn to £7.5bn a year, not including retail profits. But this is still down from highs of around £9bn a few years ago.

Over the last year the industry has also shed some 20,000 employees nationwide, and now employs somewhere between 120,000 – 140,000, although much of this has been branded as necessary restructuring in a previously oversaturated industry.

“There is growth in both the top and bottom ends of the industry but it is the middle that’s in a mess,” said the liver’s first warden Jonathan Hindle. “It has neither distinguished itself to appeal to people who are trying to distinguish themselves, nor has its proven its dynamics for its value proposition.”

By making design promotion a cornerstone of his work Hindle, who will assume the liveries leadership next year, believes he will help innovate from the ground up and help the wider manufacturing process along the way.

Unlike many other businesses that are seeking to go international, however, the furniture livery is still proud of its Britishness. Almost 85% of UK-made furniture stays in the country, with the UK still exporting more furniture than it imports. About 65% of all furniture bought in the UK comes from the UK.

And there are growing global macro trends that might ensure that this remains the case.

“Over the last 20 years we have seen a steady decline, but we are a very strong industry that is being gradually chipped away,” said Hindle. “But now there are new dynamics, such as the rising rate of freight, which is driving an onshoring exercise which we think will help boost home industry.”

This is making local production “a much more viable proposition,” he added.

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