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Dirk-Uwe Klaas, Association of the German Furniture Industry, on consumers’ changing mentality

1furniture_exportThe average German only replaces his sofa with a new one every 8-12 years. Don’t you sometimes wish there was a scrapping incentive for furniture too?
We in the furniture industry aren’t calling for subsidies – we just want equal treatment for all sectors. Instead of getting people to scrap their cars, the politicians ought to be scrapping taxes for normal citizens and SMEs so they’ve got more money left in their pockets and budgets at the end of the month – money they can use however they see fit.

The imm cologne’s Trendboard is anticipating a return to more quality consciousness as a response to the economic crisis. Is “real” quality actually still affordable these days?
We’re living in a time when people are refraining from quick consumption again so yes, you could say people have started to change their mentality. They’re becoming more sensitive to how we use the world’s resources and looking for things that promise value and durability again. That’s why there’s an increasing demand for sustainability and value in our industry too. For earlier generations it was normal not to follow every furniture or clothing fashion or go along with every new style that came out. Then there was a period of rapid and changing consumption. The pleasure was often short-lived and the products interchangeable.

Today a growing number of people are realising how crazy that is. In the face of globalisation and its obvious result, i.e. a further four billion people who are aspiring to our western standard of living, people are beginning to question the familiar throw-away mentality. In the furniture sector, we’re seeing a definite increase in the demand not only for lasting quality but for good design as well, enduring design that will stand the test of time. Personally, I agree with what my grandfather used to say: “We’re too poor to buy cheap furniture.”

But does quality really still pay nowadays? And is there really a connection between a product’s durability and its design?
Quality always pays. More and more people are starting to understand the connection between quality of life and product quality. Our markets offer high-quality products at good prices in all the consumer goods sectors. We see design as a holistic concept, almost a process. Of course it includes the way something looks and feels, but it’s also about eco-friendly manufacturing, resource conservation, good ergonomics and of course the durability and later recyclability of the materials. If you interpret design like that, it’s automatically linked with product longevity. But unfortunately, design is often misunderstood. Instead of being overwhelmed by the way something looks, consumers ought to be asking what’s behind it.

Why are you so committed to ensuring German designers get professional training?
Now that design has established itself as a scientific subject in research and higher education – and nowhere else will you find such a high density as in Germany – the conditions for our young professionals are good. Considering how crucial innovations are in the furniture market these days, that’s extremely important. Furniture development is a process of evolution, not only because of buyers’ growing expectations but also in order to set yourself apart from dangerous low-price competitors. That means furniture doesn’t just have to be new, it has to be better than what came before it. Without a design strategy, that’s virtually impossible. That’s why more and more companies in the industry are collaborating with external designers who specialise in furniture. At the end of the day, it all comes down to defending your position in the top league.

Will the trend towards quality and sustainability, towards Green Design – something that designers are also advocating right now – be reflected in the broad spectrum of furniture production as well? How are producers and retailers responding to these ideas?
We have to give ourselves distinct profiles and not engage in a price war with competitors. We have to develop products that create their own market. In the long term, that’s the only way the German furniture industry can survive global competition. In view of people’s growing health awareness and environmental consciousness and the growing global demand, it’s obvious that Green Design will play a major role in all this. Even today, we’re seeing a growing demand for green line furniture in the German and European markets. People are asking about the production process, they’re asking about the materials used and their separability, about the product’s life cycle. Future researchers call this new clientele LOHAS, i.e. consumers who aspire to a “lifestyle of health and sustainability”. In the food sector, for instance, this group is already clearly distinguishable because the search for healthy products transcends all price segments.

What about the eco-compatibility of the raw materials your industry uses?
We’re lucky in that respect because our main material really is a renewable resource. Wood has a balanced ecological footprint, it’s cosy and sensuous and stands for nature. On top of that, the new resourcefriendly materials that designers and material developers are bringing into the picture are far more than mere experiments. That’s how the lightweight building board was born, or wood-plastic composites (WPC) made of waste wood and plastic. It’s players from the industry who set that kind of trend in motion. But it’s the retail sector that ensures they spread quickly, which is why the retail trade carries such a lot of responsibility. After all, at the end of the day, the average consumer bases his decision on what’s available.

So how will the market for a young and designsavvy but nevertheless price-sensitive public develop?
From the 1980s on, consumers in the western hemisphere started to adopt a more critical attitude; that led to a polarisation in the prices of both durable and non-durable consumer goods. Ever since, the midprice segment has been steadily collapsing in favour of premium and bargain-priced manufacturers. There’s also been an interesting change in the way Stiftung Warentest, the German equivalent of Consumer Reports, reviews products. It’s been surveying product families ever since it was founded. To start with, it always reviewed products within a certain price category and the winner was pronounced “best in class”. But today – and this is crucial – the entire product family is compared. These days the consumer is fully aware that the price category is not the most important differentiating factor. On the one hand he expects inexpensive products to be good quality, on the other hand he no longer takes it for granted that expensive products are automatically better. It’s exactly the same thing with design. Again, there are parallels with the discount food sector. There’s nothing rubbishy, cheap or unfashionable about the products on the shelves any more. The discount stores might save on presentation, but not on the product itself. That’s what people expect from all consumer goods: at the end of the day, even if purses come in all shapes and sizes, their owners want the same things.

Will the gap between top-quality premium design and popular mass-market products continue to widen?
That’s what it looks like. At the end of the day, it’s a question of priorities and therefore also of individual conscience. Some future researchers are observing a phenomenon they call strategic consumption. The aim behind this particular form of consumption is to influence manufacturers and retailers with regard to production conditions, ingredients and transport distances. There are a lot of pointers that this is a growing trend, but to start with it will probably be largely restricted to the mature markets. A lot of the new national economies haven’t reached saturation point yet, so I’m pretty pessimistic in that respect: a lot of generations will have to experience surplus before people in those countries start changing the way they think too.

Germans love Gemütlichkeit more than anything else – which is probably why their word for this particular feeling has been adopted the world over. In Germany, is Gemütlichkeit still – or again – a more important purchase criterion than modern aesthetics or a certain design philosophy?
You’re right. People in our culture spend most of their time at home – and they’re quite happy to do so. Home is something they love and cherish, especially the Germans. Gemütlichkeit is derived from Gemüt, which means something like a person’s soul or disposition. There’s a slightly antiquated sound to it, but there’s still nothing else like it – the very word melts in your mouth. And furnishing your own four walls to be gemütlich literally satisfies the soul. Home is where we take time out, where we feel secure. Individualisation is not compatible with a single, universally valid design philosophy or “the” modern look. But because our Gemüt, the way we think and feel, usually changes in the course of our lives, our understanding of Gemütlichkeit changes as well. Nevertheless, it will probably remain the most important single criterion when it comes to buying furniture and home accessories. A lot of people even find a sober style gemütlich.

Do you still have any of your parents’ or grandparents’ furniture at home?
I’ve got my grandmother’s hope chest from the 16th century – I love it.

The supply industry has learned a lot in recent years and made a huge contribution to the design quality of furniture. This spring the supply industry trade fair interzum provided plenty of new impetus – will we be seeing new applications for those ideas and convincing results at the imm cologne?
Yes, that’s the way it works. Thanks to the innovativeness of our suppliers, the ingredients for the furniture are getting better and better. Our sector doesn’t take an additive approach or pursue an end-of-pipe strategy. Our starting point is what the suppliers have to offer. That’s why we’re expecting to see a lot of progress at the imm cologne 2010, especially in terms of surface optimisation, lighting and electrotechnology. After all, good design feels good, LED light is great for creating atmosphere and electric motors can open drawers as if by magic. But let’s wait and see – there are plenty of world firsts out there that aren’t definite yet.

Text and interview: Frank A. Reinhardt