CIFF Shows Asian Wave is Coming: Ride it or be Swallowed by it

More, more, more. Bigger, bigger, bigger. But is any of that important if nothing is better? That is certainly the question when one considers the place of CIFF (China International Furniture Fair), the mega office furniture show going on now in Guangzhou, Asia’s office furniture hub.

The answer, of course, is that manufacturers here are getting better — exponentially better each time the show is held. Design, manufacturing, delivery and sophistication are better her in Guangzhou and also were better at the fall edition now in Shanghai.

But a visitor to this show must be realistic. This is no Orgatec or NeoCon. It is important to judge it for what it is, an event that is growing in importance but still doesn’t rival the design chops of other international events. It’s a good show and getting better, but it has not reached its full potential.

It is astonishing how quickly Asian office furniture makers adapt to trends in the market. Six months ago in Shanghai and a year ago in Guangzhou, it was tough to find a height-adjustable desk or table. A height-adjustable table maker was found in the first position, in the first hall visited here. Jiecang Linear Motion is showing off a number of smartly designed height-adjustable table bases.

More sophisticated Chinese office furniture makers like Sunon, always one of the best at CIFF in terms of design and build, are taking height adjustability even further. Sunon has a height-adjustable desk that adjusts to your posture. When you stand up, it rises up with you. When you sit down, it returns to the proper height.

 

Ergonomic products such as monitor arms and keyboard trays also have been scarce in the past, but they are beginning to show up here. Loctek is showing a full line of ergonomic products at CIFF.

If the Chinese economy is in meltdown, one wouldn’t know it based on attendance at the show. Halls are mobbed with people, seemingly more than in recent years. And the fair itself is larger. This 37th version of CIFF has more floor space. It is impossible to see everything at CIFF, even over the course of the show’s four days. There are about 4,000 exhibitors from more than 32 countries and visitors from nearly every country on the face of the Earth. Many North American manufacturers send representatives to CIFF, looking for partners on the other side of the world who can build products for less, but still with the same quality users and designers here are accustomed to.

An attendee can literally find a designer, office furniture company and all the equipment to build it without ever leaving the building. 

Interestingly, the world’s furniture designers are here as well, and not just to look. An increasing number of booths boast work with designers from Italy, the U.S. and the U.K. Milan-based designer John Bennett is in the booth of Versalink, a furniture maker from Singapore, showing off his Platz+ Office Furniture Collection.

“I see a lot of my designer colleagues here,” he says. “I’ve done this collection and others for Chinese furniture makers, and they are very good to work with. There is a trust and an open-mindedness. All of them want to understand how to make furniture better. Design is becoming part of how these companies operate.”

At the same time, other Asian office furniture makers continue to knock off designs. Seeing the blatant Eames knockoff is becoming less common, but definitely still around. A lot of office furniture makers here still seem to be “inspired” by the work of others.

Bennett was working with a Chinese office furniture maker who wanted to show its products in Cologne at Orgatec, including some that borrowed heavily from other designs. “I told them if they brought that furniture to Cologne their booth would be shut down and all the furniture confiscated,” he says. “Someone has to tell them. It’s not right when that happens.”

Not all Chinese office furniture makers make knockoffs. Enova, which has plants in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, is touting its “original design” at CIFF. The company’s creative director, Joe (his card does not list a family name, which is somewhat common here), is showing off three new chairs, all different and all designed by him.

When it comes to CIFF, bigger, bigger, bigger and more, more, more is making way for better.

“It is normal in China for companies to copy,” he says. “But that needs to stop. I promote my own design. All companies here should come up with their own ideas, not take someone else’s.”

When design comes first, designers like Bennett say it is a joy to work with Asian manufacturers. “People work quickly here. When I send a design to the company, I can see a prototype almost the next day.”

Just a few years ago, it was hard to find original design in China, but very easy to find poorly made Eames aluminum group fakes. This year, the knockoffs are becoming rarer. CIFF attendees also are getting better at what they do. Asian manufacturers continue to lag when it comes to laminates, but there is a noticeable improvement in laminated furniture at this edition of CIFF.

Manufacturers here seem to have greatly upgraded the materials used on mesh chairs. Once saggy and almost unsittable, the mesh was a definite shortcoming. Goodtone is an example of a company getting mesh right. The company, with a plant in Foshan City, is displaying its Prov, Moira, IMOVE, Razr and X-PAR chairs. Any of them would be right at home in the U.S. They are solidly built and nicely designed with strong, supportive mesh and a clear attention to detail with components that didn’t come off the shelf.

The price at which they can build these increasingly good chairs is astonishing. Goodtone’s Prov chair, which could sit in any North American office or conference room, can be bought for less than $100. The Moira chair costs about half that.

Organizers are calling CIFF, which started Monday and ends Thursday, the largest office furniture exhibition in the world. There are more than a dozen exhibition halls to explore, all larger than those in Cologne and Milan. While China seems to be obsessed with being the biggest, show organizers are also trying to make it just as relevant as shows like Orgatec and NeoCon. In that respect, it has some way to go, but it is getting better each year.

An attendee can literally find a designer, office furniture company and all the equipment to build it without ever leaving the building. The China Import and Export Fair Complex that houses CIFF is massive. It covers a surface area of 3.6 million square feet, making it one of the largest exhibition areas in Asia. Guangzhou is the third most important city in China and the capital of Guangdong, China’s most industrialized region and a strategic international business center. Nearly 200 of the Fortune 500 have invested in the city.

When it comes to CIFF, bigger, bigger, bigger and more, more, more is making way for better. It is a show and market North American office furniture makers ignore at their own peril. The wave of Asian office furniture is coming, and the North American industry can grab a surf board and ride the wave or be swallowed up by it. It’s not really much of a choice, is it?

By Rob Kirkbride. Republished with permission of The Business of Furniture

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