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Modern furniture design in Asia - WHERE IS IT GOING?

By Michael Buckley, FIWSc MPhil

To look forward it may first be helpful to look back. Few would argue that design in Asia is in different modes and very variable, especially when it comes to furniture. And regional differences are huge. But probably few people would disagree that many Japanese designers now lead the Asian field in contemporary interior design; whether their target is Tokyo or New York. So where did it come from and where is it going?

Eco-Furniture Design Competition entry from Japan

DESIGN, especially in wood furniture, requires the coming together of several elements, some learned and others inherited. Understanding the materials in which designers work is essential and can be learned. An innate, indefinable sense of proportion and functionality, however, is not given to all. One thinks of the sense of design that runs in the blood of Italians and Japanese as examples of what cannot be bought. But that is not exclusive to Japan in Asia. The ancient art of furniture making, particularly seating with its cultural significances, was deep rooted in China centuries ago. Whereas, the C18th traditions of Chippendale and Sheraton in England and the Shakers in America, or the C20th designs of the American Frank Lloyd Wright in the Scandinavian movement came so much later. Today, we are in danger of suffering from a melange of global furniture dictated by international markets. Suffice it to say there is no doubt of the potential design talent that exists in Asia and now the emergence of strong domestic markets in the region may provide a real opportunity to nurture Asian design, if western influences have not already spoiled the ground.

American walnut design from AIR

It is probably fair to say that modern mass market furniture production has much to thank Taiwanese entrepreneurs for, in terms of production techniques and management systems as well as international market knowledge and competitiveness. But their contribution to design has been limited. Modern production in China, Vietnam and even Malaysia has been, and still is, hugely influenced by Taiwanese companies, although less so in Thailand and Indonesia. The question therefore arises as to whether consumers outside the region and in the newly emerging Asian domestic markets want global designs or prefer to retain some of their heritage through Asian style. This is a complex question, largely because so many consumers are exposed to western furniture through their own travel, television, film and the plethora of lifestyle magazines that are the hallmark of style whether read in ‘planes or from the coffee table. Time will tell.

Certainly design is now at the top of the agenda in many SE Asian countries. Never an opening speech, at the myriad of (too many) furniture shows, goes by without the carrion call for the local furniture industry to improve its prospects and performance with better designs. To some extent it is a question of capacity, such as the availability of design schools – and the ever present challenge of the necessary facilities to teach the conversion of designs on paper into actual production. The furniture product development process is at the heart of this journey for young designers and is so often the hurdle at which they either fall or veer off to another field of design. The Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC) has been grappling with the issue for the many years in which it has taken design development seriously for its members. In Indonesia the PIKA furniture training institute has done sterling work in this regard. And by the last count there are many more furniture design competitions and workshops than ever before, with the American Hardwood Export Council sponsoring them at the heart of its promotional programmes. Now it has taken one step further by championing Asian Design as a best use for its material. From Bangkok colleges to the Ho Chi Minh City furniture association (HAWA) young designers have benefitted from such encouragement and been given recognition. It has been interesting to watch the success of some early recipients, naming no names here.

At this point defining Asian design may be helpful. There is no suggestion that modern furniture should be all curves and carvings, but to retain the flavour of elegant Asian lines is what this is about. Retaining the Asian-ness by way of craft and integrity of form is the key. Perhaps here we could return to the Japanese. In a recent article published under the title ‘Japanese pure and simple’ Harriet Baker referred to the craft movement of the 1920s about which Soetsu Yanagi wrote in The Unknown Craftsman “take heed of the humble; be what you are by birthright; there is no room for arrogance.” In contrast to today’s passion for designer labels, he makes the point that the craftsman (who is also the designer) should be anonymous and make inexpensive but quality products used by ordinary people in their daily lives. Such products are also likely to be sustainable; for there is no doubt that quality wooden furniture locks up carbon longer, making a useful contribution to the environment. The theme of elegance, a natural Asian attribute, or ‘less is more’ is another aspect of the increasing need for attention to the environment. It is too easy to throw material at furniture without regard for mass or weight, as is often seen in poor design. The ability to use less is both an economic necessity and an environmental contribution, but requires skill. Where else but in Asia has an ivory or bone ball carved within a ball, within a ball, within a ball been achieved? Where else are the wood carvings of Jepara, Indonesia replicated other than in Asia.

Looking forward to the future of Asian furniture design it would seem logical to examine more closely the regional differences. The Philippines is still a centre of craft, often with rather esoteric designs and the widest range of materials from local sources, not always to the taste outside the ‘craft’ market. Indonesia is probably one of the greatest sources of Asian inspiration in terms of a sense of closeness to wood and has a huge pool of craft skills, capability and individualism. Malaysia has a welldeveloped furniture production capacity, albeit short of material and manpower, and tends to follow the consumer tastes of its major markets in USA, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. The Thai wood furniture industry is heavily influenced by its major market Japan and, as such, is very receptive to Asian design, with some Japanese resident and designing in Thailand. In Vietnam the furniture industry could be described as purely an industrial process geared entirely to its non-Asian export markets. However there is abundant design talent in other fields in Vietnam and it is noticeable how talented its interior designers are becoming as the country develops its leisure and residential infrastructure. And then there is Singapore, a truly international hub of design and investment. With so many Singapore based companies manufacturing furniture offshore, and increasingly turning to Asian domestic markets, there is an impetus accelerating, largely by government and industry, to focus on design. Whether that encompasses Asian flavours rather than western influences is not yet clear.

The history of wood furniture design has always been one of fashion and constant change, until perhaps just recently. Economic and market constraints as well as mass production, may have temporarily halted design development. But the shift towards Asian consumers might just be the chance to create an invigorated Asian fashion in style.

is an acknowledged expert on the uses and market applications of hardwood species and products. He is a member of the Design Development Committee of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC) and judge in its Furniture Design Awards.