Southeast Asia Furniture Round - March 2013

In early March six out of the seven ASEAN regional furniture shows in Southeast As ia were visited for this report which focuses on wood-based furniture. Each show was significantly different from the others, reflecting the materials manufacturers use, the markets they are aiming at and the degree to which design is a primary driver. Michael Buckley of World Hardwoods reports.

Plantation Acacia flooring and furniture at EFE

Malaysian International Furniture Fair (MIFF) and Export Furniture Fair (EFE) – Malaysia

Malaysia in March effectively had three shows; the 18th Malaysian International Furniture Fair (MIFF) still at the Putra Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and now run by UBM, with most of its traditional exhibitors; MIFF’s second venue at the MECC (Matrade) on the edge of KL to which the Muar-based manufactures from Johor state have de-camped for the first time; and the Export Furniture Exhibition (EFE) in Serdang well away from KL city centre. The net result is a serious hardworking challenge for anyone wanting to make a comprehensive tour of the whole offering from Malaysia which would definitely benefit from one show in one location. Many visitors are frustrated at the time spent between shows and even between halls, in the case of the EFE. Some say they leave with the feeling that they have not been able to see all the exhibits in the time they allot, before heading off to other shows in Southeast Asia and then to China. The challenge is made worse by the fact that much of the furniture displayed is familiar, or slightly modified, and a complete tour is required to discover any new, innovative or fresh collections on offer. The lack of a modern venue and need for one comprehensive unified show was the subject of much discussion by foreign visitors and specialist media.

American Cherry wood chair by Marcoco at EFE
In 2011 Malaysia exported RM19.8 billion (US$6.33 billion) of timber and wood products. Furniture accounted for about 33%, exported to around 160 countries. In 2012 it was the 8th largest furniture exporter in the world and about 78% of shipments are estimated to be wooden. Under Malaysia’s National Timber Industry Policy a target of RM53 billion by 2020, of timber and wood products, has been set according to the current Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities YB Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, who opened both MIFF and EFE in March. (A general election is expected in April 2013.) He stated that the government will plant a further 375,000 ha of forests over a 15 year period. He called on Malaysian manufacturers to “….adopt creative marketing strategies and ….. more original designed furniture products…” He concluded by suggesting that the next step “is to develop Malaysian brand into famous world names.” The Minister referred to his launch of the ‘Malaysian Pride’ quality mark a year ago and noted that, while the US had been the major market for Malaysian furniture, others from Russia to Asian markets were now growing. The Malaysian Furniture Promotion Council (mfpc) is a specialised promotional body that promotes and develops the Malaysian furniture industry to establish Malaysia as a globally recognised source of world-class furniture and operates the ‘Malaysian Pride’ scheme.

MIFF included three design events – a design competition, furniture excellence award and best presentation award. The 2013 Furniture Excellence Gold Awards were won by Hin Lim Furniture (Household) and NCOMPAS Asia (Office) and a special Judges Commendation was awarded to SJY Furniture.

Ash veneer on Ruberwood by Hin Lin at MIFF
At MIFF, bigger by 25% than 2012, much of Malaysia’s furniture is still manufactured from Rubberwood, stained dark in colour for markets in the USA, Middle East and to a lesser extent to Europe. Although American hardwood shipments to Malaysia have made progress in recent years (lumber up 50% in volume in 2012) it still only represents a small percentage of the raw material supply. Despite the import figures, which show White Oak furniture as Malaysia’s leading U.S. species, there seemed to be less Oak on display in KL than in previous years. Yellow Poplar/Tulipwood, as number two species imported from the USA, is making inroads into the Rubberwood sector and despite dark staining was identifiable in more furniture offerings than usual. At MIFF’s second venue at MECC were mostly Muar furniture companies and featured predominantly Rubberwood.

EFE, a third the size of MIFF, maintained its high standard of presentation despite the transfer of many Muar-based businesses. Over the years, designs featured at EFE have improved significantly and there were interesting looking furniture with contemporary styles. EFE represents two furniture associations, the Malaysian Furniture Manufacturers Association (MFEA) and the Malaysian Furniture Industry Council (MFIC). MFEA’s President, Lor Lean Sen, welcoming all to the ‘Malaysia Furniture Week’ called on manufacturers to “work on more innovative designs….” and he addressed the strong competition faced in the region from lower cost countries. Much discussion throughout both shows focused on Malaysia’s shortage of affordable labour and raw material needs.
Interwood, Vietnam at IFFS

International Furniture Fair Singapore (IFFS) - Singapore

By contrast to Malaysia, the International Furniture Fair Singapore (IFFS), which was smaller than last year, displayed huge amounts of temperate hardwood, in both solid and veneer as well as regional tropical species, but less dark staining than seen in Malaysia. The show’s theme was ‘Be part of the new design revolution at IFFS’. The Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC) makes huge efforts to promote design-led furniture and this year was no exception with its now established D’Space, Platform and annual Furniture Design Awards, and a materials workshop onsite at a new ‘Green Pavilion’. There, materials expert Chris Lefteri hosted a workshop at which industry consultant Michael Buckley presented the environmental credentials of wood and Genevieve Chua, a director of PEFC, presented a paper on the positive use of certified paper and board. Off-show design events took place all over the city under the banner ‘SingaPlural’. In one regional initiative 13 designers and design studios from Singapore, Indonesia as well as Swedish design studio, FormUsWithLove, launched their creative works developed during their workshop in Solo City, Indonesia. Titled ‘FutureCraft’, the workshop aimed to create new approaches towards modern-day design using traditional materials. This initiative by SFIC and Himpunan Desiner Mebel Indonesia (HDMI) aimed to encourage designers to create new approaches towards modern-day design using traditional materials such as teak, bamboo, rattan, recycled wood and ceramic, the results of which were shown at IFFS.

Jerry Low’s ‘Jotter Goods’ for Star Furniture at IFFS
In this show week, design ruled and variety was the name of the game from over 500 exhibitors from 26 countries, most of which were Asian. Singapore companies now represent almost 1% of global furniture production valued at SGD$6.7 billion (US$5.4 billion), mainly made offshore, thus exerting an inversely proportional regional influence by this tiny island state. Footfall at the show was brisk and exhibitors reported good results. Many of them are turning their attention to Asian markets including Japan, Korea and China, from where there came significant numbers of buyers and exhibitors, making this a more Asian-focused show than ever before.

(IFFS) was opened by the Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, who announced that in the face of “headwinds” the government would increase funding from 50% to 70% for selected capability development programmes in design, intellectual property, branding and mergers and acquisitions. The government has a target to support Singapore companies, most of which manufacture offshore, to achieve at least 1.5% market share of global furniture production by 2015. He also referred to the many green initiatives by the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC) including the Green Pavilion and the release of its first electronic edition of Green Handbook on International Green Certifications and Standards. He also commended the Furniture Design Week – ‘SingaPlural’ and congratulated SFIC on its achievements.

Twenty companies featured their exhibits under the national brand Singapore MOZAIC. Overall the IFFS offerings ranged from the new collections from leading players of the industry in Singapore in Oak and Walnut by leading manufacturer KODA, to a set of custom-made White Oak furniture by Jarrod Lim and exhibited by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). White Oak and Black Walnut, high-gloss white melamine faced MDF and some dark stained local species represented the majority trends in wood-based furniture. Combinations of painted and raw wood were also popular and recycled wood furniture continues to find buyers. Given the large number of overseas exhibitors from China, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere, this truly international fair is also a showcase for the wider trends and styles in the region.
International Furniture Fair Indonesia
The opening ceremony of the International Furniture Fair Indonesia (IFFINA) included some English language for the first time and Ambar Tjahyono, President of ASMINDO, burst into his own personal welcome song to much applause, which rather set the tone of the show. In the past the fair has struggled to present itself as international - and still no press release in English. However one innovation was an ASMINDO-funded show magazine produced in advance with some informative and useful copy. The show welcomed by far more overseas visitors than ever before, reflecting an increasingly greater interest in Indonesia as a furniture manufacturing country. IFFINA was well interspersed with more contemporary designs than usual, suggesting it has moved on being regarded solely as a ‘traditional Teak’ show, as previously perceived by many. Even the contemporary Teak furniture has developed further and is leading to more modern styles with both Teak and other local plantation species (Mindi, Sungkai and Mahoni in particular) and imported species - mainly American and European Oak. This trend may be influenced by the many overseas investors now operating joint ventures in Indonesia, who may also be part of the reason for the increased interest by foreign buyers.

Differing from other shows in SE Asia, IFFINA focused a great deal on ‘Verified Legal’ products at all levels with signage, labels, workshops and publications widely promoting the Sistem Verifikasi Legalitas Kayu (SVLK) now in place to licence Indonesian exporters of timber and wood products. The system has not yet been implemented with a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU, which is still in process. However at a workshop during the show Bayu Krisnamurthi, Deputy Minister of Trade Indonesia, on behalf of SVLK announced that “we love our forests and so SVLK is our own legislation and we are grateful for the support of our overseas friends, especially the UK.” He hoped that signature of the timber trade agreement with the EU would come in April and that there would be no delay as “we need to get an advantage from SVLK while we are ahead. There are 27 countries that I have to convince so I will start with buyers, not politicians,” he added. Dwi Sudharto of the Ministry of Forestry provided comprehensive statistics of Indonesia’s trade and fight against illegal logging, “which is now showing a declining trend.” SVLK has had a long journey but now has 12,120 V-legal documents issued to 125 destinations as at 12 March 2013; and he closed with a plea for further progress to be made.

Popular grey furniture by Aurum at IFFINA

Writing in the Official Message bulletin, Minister of Trade Mr Gita Irawan Wirjawan confirmed that Indonesian furniture exports had suffered in 2011 and were down from a peak of US$2.25 billion in 2008. But exports had improved by 4.26% in the first 11 months of 2012 to US$1.62 billion for the period. He commended ASMINDO – the furniture association – for its work.

Notable at the show was a huge improvement of the display of prototypes in what might be called the ‘designer alleys’ at the registration areas. Even more impressive were the extensive offerings of furniture ‘with imagination’ and contemporary appeal within the exhibition halls. Talking with designers and judges from the most recent annual Indonesian Furniture Design Competition (IFDC), there is a growing understanding that Indonesia could benefit from retaining an element of Indonesian style while offering contemporary furniture made to high woodcraft standards. Two long-term initiatives by AHEC are the IFDC and a design camp in Java. This year the winners of IFDC III and some designer prototypes from the recent design camp ‘Hands of Jepara’ formed an important part of AHEC’s IFFINA presentation showing US hardwood material. It also exhibited at the tiny inaugural Indonesian Woodshow that reportedly left its small band of exhibitors less than satisfied.

Design-led development will undoubtedly offer opportunities for imported hardwoods, especially as the industry becomes more aware of legislation to eliminate the use of illegal wood. With that in mind there were more wood suppliers exhibiting in Jakarta than at any other furniture show in SE Asia this year, including AHEC, French Timber, exporters such as Baillie Lumber, Sonoking Corporation, and Missouri Walnut; and specialist import stockist APP Timber.

Deesawat Industries at TIFF

Thailand International Furnit ure Fair (TIFF)
In Thailand the Thailand International Furniture Fair (TIFF) is generally smaller than other ASEAN shows, design led and focused heavily on Japan and Europe, two of its main markets. The fair is strongly supported by the Ministry of International Trade Promotion. Its theme “SOOK” or, in other words, “Small Order OK” adopted last year was coupled with this year’s theme “Inspire inside out” to convey the message of Thai furniture makers’ capabilities to inspire and respond in design, raw material selection and production. TIFF featured over 167 top furniture makers from Thailand and overseas at IMPACT Muang Thong Thani.

Bangkok Design Camp participants
At the opening ceremony Mr Nattawut Saikuar, Deputy Minister of Commerce, stated that, “After coping with a series of natural disasters and the Eurozone economic downturn in the previous year, in 2013, the exports of furniture and furniture parts from Thailand are expected to have a bright future with an expected total export value of 1,125 Million USD.” He said that “Undoubtedly, TIFF 2013 will play a key role in helping us achieve that goal. It’s a great platform to demonstrate to the world the outstanding design and quality of Thai furniture, as well as to boost furniture export growth and promote Thailand as the production and export hub of quality furniture items in the region.” As in previous years the US Foreign Agriculture Service, in cooperation with AHEC and the Thai Furniture Industries Association (TFA), funded a furniture design camp providing a valuable display of 20 pieces of American hardwood furniture, on which AHEC is able to develop substantial publicity. This was greatly enhanced at the show by the participation of H.E. Ms Kristie Kenny, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, who attended the official opening, later toured the AHEC exhibit and engaged with the designers and a huge press corps present. American hardwoods are popular and in 2012 Thai imports of US hardwood lumber rose well over 60% in volume and value to become the second Southeast Asian market for the USA after Vietnam.

Other highlights of TIFF 2013 included ‘T-Style Project’ exhibition by world-renowned Japanese designer Toshiyuki Kita who featured various furniture items specially designed for the Japanese market; ‘DEmark 2012’ exhibition which showcased awardwinning eco-friendly furniture items from the 2012 design contest under the theme of ‘Unlimited Power of Design’; and a ‘Waste to Wealth’ exhibition aimed to educate visitors on how seemingly waste items can be turned into practical, unique furniture items.

Vietnam International Furniture & Home Accessories Fair (VIFA) – Vietnam
Traditionally a small show, the Vietnam International Furniture & Home Accessories Fair (VIFA) was busier than in previous years with more optimism amongst the buyers. However, because the large Taiwaneseowned factories and other large producers do not exhibit at VIFA the fair cannot be regarded as representative of the whole Vietnam industry. From those present large amounts of rubberwood were on offer despite being disguised by heavy staining. Other species being exhibited were Acacia, recycled Vietnamese Pine, Yellow Poplar (Tulipwood) and American Oak as well as plywood which has become more popular as a featured material for furniture – seen at several shows.

Vietnam still using a lot of Rubberwood

Vietnam has enjoyed a continuous growth of furniture exports, valued at US$3,9 billion in 2011, up from US$435 million ten years ago, according to the National Statistics Office. Europe, USA and Asia are its key markets. This makes Vietnam #1 in Southeast Asia, #2 in Asia and #6 or #7 furniture producer in the world. The industry is heavily controlled by foreign investors in joint ventures and very dependent on raw material imports. In recent years Vietnam has also experienced a fast growing domestic market.

The industry is centred on Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) for interior, mainly dining/living; and in Central Vietnam for outdoor furniture and more recently in Hanoi to service the capital’s development. In HCMC the industry association HAWA plays a leading role including the organisation of VIFA. It is interesting to note, given that Vietnam is largely an OEM industry, that HAWA’s activity in design competitions has not been evident this year.




Southeast Asia Trends
There were many conflicting trends evident in the Southeast Asian offering of wooden furniture in March 2013, as evidenced by these shows. Dark stained furniture rules and there was not so much showing of natural wood colours, limited mainly to Oak and mainly in Singapore and Thailand. The main colour exceptions were white and grey, popular in the bedroom, living and patio sectors.

In terms of species, local tropical wood remains the main material, with imported wood a small but increasing player. Plantation and natural forest species from Malaysia and Indonesia are dominant. This year saw an expanded display of Palmwood furniture in Malaysia and an impressive and comprehensive exhibition of plantation Acacia at EFE – showing the raw material, laminated panels and finished furniture. There was a noticeable increase in the use of certified European Oak and Beech, explained in some cases by a desire to comply with the new EU Timber Regulations, which is seen as providing safe options. Oak was less in evidence this year at the shows overall but American Oak was still very strong in Singapore and Thailand. There were far less variations of finishing in Oak – mainly natural waxed or bleached and very little stained. Some manufacturers are using Ash from China (grown in Russia?) as well as Ash from Europe and USA. Flat surfaced bamboo furniture was noticeable generally by its absence.

However there are also a number of common threads. In Malaysia where Rubberwood still rules and despite predictions by some buyers that it has had its day, there are very many manufacturers still wedded to the material. In Malaysia there was a noticeable absence of American Oak, at least by those producers exhibiting at the three venues, but at the other shows Oak and Walnut were the key temperate species. Teak was well to the fore in Indonesia but no longer totally dominant. Shows were smaller in some cases but generally a little more optimistic than in 2012.

No report of furniture export industries would be complete in 2013 without mention of the new EUTR and Australian Illegal Logging law on imported (and domestically grown) wood products. However this was not a subject individually publicised by exporters, except at IFFINA in Indonesia, although surely discussed privately. Nor was there much public evidence for visitors of certified wood under FSC or PEFC labels.

Michael Buckley 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.