Special Fair Report  

Furniture Trends in Wood in Southeast Asia - 2015

By Michael Buckley

Eight furniture shows held in March in ASEAN demonstrated the enormous differences of
their respective wood furniture industries, largely influenced by the markets to which they
sell. The first of two reports covers Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

American hardwood veneer on Rubberwood at MECC Hall E from Muar

Designed in Asia and made in Asia with American hardwood

Part I
It was a very slow start in Kuala Lumpur for the annual round of international furniture shows in Southeast Asia this year. If the Malaysian shows, MIFF (Malaysia International Furniture Fair) and EFE (Export Furniture Exhibition), were quiet then the TIFF (Thailand International Furniture Fair) in Bangkok was even quieter. But if design was not at the centre of Malaysia’s manufacturers’ offerings in March, by contrast Thailand was a true hub of excellent design in mainly contemporary furniture. The IFFS (International Furniture Fair Singapore) in Singapore is always the regional exception in the Southeast Asian series, on several counts. The show represents large numbers of Singapore companies with their manufacturing facilities overseas. It also includes many non- Singaporean companies.

Part II
There was a clear stamp of professional management at the IFEX show (Indonesian International Furniture Exposition) in Jakarta under the UBM/AMKRI umbrella. The IFFINA show (International Furniture and Craft Fair), organised by the furniture association ASMINDO, having been displaced to a new tented venue fraught with access problems. Both shows were attended by Indonesian President ‘Jokowi’ – a former furniture businessman. By all accounts the Vietnam furniture show VIFA (Vietnam International Furniture & Home Accessories Fair) was bigger, better and busier than last year and much interest has been shown in the progress Vietnam is making as a world class furnituremaking country for both export and its own growing domestic market. In the Philippines craft is the best description of a rather domestic show of furniture industries that appeal locally and to overseas buyers looking for unique furniture and furnishings.

The main furniture trends observed at both MIFF and EFE, involved heavily stained and painted wood which seemed to take first place for most exhibitors in the living, dining and bedroom sectors. Many exhibitors offered only black/ dark brown or white furniture and not much in between. This has consequences for the timber industry and trade as the need to show the natural beauty of grains, characteristics and colours is diminished when the species of so much wooden furniture is disguised. Not much place exists therefore for Cherry, Maple, Red Oak in that market. There are both natural and plantation species in Malaysia which can fulfil the role of furniture wood for staining and painting without the vagaries of currency fluctuations for imported wood. One exception seems to be American Tulipwood (Yellow Poplar) which has seen an increase in shipments to Malaysia in 2014 – up 50% in value and 30% in volume compared to 2013. This may reflect the higher yield and lower manufacturing costs of Tulipwood without the need to finger joint and less edge laminating – needed with Rubberwood. This is due to Tulipwood’s longer lengths of clear lumber and stability when dry, as well as its ease of staining. While rubberwood is still the main domestic plantation species in Malaysian furniture there has been a surge in the use of domestic grown plantation Acacia as well as some imports from Vietnam, which is different in character. Both types appeal to Australian consumers.

Dark or White on offer at EFE

OEKO brand Acacia furniture drew much attention at EFE

The shows featured several space saving models of furniture which has growing demand as residences get smaller. Simewood Product Sdn Bhd from Muar notably offered several examples of well designed, small, multipurpose furniture with ingenious storage solutions. This is one small example where a Malaysian company is using design, and in this case colour as well, to differentiate its furniture from the crowd. The fact remains that so much of Malaysia’s furniture remains the same as it has done for years, sold on price rather than design, which may be one reason that many international buyers do not see the need to visit the shows.

Dark stained & white painted furniture ruled at MIFF

Simewood’s space saving table at MIFF

Data presented at the Malaysian shows indicate that about 45% of Malaysian furniture exports are shipped to North America with low priced Rubberwood as the main business. That is not a design led trade, and may partly explain the lack of progress that the industry has made in organic design, despite calls for years from government Ministers to improve it. That could be an objective linked to new promotional initiatives that are known to be in the pipeline. One interesting proposal made at the opening.

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.