Special Feature  

Choice and Diversity on the 2016 Asean Furniture Show Circuit

By Michael Buckley, Turnstone Communications, Singapore©

The furniture show circuit in Southeast Asian taking place every March offers choice and diversity for buyers.

The Malaysian International Furniture Fair (MIFF) at the start in Kuala Lumpur provides mainly utilitarian, mass produced furniture of reasonable quality at affordable prices. Much of it is based on rubberwood. At the end of the show circuit Indonesia presents a huge array of craft furniture, much of it in Teak. In the middle comes competitive Vietnam, with Thailand and Singapore offering mid-market and high-end products respectively. But the price of choice for buyers is the frantic and overlapping programme of competing shows with a schedule that makes it impossible to cover them all in two weeks. Consequently TIFF in Bangkok is not covered in this report; nor is PIFS in Manila, being regarded as mainly domestic rather than international.

The SE Asian shows are not totally representative of the ASEAN furniture industry, since the influential Taiwanese manufacturers in the region do not participate at shows and furthermore, the major chain buyers, such as Walmart and IKEA, tend to visit their approved suppliers rather than visit shows.

Young Designers Award ceremony at MIFF

In terms of furniture trends there was an obvious return to clear finished wood, or grey where it was stained, plus some dark-stained furniture where still necessary to hide plantation species, of which Rubberwood remains important and Acacia continues to make inroads. Teak and Oak were the dominant high-end species. Grey seems to be the new black for furniture and geometric designs were popular. The trend to use recycled wood continues. The use of veneer on panels continues to increase with Chinese producers dominating supplies of ultra-thin veneers laminated on panels, pre-shipment.

The Malaysian International Furniture Fair (MIFF) kicked off the circuit with two venues, one in and one out of Kuala Lumpur, overlapping slightly with the Export Furniture Exhibition (EFE) at the KL Conference Centre (KLCC). The organisers announced a tie-up with Alibaba for online business O2O (online to offline) ‘sourcing experience’. MIFF seemed to start more quietly than in previous years but the Chairman, Datu Tan Chin Huat, was pleased that visitors had come from 108 countries by day 2. As the show progressed it seemed to get considerably busier. Many of the exhibitors reported excellent responses to their offerings but others were disappointed and that clearly reflected what they had to sell rather than where they were in the awful labyrinth of halls. There were stands packed with buyers next to empty ones and in some cases one had the feeling that a photograph of the products on display would have been identical to the same shot 10 years earlier.

Most noticeable however was the visitor profile. There were many buyers who were previously dedicated to China; but not this year and some making their first visit to MIFF. There were buyers from all over Asia, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and Australia which exhibitors appreciate. There were apparently far more buyers from Japan than before, but an obvious absence from Europe. For the first time a group of six Japanese companies exhibited, joining long-established exhibitors from Korea and Taiwan. Two from Japan – Asahi and Nagano Interior – deservedly walked off with the Platinum and Gold Awards for Household Furniture. The ‘Essence of Japan’ exhibit at MIFF this year made an impressive start to the intention of Japanese companies to expand their businesses in developing areas such as Malaysia. Other top awards were made to Lim Bo Qiang (RM10,000) in the Furniture Design Award; Euro Chairs for Best Bare Space Presentation and Seow Buck Sen for the Shell Scheme Booth. MIFF 2016 included a series of five seminars focusing on designs, market penetration and the relationship between wood structure and finish quality.

Making strong impressions can be so important and here are some that did so it at MIFF. Kinheng Furniture fooled many with its apparently solid ‘chunky’ bedroom furniture using distressed veneer surfaces and ends veneer with American Oak. Wegmans launched new designs exploiting colour and wood grains to excite and entice; as well as offering a newly-designed dining chair with side-back comfort upholstery inspired by high-end motorcar comfort. Latitude Tree, one of Malaysia’s major producers employing 7,000 staff, launched some unique approaches to table tops; one with an edge-studded cement-look and another with manufactured ‘bark-like’ edges as well as grey ceramic tiles imbedded. Grey colour featured in Furncrest’s new Acacia dining set with a rough sawn lumber look and a rubberwood dining set in a delicate fawn colour. The company also continues to offer tables veneered with Chinese Ash in several colours. Inception, specialising in bedrooms, is always good for new interiors and was well focused on solid and various hardwood veneers to produce unique designs. MFIVI is a new partnership focused on design by young award-winning Francis Lye using local solid Balau which attracted another Gold Award for ‘Floating’ table. BE Wood Craft offered increasingly fashionable Ash veneer for one of its Rubberwood table sets. Sliff Furniture launched an intriguing interchangeable bench/table called ‘Multi Bench’. IMEI Furniture Industries launched a new range of German Beech table sets, manufactured and finished to a high standard and sold to Japan during the show.

While the Muar-based and other Malaysian producers are still highly focused on Rubberwood, there are increasing signs of more sophisticated designs and use of high end decorative veneer, much of which is imported from China even though grown in the USA. Nevertheless there must be a market for the standard cheap, darkstained tables sets “because that is what the buyers want” as several producers explained.

Material suppliers included Luxhamma with Thermal Modification Technology, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) presenting an environmental message of sustainability and Chapas Selectas from Spain with a well presented display of wood veneers which won 1st prize as the best ‘Non-Furniture Booth’ on its first appearance at MIFF.

Italian Giorgio Biscaro designed a Walnut table made by Ta Wei Furniture shown at EFE

Walnut veneer and solid Tulipwood cabinet by Hup Chong Furniture launched at EFE

The Export Furniture Exhibition (EFE), also in Malaysia, opening on a Saturday at the more easily navigated KLCC, was different in many ways. At this small but busy show less wood furniture was on offer and more upholstered furniture as a percentage. There was less focus on Japan but perhaps more on China with the launching of the China Export Pavilion and a product catalogue for Chinese buyers in pursuit of increased bi-lateral trade. At the heart of EFE a new design initiative “Professional Design Programme” (PDP) was launched jointly by the Malaysian Furniture Promotion Board and the MTC. “Tanggam” was another initiative to encourage young designers set up by the Malaysia Timber Industry Board (MTIB), launched by Director General YB Dr Jalaluddin Harun.

Colour was prevalent throughout the show and generally the individual presentations were up to the usual standard expected at EFE. Although Rubberwood is still a mainstay material for many of the exhibitors, there were plenty of other hardwood species in evidence and extensive use of veneer in bedroom, dining and living collections. Hup Chong Furniture from Selangor presented a full range of mainly bedroom furniture with its front-of-stand presentation in American Black Walnut veneer and dark-stained Tulipwood solids to match. Regent Furniture, also from Selangor, showed a new collection of Acacia living and dining furniture from the Danish designer Morten Georgsen, with the innovative use of Acacia veneer mimicking laminated solid wood. Only one major exhibitor – Latitude Tree – participated at both Malaysian shows. Deep Furniture repeated a similar range of lightcoloured Rubberwood as in previous years. Pankin provided a spectacular shocking purple sofa with exposed wood frame that nobody could miss, as did Ita Upholstery Design. ‘Inspi’ brand may have changed some dining chair designs but has stuck totally with the same brown coloured wood, as have Seng Yip Furniture (SYF); but for inspired branding of ordinary wooden chairs the presentation prize should go to ‘Porani’ for a small eye-catching display.

At the EFE opening ceremony it was suggested by YB Datuk Sundaran Annamalai Secretary General representing the Minister of Commodities & Plantations that there is now “a return of confidence” but the oft-repeated calls for improvements in design and increased exports echoed previous exhortations from government to industry. This time the target of RM16 billion has been set for 2020. The new Malaysian Furniture Council Strategic Five-Year Plan (2016- 2020) calls for furniture exports to grow by 12% annually. The Minister advised that improved design performance is demonstrated by ODM now estimated to have jumped from 33% to 53% of Malaysian production since the last survey; his conclusion being that “Malaysia will develop through design rather than OEM.” In the dedicated Design Hall, hosted by the Malaysian Furniture Promotion Council (MFPC), an impressive display of designers from Italy and Belgium working with local factories drew much attention.

Dr Gerald H Smith Attache for Agriculture, U.S. Consulate, HCMC (Centre) with John Chan, AHEC (Rt) and staff at VIFA

Square Roots French Oak furniture made in Vietnam

The Vietnam International Furniture Fair (VIFA-EXPO 2016) had expanded (36%) even further into the car park of the Saigon Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) this year and now needs new permanent space and better facilities. Exhibitors were up by 42% at 253 and the show was exciting after Malaysia, with more appealing designs, much more natural wood and plenty of colours. Furniture was contemporary and there were many international buyers. ‘Variety’ was the watchword which now attracts many western buyers, be they Australian, European or American. As ever, many of the major Taiwanese manufacturers do not exhibit, so the show is dominated by Vietnamese owned and joint venture or foreign investors now manufacturing in Vietnam.

Among the larger exhibitors were Interwood and International Furniture Corporation, both major exporters to European markets, each with specific lines in American White Oak. Among the traditional Vietnamese producers of outdoor furniture was Hiep Long with an extensive range of Teak furniture. More mixed was the offering from Singapore-based KODA with a wide range of clear and stained American Oak, Walnut and such items as a dining set in smoked grey Acacia. Top of the interiors specialists for projects was AA Corporation with furniture from all types of materials but presented on a rough-sawn lumber background to emphasise the finery of its finished products. Square Home was one of many smaller companies with cement-finished furniture in grey and pale colours. The huge Malaysian-owned Latitude Tree also focused on grey from beds to dining. Another Malaysian company, Kian introduced a new collection of upright chairs – some extremely comfortable. With so much plantation-grown Acacia now available in Vietnam, producers such as Lyprodan are including solid interior pieces in their collections, although Samling Housing Products was there to compete with Malaysian Acacia. Two of the smaller exhibitors of great interest were Danish-designed Nofu with exception quality in minimalist pieces and French-owned Gomo with contemporary European styles and a table football, all in Oak.

Among the wood material suppliers at the show were Gutchess International Inc. from USA, Lalane from France, Exportdrvo from Russia, the American hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and several local lumber and veneer traders, such as Euro Techno Wood.

The winners of the ‘Hoa Mai - Apricot Blossom’ 2015-2016 Furniture Design Competition which had attracted 238 entries were announced at the opening ceremony and presented by John Chan of AHEC, attended by Nguyen Quoc Khanh, Chairman of HAWA and other local dignitaries. The competition is organised by HAWA and is supported by AHEC and Hafele. Winner was 28 year old Huynh Tan Anh Tuan with his ‘Workspace’ in White Oak, second was ‘Yak Table’ in Tulipwood and third was ‘Earth Table’ with a combination of Walnut, Ash and Tulipwood, so called as the tiny components were re-cycled offcuts. Other ‘Honour’ consolation prizes went to five more of the entries.

In terms of trends there was much more natural finished wood, rather than dark stained furniture. Cement finishes and grey-stained dining and bedroom sets were common and there was more Vietnamese-grown Acacia than Rubberwood furniture. The most common imported material by far was American White Oak.

Designed in Asia and Made in Asia with American Oak and shown in Singapore

American Tulipwood extensively used by STEP Furniture from Malaysia launched at IFFS

The International Furniture Fair Singapore (IFFS) was this year combined with the Décor Show and Furnipro woodworking machinery show at Singapore’s Expo. Undoubtedly IFFS is the most design-focused on the circuit and is linked to Singapore’s Design Week and SingaPlural which seek to bring design to the heart of local consumers. The shows occupied six halls and largely focused on quality products which provided inspiration for many visitors there to look, with the mission:

“Celebrate design, invoke inspiration and create conversations” The IFFS is truly international in two senses. The Singapore furniture industry operates offshore with plants mainly in China, Malaysia and Vietnam with their production exhibited at the show. Furthermore there are many international companies which regard Singapore as an essential platform for the region – all too many to mention. Notable Singaporean exhibitors were KODA and Haleywood with Step from Malaysia and Square Roots from Vietnam and Deesawat from Thailand. Notable among the visitors were official delegates from Chongqing, a study group from HAWA in Ho Chi Minh City and many of the international furniture industry media. This show with its individuality as a key element particularly appeals to independent furniture retailers and contract buyers. The low-lit Hall 4 housed the opening ceremony theatre with a screen in American Cherry latticework veneer donated by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), at which a series of open seminars took place during the show. The hall also featured many design exhibits including Design Stars and the American Pavilion built in Cherry, with a collection of furniture ‘Designed in Asia and Made in Asia with American Hardwood’ which won the ‘Best Stand Award’. The various awards at IFFS reflected the true international nature of the show with awards going to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, France, Thailand and Singapore.

To conclude the opening ceremony, the sole winner of the single category Furniture Design Award was Ms Kataryna Kempa from Poland who was presented with a cheque for SD20,000 by Mr John Chan, Regional Director of the American Hardwood Export Council, major sponsor of the award.

FDA Winner Ms Kataryna Kempa receives the only Award at IFFS (2)

IFFINA/MOZAIC was the smallest of the two March furniture shows in Indonesia - a last-minute combination of the IFFINA run by ASMINDO and the Mozaic interiors show at the Jakarta Convention Centre – now a very poor venue. The show was very small, mainly focused on Teak and there was almost nothing on offer that could not be found at the much larger and more comprehensive IFEX across town, with the exception of Cellini. The show did have the interest of a small exhibition on the history of rattan and as a central feature a well displayed “Indonesian Designer Challenge” organised by the design association HDMI and sponsored by Perhutani and FSC among others. FSC also featured on an expansive booth of WWF. Many of the exhibitors displayed logos of ‘Indonesian Legal wood’ without reference to SVLK.

Of the notable companies exhibiting, Abadi Indorama provided a panoply of fine veneers and Goodswood featured its ‘urban design furnishings’. Cellini, based in Singapore, stood out with a large scale suite of living room furniture in Black Walnut from its Jepara factory. Recycled softwood recovered from European pallets at Octo and Kub Daun Jati as well as Javanese-grown pine at Archipelago Design provided some variety. Many exhibitors offered products in local plantation species, including Teak, Mahogany and Mindi.

American White Oak table by KOBEKS Indonesia

French Oak Footy Table by TIPOTA at IFEX

Cellini Design in American Black Walnut shown at IFFINA in Jakarta

Teak Contemporary Kitchens at IFEX in Jakarta

IFEX was presented by the other furniture association, the Indonesian Furniture and Handicraft Association (AMKRI), as the ‘The Largest Furniture Expo in Indonesia’ targeting an increase of foreign participants and buyers, with the mission: The Essence of Infinite Innovation

The show, opened by the Vice President of Indonesia, M. Jusuf Kalla, was very busy and the most impressive of recent years with large numbers of international buyers evident. While Teak was the dominant species in the wood-based furniture, there was plenty more – mainly in local grown species and a small percentage in imported timbers. With one newly-built hall the organisers were able to dispense with the central tented area. The non-wood sector, mainly plastic rattan and woven exterior furniture, offered a wide choice of designs and colours, but in both sectors the colour grey was dominant – a trend throughout all the shows.

The last-minute cancellation by the show organisers of a seminar to discuss the SVLK licencing programme to meet the EUTR created a furore within the industry and huge interest by the media at an impromptu press conference.

MY Timber, a leading Chinese veneer manufacturer offered a huge range of natural and engineered veneers from imported logs and demonstrated the extent to which Chinese companies have succeeded as veneer suppliers to the furniture industry in Southeast Asia. One fine example of veneering was a long American Oak table by Kobeks one of Indonesia’s leading producers of project furniture. Many other companies provided a comprehensive offering of contemporary and traditional furniture with Teak dominant, including such as Ipota with its fun table football game in Oak and regular exhibitors as Goodwood.

Furniture accounts for only about 1.2% of Malaysia’s total global exports, increasing in value by 14.1% in 2015 compared to 2014. This was attributed mainly to the weakening Malaysian Ringgit and improvements in the U.S. market. The top three expanding markets in 2015 were India (up 44.5%), Saudi Arabia (up 39.3%) and UAE (up 39.1%). Wooden furniture accounted for about 80% of total furniture exports. USA was top market at 31%, Japan 8.3%, Singapore 7.8 %, Australia 7.5 %, UK 4.6%; taken all together accounting for 59.2% of export shipments by value. Other European markets in the top 20 were Germany and France at a relatively insignificant 1% of shipments each, which was certainly reflected in the profile of buyers visiting MIFF. All other European market destinations are outside the top 20.

Opening the show Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry said that despite facing drastic competition and trade barriers to export, Vietnam’s wood and wood product exports achieved sales of $6.9 billion in 2015 – an increase of 10.7%. He said this was due to a combination of new designs, improved quality and production capacity with the support of associations and trade promotion agencies. Projection for this year is $7.6 billion according to Mr Huynh Van Hanh, Deputy Chairman of the Handicraft and Wood Industry Association of Ho Chi Minh City (HAWA). He quoted the respected CSIL of Milan which reported global furniture consumption of $468 billion last year – up 2.8% and projected to grow by a further 2.8% in 2016 giving Vietnam opportunities to boost exports. “Free trade agreements that Vietnam has signed will also provide opportunities,” he said. He further predicted that the USA will remain the country’s biggest market for the wood industry this year. Woodworking is among Vietnam’s 10 largest export earners and it is notable that Vietnam is now the second largest market outside North America for American hardwood lumber.

Opening the show, Mr Ernie Koh, President of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC), welcomed Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Minister for Trade and Industry who announced growth of 7.4% or $6.25 billion in furniture sales in 2015. He identified future market opportunities and talked about developing capabilities and talent in the industry. He also announced the building of the new JTC Furniture Hub at Sungei Kadut to be built by the government by 2018.

In 2012 the value of Indonesia furniture exports reached US$1.4 billion and the following year the value was up to US$1.8 billion. In 2014 it reached US$2.2 billion. The government is now targeting that in the next five years the value could reach US$5 billion.”

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.