SPEcial Report  


by Michael Buckley MPhil FIWSc

American pacific poplar stained bed by Hup Chong Furniture at EFE

The wood furniture industries of Asia account for 55% of global production and are highly significant to the Asian economies in terms of employment, trade, foreign currency earnings and related industries, such as wood machinery manufacturing and transport. In Southeast Asia the month of March annually marks the launch of five key international furniture shows and three smaller, rather domestic shows.

China is by far the largest wood furniture producer and exporter in Asia, followed by Vietnam which is 5th exporter in the world with 5% share after China (38%), Germany (7%), Italy (7%) and Poland (6%), with USA 6th (4%). The years since 2008 have seen a greater emphasis of intra-Asian trade in furniture driven by urbanisation, although the USA and Europe remain key target export markets for Asian exporters.

Vietnam International Furniture and Home Accessories Fair (VIFA-Expo) in Saigon

This was the most successful furniture fair in Vietnam in terms of presentation, participation and products - compared to any before it. VIFA-Expo was larger, more energetic and representative of Vietnam’s industry than previous shows.

In 2015 Vietnam is reported to have exported $6.9 billion of wood furniture, up 10.7% over 2014, representing about 5% of global furniture exports. The industry was forecast to produce a similar increase in 2016 and 2017 but some doubts are now being cast about the continuing rate of growth on fears of raw material availability and costs.

However, the VIFA 2017 show gave all the indication of an industry set to grow further as more foreign direct investment arrives, including Chinese factories relocating. VIFA is organised by the Handicrafts and Wood Industry Association of Ho Chi Minh City (HAWA), together with its HAWA Corporation and the Department of Trade and Industry of the HCMC People’s Committee.

HAWA was formed in 1991 and is the organiser of the Hoa Mai furniture design competition to find and foster talented designers, sponsored again by American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and some HAWA members, now in its 13th year. In all there were over 1,500 booths with visitors registered from over 100 countries. Some wood material distributors from overseas, including the AHEC, Gutchess International, Turman Hardwoods, Thompson Hardwoods and J.Lalanne also participated with modest displays. VIFA 2017 was marked by higher standards of presentation and a much higher emphasis on design, not seen before, as well as a diversity of products providing the choices that higher end and mid-market buyers were seeking.

In trends, Vietnam is heavily tilted towards wood furniture estimated at over 75% or more of all production with oak the dominant species – at least as far as the show indicated. Tulipwood, beech, acacia, radiata pine and walnut were also evident throughout, with surprisingly little rubberwood on offer reflecting the recent concerns reported about its supply. AA Corporation, Brema, Interwood, Koda, International Furniture Corporation, Lyprodan, Global Home and Hiep Long all stood out with extensive displays of furniture and new models that attracted great attention.

Best Dining Product Award to Deep’s wood and metal range at EFE

International Furniture Fair Singapore (IFFS)

By contrast to other shows, the annual IFFS maintained its reputation as a sophisticated design hub for furniture and accessories with the introduction of the inaugural ‘NOOK’ show now including rugs, lighting and textiles. Opening the show, Chairman of IFFS, Ernie Koh welcomed Dr Michael Pulch, EU Ambassador to Singapore and Mr S Iswaran, Singapore‘s Minister for Trade and Industry. “Growth opportunities in Asia are based on a market of 622 million people in Southeast Asia and an urban population now running at over 56% in China and counting,” he stated. “Singapore is open to trade, is building deep capabilities and is helping companies by upgrading the use of digital channels and technology,” he concluded while congratulating the Singapore Furniture Industries Council on its initiatives and leadership of the furniture industry. Singapore’s furniture companies, mainly operating offshore, contributed $6.27 billion in sales in 2015.

Variety of designs and quality of products and materials were the hallmarks of IFFS which is now completely international, attracting exhibitors and visitors from all over the world keen to find the latest trends and higher end furniture. In total there were 428 exhibiting companies from 35 countries. Large groups were from China (87 exhibitors), India (50), Taiwan (22), Italy (22), Japan (17), Thailand (16), Belgium (15), Vietnam (11) and a group of 42 small exhibits from the EU - compared to only 45 Singapore companies. The show however seems to be contracting in total size with many small booths, while expanding its international exhibitor base.Some usually regular Singaporean companies were notably absent.

Centrepiece of IFFS was ‘The White House’ auditorium in the design Hall 4, designed by local creative guru Nathan Yong, at which VIPs were seated on his American ash stools. The opening ceremony was officiated by former SFIC President, currently chairman of IFFS, Mr Ernie Koh. “One of our main goals since rebranding was to deliver a show experience that’s more fulfilling – growing in new ways, embracing innovation to ensure we stay relevant and effective,” he said. The event, closely linked to Singapore’s Design week included a series of seminars on site at ‘The White House’, SingaPlural a design festival in its own right and the Furniture Design Awards sponsored by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). However ‘The White House’ needed a bit of guesswork as to entry and activity.

Dark stained American oak bedroom set by Hup Chong at EFE

Malaysian International Furniture Fair (MIFF)

MIFF is undoubtedly the largest and most diverse furniture show in Southeast Asia and is expected to expand by about 25% in 2018, with the availability of the new MITEC exhibition center in KL.

There were 543 furniture manufacturers and exporters showing, which included significant numbers from China and Taiwan, which were particularly strong in the office furniture sector; and several other regional countries. Whereas one was tempted in the past to call MIFF ‘the rubberwood show’, on account of its domination as number one material, now MIFF could fondly be renamed ‘the Malaysian rubberwood and American walnut show’. Such was the frequency of walnut-faced and walnut coloured furniture, including the Platinum Winner of the ‘Household Furniture’ best product category - Mokenzo Design Sdn Bhd – well deserved for its compact kitchen concept for homes with limited space. The success of manufacturers in re-positioning rubberwood, being desperate to disguise the finger-jointed and narrow laminated panels of solid rubberwood and acacia with staining, veneering and improved designs, has led to many producers combining stained rubberwood for table and chair legs with real walnut for table tops and cabinets. While American white oak was also popular, it has not penetrated the Malaysian market as much as in other ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, for example. Malaysian furniture exports, worth RM9.53 billion ($2.13 billion) in 2016, were shipped to USA (32.4% share), Japan (8.4%), Singapore (8.2%), Australia (7.8%) and UK (4.9%) in 2016. Opening the show, Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities Datuk Sri Mah Siew Keong said exports had increased 4.2% in 2016 over the previous year and wood furniture accounted for 80%, shipped to a reported 160 countries. Malaysia, he said, is making greater efforts to improve designs and this year’s theme was ‘Design connects people’. The Furniture Design Competition had attracted 233 entries from which 8 prototypes were selected as finalists and given a prominent and particularly well-presented display at the Matrade location, featuring mainly rubberwood, oak and walnut in veneer, solid wood and plywood. A Seminar Series was held with Prof Dr Jegatheswaran Ratnasingam and Mr Lim Choon Liat from the Forestry Faculty of University Putra Malaysia, sharing their findings on ‘Value Adding Strategies in Furniture’ and the use of imported wood resources, such as American and European hardwoods.

Exhibitor reactions to MIFF, typified by loyal Malaysian exhibitors, included one by Ms Ely Tio, General Manager of Chinfon. “We have been here for the last 10 to 11 years. This is our permanent spot to display our products. The show has a good impact on our business, and people know us.” That comment exemplifies that MIFF is not particularly a show championing new trends – as in the IFFS – but one of regular reliability.

Export Furniture Exhibition (EFE) in KL

Minimalist one step further by Porani at EFE

Mixed materials by Deep Furniture at EFE
EFE was a much smaller show than MIFF and perhaps less vibrant and presentable than in previous years however there were some gems and trends to be found. Wood furniture was less dominant than elsewhere with many exhibitors of soft-furnishing.

The show provided further confirmation that the markets to which Malaysian companies mainly sell must be asking for, or accepting, large volumes of dark-coloured wood furniture with walnut the prevailing stain. Also at EFE, as at MIFF, there were many pieces in which solid rubberwood lumber is combined with American walnut veneer for tables and cabinets. The use of veneer on MDF panels or solid rubberwood is now very widely applied in Malaysia with walnut, ash and oak the main species. Veneer is sourced frequently in China and some in Malaysia; depending on whether thin (0.2mm) wet veneer is laid on MDF panels or dry veneer in flitches at 0.6 and up is preferred.

The show was reported busy by day one but had tailed off significantly towards the end. It is supported by a plethora of government and industry organisations and has close links with universities in Malaysia. This year the India Pavilion was introduced specifically to target that growing market of 1.2 billion people to which Malaysian exports were worth only RM313 million ($70.3 million) in 2016 - a country with which Malaysia has some close ethnic ties. For the second year the show dedicated a whole hall to the Professional Designers Programme (PDP) which aims to develop young Malaysian designers by giving them the opportunity to design high quality and unique furniture in collaboration with internationally renowned furniture designers.

Indonesia International Furniture Expo 2017 (IFEX) in Jakarta

IFEX, hosted by the Indonesian Furniture Industry & Craft Association (HIMKI), has emerged as the only truly international furniture show in Indonesia with rattan furniture championed by former AMKRI members now a strong element.

IFEX, occupying five halls and a few marquees was busy, particularly with non-Asian visitors and carried the rather wishful-thinking theme ‘The Essence of Infinite Innovation’. IFEX was supported by the Minister of Trade and was opened by the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, a former furniture trader. In his remarks the President said the government fully supports the growth of the country’s furniture and craft industry “The government will find solutions for issues faced by the industry, including incentive for industry. Rest assured that the government will support anything related to production, productivity and export.” Minister of Industry, Airlangga Hartarto, hinted at possible tax relief for export-oriented labour intensive industries and plans to establish a Furniture Polytechnic in Semarang during 2017 opening for enrolment in 2018.

Teak and PE woven/rattan furniture were totally dominant. In 2015, with furniture exports running at $1.9 billion and returning to the pre-2008 level, the government was calling for exports to increase up to $5 billion by 2019, requiring an annual increase of about 15% in value. The shock in 2016 was a drop to $1.6 billion, lower than the 2008-2010 level following the global financial crisis. The reason is now hotly debated with Brexit, Trump and increased domestic demand given as possibilities. Indonesia’s 10 main export markets are U.S.A., Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Australia, Belgium, Korea and Malaysia. Alongside IFEX a number of seminars were conducted.

Two displays of furniture design greeted visitors: one of mainly rattan, well-presented, the other (Design Indonesia) very poor in design quality and presentation without any signage, of mixed materials. Finally, there were fewer environmental signs and logos of SVLK, FSC, PEFC posted at the show than in the past two years.

SE Asian Furniture Show Conclusions

• Each of the main international shows now attract very different visitors, seeking specific exhibitor sectors, which could be summarised:
  • Vietnam (VIFA) for interior and some exterior manufacturers
  • Singapore (IFFS) for international designers, style trends and traders
  • Malaysia (MIFF & EFE) for office furniture and lower-end residential furniture
  • Indonesia (IFEX) for plantation teak and rattan/PE woven furniture
• The dynamics of the international shows can be summarised:
  • Vietnam (VIFA) growing in size and stature
  • Singapore (IFFS/NOOK) reducing in size
  • Malaysia (MIFF & EFE) offering one large and growing show; with one smaller
  • Indonesia (IFEX) now dominated by just one show – IFFINA having disappeared from Jakarta
• In terms of market share of global furniture exports, Vietnam appears thriving; Malaysia steady; whereas Indonesia appears in trouble.
• Innovation was not a high priority with most exhibitors, nor was there much evidence of environmental promotion or message about sustainable materials.
• In wood, colours were either very dark or light with little offered in between. In Malaysia and elsewhere, walnut, and walnut coloured (stained) furniture was prevalent and oak remains very popular with Vietnam. High value tropical hardwoods, except teak, were largely absent, but rubberwood, acacia and local species such as mindi and mango wood were well in evidence.
• One of the most noticeable trends was the increased use of veneer, much of it produced in China.
• Another frequent trend was the use and apparent acceptance and even prominence of sapwood as a design feature.
• Design competitions and displays within the shows were very varied in both quality and presentation as all countries in SE Asia now making greater efforts to develop local design talent.