A virtual world

 

Form 3/2011

 

The talk of this year's Milan Furniture Fair was neither a chair, an installation nor a party – but rather a discussion on Twitter. The Milanuncut initiative also made a Swedish launch feel particularly relevant.

 

What made the biggest impression on you? The answer to what might be the most asked question during the hectic week surrounding the Salone del Mobile in April was somewhat unusual. For it wasn't a spectacular installation or new chair that was discussed over lunch and dinner tables. Instead, the topic du jour was the collective effort Milanuncut that began on Twitter a few weeks prior to the fair. Producers, designers and journalists around the world immediately started following the discussion. The man behind the initiative was British architect and Form contributor Kieran Long, who used Twitter to encourage his colleagues to ask more questions – and demand greater transparency – on conditions in the design industry, and then share their insights from interviews and other conversations.

 

The questions primarily had to do with the royalty system and how it affects what is produced, but also the industry and its direction. Giulio Cappellini weighed in, as did Ilse Crawford, who visited with Dezeen's founder Marcus Fairs to give her take on the topic. According to Crawford, designers need to become better at business and understand their own role in the economic system.

 

Yves Behar urged designers to consider new business models, similar to his company, Fuseproject, which goes in as part-owner of the partners they collaborate with. The interest generated by the discussion demonstrates just how relevant these questions are. Everything was then recounted on Twitter.

 

In light of the discussion, it was interesting to see that a growing number of companies elected to show only new items ready for production in 2011. From Established & Sons – who removed prototype from their assortment – to Studioilse and Blå Station.

 

“It's not to our benefit to show things before they are ready. It takes too long before those who have placed orders get their products, which in the worst case means they grow tired of waiting,” says Mimi Lindau of Blå Station.

 

But there are also other problems associated with showing prototypes. Not in the least when companies such as Moroso have a system in place when only a few of the furniture pieces they launch at every fair actually are actually put into production. It fosters an uncomfortable climate for the designers they work with. It also creates a virtual world filled with images of furniture that doesn't actually exist – and never will. Maybe someone should do survey: how many of the pieces of furniture that are reported on in the press after a fair can you find in stores? But considering Milanuncut's most central discussion – royalties – Anders Landström's and Katja Petterson's new company 50/50 seems most relevant.

 

So far, the project is just in the beginning phases, but the idea is just what the name indicates: producers and designers should have equal shares of the profits. Transparency is important. That both intentions and profits are clear to everyone involved.

 

“I think that designers must expand their networks and discuss the conditions with more people besides other designers in order to have a greater understanding of how to make changes,” says Landström.

 

In the Swedish Love Stories exhibition, 50/50 showed products by ceramist Mia E Göransson, among others, but Inga Sempé, Jasper Morrison and Norwegian designer Daniel Rybakken have also expressed interest in collaborating.

 

“Times are changing. When I was a student, the professors advised us to keep our cool and prioritise royalties as payment since it is profitable in the long run. They still get cheques for things they made in the 1970s. Today there are too many things in circulation. The royalty percentage you receive per product is pretty small and the products might not be on the market that long,” explains Landström.

 

Maybe we are moving towards a new time where a new type of producer – and self-production – will co-exist with traditional manufacturing?

 

At least according to Kristoffer Sundin, who is in his last year at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design (Konstfack). He has his own company and has launched A-B-C.se, a website where you can purchase the products he has produced. He plans to expand the collection in the future.

 

“We are not as dependent on the fact that a product should sell in large quantities, because the revenue per product is greater than if you receive royalties from a traditional producer. They don't have any interest in reaching out to as many as possible, but with the help of technology, there are much greater possibilities today,” Sundin says.

 

In the end, every newly started furniture company has to have investors. Which in turn reflects the economic climate and the countries in which they work. How appealing is it really to invest in furniture manufacturers and is there any money to be made? What are the margins today compared to 50 years go? An important producer like Muuto wouldn't have become as big a player as quickly if they hadn't received DKK 10 million ($2 million) from the Danish state investment fund Vaekstfonden. The same applies to Tom Dixon, who hardly would have achieved the same production and distribution network if he weren't backed by Swedish investment fund Proventus.

 

How successful 50/50 will be in meeting its ambition remains to be seen. There is little doubt it will involve a lot of hard work. Something of which Landström is well aware.

 

“Designers don't need to go to more lectures about design, colour and inspiration. We already know about that. No, we need to learn how to survive.”

 

That quote has already been tweeted, of course.

 

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Text Hanna Nova Beatrice
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