Like many earth-shaking events, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a double-edged sword, presenting opportunities for positive change as well as momentous challenges. Along with the staggering human toll and existential threats to many industries comes a chance for the world economy to embrace saner, more sustainable practices. Already there are signs that some businesses are retooling for the better.
In major markets such as New York City, food producers that used to supply a thriving restaurant industry have pivoted to selling directly to consumers, demonstrating a life-saving flexibility as well as a new model for getting fresh produce into the hands of buyers. Prominent clothing brands, meanwhile, are reevaluating the relentless pace of the modern fashion circuit, with both Gucci and Saint Laurent committing to fewer shows and more thoughtful, “seasonless” collections.
And what of furniture manufacturing, a tradition-bound industry whose leading production centres — China, northern Italy, the United States — also happened to be COVID-19 hotspots? As in other fields, many furniture makers have been assuming post-pandemic stances, either building on initiatives instigated before the crisis or forging bold new ways of producing and marketing their wares.
In some cases, the way forward is being driven by wholesale cultural overhauls — not often seen in a sector that’s notorious for its “long and complex processes,” as Giulia Molteni, head of marketing and communications at Italy’s Molteni&C, put it recently.
If the measures being taken by the industry are unprecedented, however, so are the marketplace factors being faced right now. “In these difficult times, having complete control over the supply chain ensures better customer service,” Giuseppe Pedrali, co-CEO of the furniture company that bears his family’s name, asserted in May, making the case for the kind of self-contained manufacturing ecosystem that’s both unusual in today’s globalized economy and a linchpin of the firm’s post-pandemic vision. Combined with a heavy investment in digitized production, Pedrali’s is just one of the action plans being adopted by ambitious furniture makers, whose valid concerns about the future are also mixed with optimism and a spirit of innovation.
“After tradition, innovation is the company’s second cornerstone,” says Bergamo-based Pedrali, acclaimed for its ergonomic contract furniture and such specific classics as the award-winning Frida chair, designed in 2008 by Odo Fioravanti.
Although the decades-old brand has long taken pride in its Italian heritage, it is only fairly recently that Pedrali has taken steps to concentrate the entirety of its operations, from sourcing to production to storage and distribution, in a fluid, increasingly automated network centred in the Bergamo-Brescia-Milan triangle, a region that was ravaged by coronavirus but is poised to be the meticulously accoutred springboard for the company’s next phase.
“Pedrali is an Industry 4.0 company whose factories are equipped with interconnected machinery and which for several years now have been investing in digitized production,” the company said in a recent statement affirming its commitment to “the value of Made in Italy.” Every year, it notes, “a significant portion of the company’s turnover” is invested in innovation, technology and infrastructure, which includes a facility in the province of Udine for manufacturing wood furniture and another in the province of Bergamo for producing metal, plastic and upholstered pieces.
In 2016, Pedrali unveiled the capstone of its sophisticated network: a 70,000-square-metre automatic warehouse designed by Cino Zucchi Architetti. The facility, which operates 24/7, can accommodate nearly 17,000 pallets of finished and semi-finished products and is connected to the surrounding industrial area by a skytrain. “With this important investment,” says Giuseppe Pedrali, who co-runs the company with his sister Monica, “not only do we have more space for our stock,” but also a greater capacity “to make products to order.”
A similar ecosystem, meanwhile, is being nurtured by Thonet, the German manufacturer. “The corona crisis,” says Brian Boyd, the firm’s CEO, “is increasingly focusing attention on the trends of de-globalization and glocalization. And this is precisely what Thonet’s guiding principle has been for the last 200 years.”
Although Thonet, which is famous for its bentwood chairs, continues to handcraft those pieces (“I have to feel the wood as I bend it,” says one veteran employee), the company’s otherwise cutting-edge production process is concentrated in the central German town of Frankenberg, its longtime base. The bulk, moreover, of its source materials — precision tubular steel from the Black Forest, beechwood from domestic forests, leather upholstery from southern Germany and Italy — comes almost entirely from within Europe. (The only furniture component that isn’t directly “European” is the traditional Viennese-style canework that distinguishes Thonet chairs — the mats are woven from the skin of the Indonesian rattan palm, which the company stockpiles.)
“A crisis such as the one we are currently experiencing is not easy to overcome, even for one of the oldest furniture companies in the world,” says Norbert Ruf, who is both creative director and managing director at Thonet. “Favourable supply chains and excellent relationships with our partners work to our advantage, however.”
Of course, COVID-19 has dramatically exposed the perils of a concentrated model when national borders are closed and mobility is curtailed. In Pedrali’s case, a particularly bad instance of the outbreak on its home turf led to the total lockdown of said jurisdiction. Conversely, though, a company such as Pedrali is also well positioned for a faster, smoother recovery once the dust settles, the efficiency of its tight operations abetted by its ongoing bet on digitization.
“The aim,” says the company, “is to guarantee customers a high level of quality, ensured by comprehensive controls across the entire production chain.”
Not so long ago — and in many cases even still — someone buying a high-end European sofa in North America or Asia could frequently expect to have it delivered up to a year later. That kind of turnaround won’t wash anymore, especially among COVID-weary consumers seeking to foster the comforts of home.
Molteni&C/Dada, one of Italy’s top furniture brands, recognizes this. Among its main post-pandemic strategies is [email protected], a “digital interior design service” intended to connect both clients and designers, exclusively in the U.S. for now, with its vast product catalogue in a faster, more efficient manner.
“Hard times always present new opportunities,” says Giulia Molteni, who describes the initiative as “the first step towards increasing the company’s proximity to its customers.”
According to the World Retail Congress, Italy ranked last among G7 countries when it came to e-commerce activity in 2019, although it was still in the top 10 globally. The United States, by comparison, was number one, making this “technologically advanced…market,” as Molteni puts it, the company’s logical inaugural e-focus.
“[email protected] is a project designed to favour links between points of sale and end users, architects, interior designers and clients, to help define shared goals, with a direct consultancy service,” says the company. It is not, the brand makes clear, intended to usurp the role of physical stores, which it feels will still be important in a post-COVID world. Indeed, the online service, which is now up and running, was also envisioned as a key way of “supporting Molteni&C/Dada’s vast sales network, which plans to have 700 points of sale around the world, 50 of which are monobrand stores, on all five continents.”
To that end, those logging on to [email protected] can, among other things, book secure appointments with a company rep, chat subsequently via video call or e-mail, share mood boards and layouts, arrange for samples to be forwarded free of charge and liaise with the nearest stores as required.
If such exchanges seem like givens in our newly Zoomed up world, they weren’t even a few months ago, especially within an industry better known for showrooms than Hangouts. “This is a journey that began a while back,” says Giulia Molteni, but has been “speeded up by the tough situation we currently find ourselves in.” And it’s culminating, it seems, at just the right time.
Among multinational furniture makers, few have been as proactive as Herman Miller in addressing both the immediate threats and the potential upshots of the coronavirus crisis. At the height of the initial global spread, the Michigan-based conglomerate was among the first to pivot from manufacturing its usual pieces to producing urgently needed PPE and patient-focused designs, including a “scrappy” remote viewing station that allows quarantined patients who are sick or dying to see and communicate with their loved ones over video. (The station was cobbled together using a Herman Miller cart and an attached monitor arm.)
Looking ahead to future client needs, the company is displaying the same (refreshingly altruistic) flexibility, highlighting the strengths of its workspace designs but within the context of broader office-safety guidelines. It has outlined these precepts, which are based on the findings of health and academic experts as well as its own vast experience, in a report called Embracing a New Reality: Workplace Strategy Insights for COVID-19 and Beyond, a document that weaves together information about Herman Miller products with solid real-world data that everyone can download.
Take the report’s advice on the use of screens and dividers, products that Herman Miller makes in abundance. “Putting up screens,” the report says, “makes sense in certain places, like checkout counters where physical distancing is hard to achieve. But we are concerned by…the idea that 24-inch panels between workstations are solutions that will prevent the spread of disease. Recent visualizations of how cough particles behave…highlight the potential ineffectiveness of low partitions as a solution, mainly because these particles circulate high in the air. As a furniture manufacturer we could obviously benefit from selling these panels, but we caution against such solutions in many cases unless it is part of a broader strategy.”
In other words, Herman Miller’s screens are especially effective in settings that also, as the report makes clear, reduce workplace density, eliminate desk sharing, enforce a rigorous cleaning regimen and use technology to facilitate distancing generally.
“Our mission of ‘inspiring designs to help people do great things’ goes so far beyond just creating products,” says Linda Brand, director of Herman Miller’s philanthropic arm, Herman Miller Cares. “It’s about using our talents to be a force for good in this world.”
And as the world begins to redefine what normalcy in both the home and the workplace entails, it’ll be the brands that exhibit a real concern for their customers as well as innovation that are likely to stand out from the pack. Not to mention sell the most sofas, screens and workstations.
From facilitating distancing to digitization, the strategies being adopted by some of the world’s top manufacturers suggest ways forward for the industry as a whole.