It being early April Milan furniture fair once again stands before us and with it the promise of untold column inches about the latest trends, the hottest young talents, the sharpest suits and the best bars for sharing an Aperol spritz and unsavoury gossip.
Or a chance to critically assess the contemporary furniture industry.
Yes, we’ve been here a few times in the past, but are always happy to return. There be nothing we enjoy more than biting the hand that feeds us.
Among those perennial themes in the design industry that always seem especially worthy of discussion around Milan design week are the system by which furniture designers are paid and the associated conditions under which furniture designs are realised and marketed. Some may call it old hat, but if it is then only because the hat has remained unchanged for decades. Which is what makes them subjects worthy of discussion.
For all who are unaware, as a general rule – and as with all general rules there are obviously expectations – designers develop their projects themselves and at their own cost and are then paid a licensing fee by the manufacturers, typically between 3 and 5% of the factory gate price.
A system which means that, for example, for a chair with a retail price of €500, the designer might get €11 per chair sold.
Developed in Italy in the 1950s the system works fine as long as you have a product which sells in very large numbers over many, many years, or you have several products which sell in decent numbers. Over many, many years.
In 1950s Italy when the furniture industry as we know it today was in its infancy, that was generally the case.
These days in our mature, global market, it generally isn’t.
Something which will no doubt be ably proved in Milan with X thousand “new ” products being presented, many of which will either never reach production and so generate no income for the designer involved or if they do reach production could be discontinued after a couple of years as the company respond to some new perceived new “trend”.
Among those advocating for a change and the introduction of a more contemporary system that better reflects the modern reality is Michael Geldmacher from Munich based studio Neuland Industriedesign.
Established in 1999 by Michael Geldmacher and Eva Paster Neuland Industriedesign initially concentrated on what they refer to as “classic industrial design (medical technology, outdoor products, games, cosmetics)” before in 2005 they switched their focus to concentrate exclusively on furniture design.
Although the studio’s first furniture project was the bed Kengo for German manufacturer Interlübke in 2001, Neuland Industriedesign first reached a wider international audience with their 2005 Random shelving system for Milan based MDF Italia, a product whose commercial and critical success in many ways convinced Eva and Michael to dedicate themselves to furniture design. Over the past ten years in addition to expanding their co-operations with Interlübke and MDF Italia, Neuland Industriedesign have worked with manufacturers as varied as Moormann, b-line, Freifrau and Kristalia.
Having decided to concentrate on furniture design, Eva and Michael quickly came across a, for them, unknown and unfamiliar situation, as Michael Geldmacher explains:
“Because we came from the classic industrial design world, and didn’t know any better, when we were offered our first furniture design projects we sent the companies quotes for the development work, which is how industrial design works, you receive payment for the time invested in developing a project. And the companies response was generally along the lines of, “Is this some sort of joke? We’re not paying development fees!” to which we replied, “Well, we’ll not do the project. We’ve got to live from something!” And so slowly but surely we learnt about the ruinous working conditions the furniture industry offers designers.”
smow blog: OK, we understand the problem, but why should a manufacturer pay for work undertaken by yourselves on your own initiative?
Michael Geldmacher: Clearly if you present a market ready design to a manufacturer you can’t then expect a retrospective development payment. But that isn’t how most projects develop. Most start as an idea or a briefing that is then developed into a product over a period of months or years for a specific manufacturer.
One must add and acknowledge that manufacturers invest considerable sums in the technical development required to bring the designs to production, investments which are always accompanied with a certain risk. But that investment only begins from the moment the design is accepted, and until that happens is often a very long way and one that the designer often has to fund themselves. And in such cases I believe one can ask the manufacturer to contribute to the development, not least because it affects the manufacturers perception of an object.
Here in Bavaria we have a saying “was nichts kostet ist nichts wert” – what costs nothing isn’t worth anything – and it often appears that is how the industry views things. You have manufacturers who have say 100 products in their portfolio, but the whole company hangs on the success of one or two top sellers. Consequently although a designer may have a couple of products with a company, the one chair might sell seven times, the other twenty, and at the end of the year the designer gets a royalty cheque for €400, which is of course a waste of the time and money both sides have invested in the project.
smow blog: And for you the payment of a fee for the time taken to develop a project is the key to changing the situation, rather than say reviewing the royalties system and/or the nature of the financial distribution between manufacturer, designer and trade?
Michael Geldmacher: I don’t think the royalty system is so much the problem, although I would favour a change so that the royalties are scaled such that designers get more for products which sell less and a lower percentage for high selling goods, or to a system whereby royalties are paid in advance and then deducted from later payments, it is however for me important that the manufacturers are forced to contribute to the development of a project.
Development payments are a form of commitment and it is important that the manufacturer is prepared to say, I like the project, your work has a value for me and I’m prepared to take a risk on this project. In addition development payments act as a natural brake on the number of projects a manufacturer can develop per year; and reducing the number of projects would take a lot of the pressure out of the industry, would automatically slow things down and would help the manufacturers focus their attention on developing those projects which genuinely interest them.
In the same vein, I also really like the idea of only having the major furniture trade fairs every two years because that would also take a lot of the pressure out of the system. Every manufacturer wants to release X new products per year and present them in Milan, Cologne, London, Stockholm, etc. Often we’re talking here about companies who are only generating a few million Euros per year turnover, yet who several times a year invest six figure sums in trade fairs just so that they can present new products which ultimately may only sell a few times, if they even come onto the market at all. And such pressure is absurd and unhealthy for all involved.
smow blog: And are these opinions that find a positive resonance among your colleagues?
Michael Geldmacher: To be honest I don’t know, principally because while many complain about the situation only very few are prepared to openly discuss it and so no one really knows what the situation is like elsewhere and for other design studios. Which for me is an unbelievable state of affairs because when the, lets say, established designers would speak out more and express opinions based on their experiences then that would help not only them but also the young designers.
smow blog: Young designers is a good keyword, you used to teach at the technical college here in Munich, did you advise your students to always demand development payments, or…..?
Michael Geldmacher: I taught industrial design to students of packaging and many of the students there weren’t looking to move towards furniture design, so it wasn’t necessarily a theme; however, in principle yes I would always encourage any designer to at least attempt to get paid for the development of a project. If the producer says “no!” you can always decide, OK, the project is particularly interesting or important, I’ll take a chance and do it for nothing. But it’s important to ask. Even after ten years we still ask for development payments before accepting a project; however, whereas at the beginning we were very strict and simply didn’t work for those who didn’t pay, now we’re less strict, and do make exceptions for particular, individual, reasons.
But in terms of design education generally I do think students need to be taught to be more critical, they need to question the industry more critically, to better understand the consequences of their decisions and learn to deal more professionally with manufacturers, not simply accept what is offered.
However one must also understand that such is difficult because an awful lot of young designers are seduced by the perceived glamour of the industry, design is currently highly pimped by the press, and many young designers don’t want to feel they have somehow failed because they are not getting media coverage, be that in magazines or blogs, and so accept poor conditions with the promise of publicity.
smow blog: Criticism understood and accepted, but we’d argue that while yes the press may not be perfect, they’re not alone to blame….
Michael Geldmacher: Clearly we as designers need the press so that the manufacturers are aware of us, the manufacturers need the press to help them promote their collections and the press need the designers and the manufacturers so that they have something to report on, the latest products from Milan for example, so that they can sell the advertising space they live from. I’m not sure if one can ever fully break this triangle of inter-dependencies, but in my opinion it would be a good start if the press were more critical, and for example didn’t praise every new chair without pointing out that a very similar chair, potentially, already exists, or to question in how far such a new chair is even necessary.
smow blog: You’ve been in the furniture business for ten years now, do you feel things are getting harder, getting easier, staying the same……..?
Michael Geldmacher: My impression is that things are getting ever harder, not least because ever more manufacturers rely ever more on products from big name designers. The manufacturers deny such, but despite the enormous variety in the scene one has a small group of designers who crop up everywhere. In some cases that is justified because the designers are genuinely innovative and deliver continually good work. But not in all cases, and all to often you find yourself asking what is the point of this or that product.
Then there is the monoculture that currently exists in the industry, a poisonous state of affairs which both stifles creativity and encourages ever shorter product life cycles and as such opportunities to earn from a design. And last but not least the design schools are turning out ever more designers, often very talented designers, but who obviously increase competition for work at an ever greater rate, and with an awful lot of manufacturers simply refusing to pay development money the result will inevitably be ever more designers not receiving such payments for projects that are potentially not likely to sell, and a consequent worsening of the situation. Unless that is we can find a new way of paying for furniture design.
smow blog: One potential “new way” is self-production and marketing, something ever more young designers are opting for. Is that for you a viable option, a viable alternative?
Michael Geldmacher: I find it very brave of those who set up on their own and I have a lot of respect for such decisions, and also think it is very important that such occurs if we are too break the current monoculture in the industry. It is something we have also considered in the past, but we’re not sales professionals, we have no experience in, for example, establishing distribution networks, managing PR campaigns and the like and so decided the better option is to let professionals do what they are trained to do and we’ll concentrate on doing what we’re trained to do.
smow blog: And beyond thoughts of self-production, you yourselves have never considered giving up furniture design and returning to classic industrial design and development payments?
Michael Geldmacher: No, not at all! Last year for example our very first customer from 1999 approached us, a company from the medical technology branch, and they asked if we could develop a new dentist chair for them. Our initial reaction was no, we’ve been away from such for too long, but then because it was the first customer and the connections involved we said OK, we’ll do it. And you really notice the difference, the project was fun and challenging, but it is a different world with much more specific limits and demands and we simply wouldn’t have been able to implement our design concept in the radical way we did with another customer in the sector. And so, no we’ll be staying with furniture design, and keeping on trying to rectify the ruinous working conditions.