There is always a lot of debate during MIFF week in Kuala Lumpur about the eventual ‘coming of design’ to the Malaysian furniture industry. But editor Tony Neilson thinks the angst might be unnecessary.
After more than 20 years reporting on this huge furniture extravaganza – probably South-East Asia’s biggest – and listening to creative consultants and promoters talking up the need for Malaysian furniture to have its own design identity, I really cannot see what all the fuss is about.
Sacrilege, I know, but do the people who show their creations at MIFF (which stands for Malaysian International Furniture Fair), need to be chasing haute couture? MIFF is not Milan’s Salon de Mobile, and never will be.
As the highly respected Japanese designer Eiri Iwakura says, MIFF is not the place to go to find “furniture you dream about”. It is much more a showcase for well-made but largely utilitarian products, mainly from manufacturers in Malaysia, its ASEAN neighbours, China and Taiwan.
Buyers flock to MIFF during the first week of March to stock up on well-priced and sometimes exceptionally well-designed (or ‘modified’) every-day items for the office or household. Despite an expected 10% drop in numbers this year (a trend not confined to this show), professional buyers from more than 100 countries clocked in on the first day alone – led by Australian and Japanese interests.
Change in direction
However, MIFF general manager Karen Goi says the fair is about to embark on an important change in direction. A long-awaited new 40,000 sq m exhibition hall in Kuala Lumpur should be ready for 2017, and to prepare for the extra space, MIFF is being repositioned from an export show to an import-export platform.
“We position MIFF as a strategic way to enter the South-East Asia market and we will be targeting more international participants, including from Japan, Europe and Australia. We believe the visitor coverage at MIFF presents a lot of opportunity for companies outside the region.”
Goi agrees that people go to MIFF to trade and make deals, and not necessarily to see high fashion. “Malaysian companies are still more practical producers and although we are promoting new and better design, which is happening, our companies’ strength is the quality of their manufacturing.”
Meanwhile, times in the Malaysian furniture industry are tough, with reports of more than 30 factory closures in the last year and a government enquiry as to why.
Good economic sense
MIFF chairman Dato Tan Chin Huat was aware of “some closures of mainly domestic suppliers”, but says they are as much about good business as bad. “Sudden demand for new housing growth around Kuala Lumpur has made previously out-of-town land occupied by factories very valuable. It makes good economic sense to sell out and make eighty per cent profit on their original purchase. Some just close and retire and some go to another area where land is cheaper and they start again.”
The dynamics of Malaysia’s furniture export trade are also changing, with sales down last year to every country except Japan – a market the MIFF chairman has poured significant resources into developing. And it appears to be paying off, with Japan’s top 10 buyers all at MIFF 2015. “Some Japanese companies are also talking about establishing operations in [our] area because of our geographic position and much lower cost of industrial land,” says Tan.
So what of this year’s offering? Overwhelmingly, and following the fashion in Europe, there was a swing back to the ‘Scandinavian look’. Simple, clean and graceful lines in light-coloured timbers projected a strong natural image and a return to minimalism.
Progressive Malaysian company Deep was among the leaders in this regard, using high and low-grade rubberwood across an imaginatively designed collection of dining and general furniture “for all levels” – including low-to-the-ground Asian style. Other exhibiting producers heading down the ‘clean and simple’ path included Hin Lim, Deesse, Funcrest and Wegman.
The strong – dare we say almost overpowering – grain of acacia was not as evident this year. Despite increasingly sophisticated efforts to disguise and soften the visual impact of this fast-grown timber, it is rarely associated with elegant furniture. Its future may also be in some doubt, with outbreaks of heart and root rot across major plantations in Sabah and Sarawak, and reports of entire forests having to be trashed.
Palm wood progress
There is every reason to hope nobody solves the problem of producing commercial quality furniture from palm wood (the trunks of those dreadful jungle-killing monocultures that assault the eye right across South-East Asia). But the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corp seems to be making good progress. Its booth at MIFF included a ‘distinctive’ highly lacquered palm wood bar (solid) and matching high chairs (laminated), all held together with glued mortise and tenon joints – no screws or dowels, which in previous prototypes have failed to adequately grip the palm wood fibres.
Perhaps it is something to do with dwindling supply, but there definitely was less ‘boat wood’ furniture at MIFF, and other early season ASEAN shows. Salvaged from old wooden (usually teak) fishing boats and sampans, popularity of the distinctive, weathered paint look and rustic elegance of the recycled and re-crafted material has moved from the café set to those wanting furniture with a story for the home and office.
‘Retired’ fishing boats
Malaysian interior design and property development company Black Robin launched its Usang (Malay for old or antique) range at MIFF. Marketing manager Yuva Kuthayan told timber+DESIGN everything is made by Javanese craftsmen using traditional methods and wood reclaimed from ‘retired’ fishing boats in Indonesia. “We do not chop down trees or distress new wood and call it recycled. With our boat wood everyone wins – from the fishermen to the environment, and our customers,” she says.
(But there are only so many old sampans to go around. While this author was in Sri Lanka recently, where brightly colours fishing boats abound, almost all were made of fibreglass – because suitable timber is now too expensive.)
New player on the block
With such a huge manufacturing capability in Malaysia and adjacent ASEAN countries, and so many producers represented at MIFF, we have often wondered why countries like Australia and New Zealand don’t use the show to promote their furniture and flooring grades. After all, Malaysia is now one of the biggest timber importers in Asia. The only ‘foreign’ suppliers to have maintained a consistent presence are US hardwood exporters.
Now there is a new player on the block. Tucked away in a dead corner of the vast PWTC complex was the stand of FBT Timber, a progressive, century-old French company looking to expand exports of French white oak, ash and beech. FBT has been trading successfully in North Africa and the Middle East for 10 years, and opened an office in Vietnam four years ago to represent rapidly growing demand for white ash as an alternative to non-certified local species.
A spokesperson told us Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were next on the company’s list of market development priorities – and he would be at MIFF again in 2016, “hopefully right next to the Americans”.
© By timber+DESIGN editor, Tony Neilson
- Photography: MIFF, timber+DESIGN