Rethinking a stereotype

As designers, it’s not unusual to have a degree of cynicism when we hear that furniture, carpet, lighting or fabrics have been “made in China” (or other Asian countries), as their quality is not trusted here in the western world. We’re not exposed very much to creative craftsmanship coming out of Asia; typically the expectation is basic and functional furniture, or a “cheap” copy of a western style … and the truth is, these prejudices are proven every day.

We once specified authentic “Barcelona” chairs manufactured by Knoll with a patented design created by Mies van der Rohe — and yes, they are costly. But a clever general contractor persuaded the client that a “perfect” replica of this chair made in China would only cost around 10% of the price of the original chair.

You can probably guess what happened next: since the steel was not strong enough for heavy-duty use, all the chairs bent and broke so they had to be exchanged. No liability claim could be filed with the Chinese manufacturer, and the contractor had gone bankrupt, so the investor had to buy them twice. Meanwhile, for the second try, the innocent interior designer had to specify different (affordable) chairs and tender their bids, and then the operator had to coordinate the delivery, removal and installation of the furniture, all for no extra fee.

But on the other hand, everyone also knows that high-tech, top-quality products from Apple or any other computer manufacturer are made in Asia! And clearly it’s not just the superiority of the products that fascinates purchasers — it’s also their style, and now Samsung gadgets made in Korea compete in the same league as Apple.

So it’s not a big leap to imagine this attention to detail and perfect craftsmanship could also be applied to Asian furniture and design. In fact, more than 70 companies from China exhibited earlier this year at the huge furniture show imm Cologne — some of them displaying well-made, high-style products.

When I was on the board of the International Federation of Interior Design, I saw firsthand how keen Korea and India are to play a global role in design, including government-sponsored schools, events and competitions all driving to improve their position in the industry to a world-class level.

I must admit that, so far, I’m not aware of any famous Asian brands in the world of furniture and interior decoration that are on par with European and American ones — although for eons there have been Asian designers creating exceptional furniture. What does bring me a little comfort, however, is that beautifully designed top-quality products crafted in Asia have a similar cost to those from local manufacturers in the United States or Europe.