For German furniture brand Freifrau, ‘feminine’ and ‘daring’ go together

Lemgo, Germany – Launching a premium furniture brand in a saturated market shortly after a global recession may seem like a gamble, but it’s one that Freifrau pulled off with flair and aplomb. In 2012, with 25 years of experience in the German furniture industry, Jörg Helweg launched Freifrau. During the subsequent six years, the luxury brand built a network of dealers, positioned its products in over 250 stores throughout Europe, and made (impending) plans to move into other markets. In September 2017 the company expanded its HQ and added a showroom to its offices, warehouse and workshops.

Freifrau’s bestselling Leya range of chairs and ottomans offers relaxed, comfortable seating featuring slimline geometric bases. The series exemplifies the company’s avowedly feminine approach to furniture design. Managing director Helweg joins Freifrau art director Birgit Hoffmann in a conversation about the brand’s beginnings and the challenges that lie ahead.

How difficult was it to launch a new brand in 2012?
JÖRG HELWEG: Every part of the process was a challenge, and we had no-one to rely on but ourselves. We had no retailers or clients, and not a single magazine was writing about us. At the beginning, we made a few production errors and were afraid our dealers wouldn’t give us a second chance. The fact that they did is due largely to our sales manager, who is a well-connected, trusted colleague.

What was the main idea behind your new brand?
JH: I wanted to create a line of furniture that was more feminine and more daring than that of other German brands – without copying the Italians. I hoped it would become something that would eventually represent German design.
BIRGIT HOFFMANN: We wanted it to have an affinity with the world of fashion – a focus on different fabrics, leathers and elaborate stitching. From the start, we collaborated with fashion designers and built the brand around the intriguing meeting of these two worlds. Recently we launched a collection with German fashion designers Perret Schaad.

Tell me more about your focus on femininity and what it means in practice.
JH: People strongly prefer seating that appears lightweight but is still very comfortable – pieces that look as if you could pick them up and take them wherever life takes you. I think the feminine aspect emerges from a sense of warmth and lightness.
BH: Our approach encourages us to embrace a more playful way of designing. My design partner, Christoph Kahleyss, and I go the extra mile when it comes to the little details. Customers can also put a personal stamp on our products – we take care not to dictate the look of the final product when talking with clients.

All your products are made in Germany. Why is that important?
JH: I want it to be easy to visit our suppliers whenever a problem arises. In most cases, issues come up when we are working on something new. I also feel responsible for the protection of Germany’s regional craft heritage, of which I am very proud.
BH: All our designers appreciate being so close to manufacturers and suppliers, and being able to speak directly to the craftspeople involved in making our designs. It’s quite rare nowadays, but the path we follow facilitates operations, making everything we do so much easier and more enjoyable.

Where do your products sell best?
JH: We’re strongest in the DACH [Germany Austria Switzerland] market. When we founded Freifrau we didn’t think a lot about the contract market, but it gradually grew to become 30 percent of our turnover. Although we’re happy about this development, we’ll continue to design seating for the home. If people don’t want a certain product in their home, how could they possibly love it in a restaurant or a hotel?

What about the future? Do you see obstacles affecting your business – or the wider furniture industry?
JH: I see the online sector as an increasingly challenging drawback to a company like ours. How could we ever sell our furniture via online stores? Our products require extensive sales-and-advisory services, and the client has to choose among many options – colour, fabric, seam type, frame – that are difficult to select when they can’t be seen and touched ‘in person’. I firmly believe, though, that there will always be people who enjoy going to a shop and assembling unique pieces that they can pass on to their children – and to their children’s children.

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