To succeed post-pandemic, Italy’s furniture industry will need to rethink, not just restart, production

The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis is becoming more evident with each passing day. From hospitality to retail and automotive to aviation: industries across the board are hit hard by forced closures and consumption drops. The furniture design sector hasn’t remained untouched either – in countries that stand as the world’s top furniture exporters, the effects are felt nationwide. With craftsmanship deeply rooted in its DNA, Italy is among them. 'The furniture and design sector constitutes one of the three strategic sectors of Italian production. With the strength of its 20,000 active companies and 130,000 employees, the sector generates €23 billion in turnover with an export level that exceeds 60 per cent,’ says a manifest that was recently signed by nine Italian furniture manufacturers – B&B Italia, Bisazza, Boffi, Cappellini, Cassina, Flexform, Giorgetti, Molteni Group and Poltrona Frau. The document stresses the importance of the sector for the national economy and urges the government to allow for the resumption of production despite the lockdown currently in place. The main argument for a quick restart: to remain a big player on the global market. The companies backing up the manifest fear other countries will be quick to jump in the gap caused by the paralyzed state of production in Italy and believe the situation will harm their motherland’s industrial heritage for years to come. ‘It could take 20 to 30 years to recover what we would lose in a few weeks,’ they explain.

Header and top: UniFor’s Touch Down Unit answers to the need for more flexible furniture solutions. The mobile unit can easily adapt itself to changing spatial configuration and usage modes. | Bottom: Now that more and more people are working from home, UniFor sees an increased demand for products that support that, like Michele De Lucchi’s self-sufficient workstation Secretello. Photos: Courtesy of UniFor

But instead of focusing solely on restarting production and regaining its economic position, shouldn’t Italy’s furniture industry prepare itself for the post-pandemic reality? Can they extend and apply their innovative approach evident in the way they currently employ their resources for the manufacturing of much-needed personal protective equipment to tackle the pandemic’s aftermath? As we reported earlier this week, we think brands should use this time to implement strategies for change. Why? Even if production can resume in the near future, Italian companies – like their international colleagues – will have to navigate a completely new landscape. It’s not just the act of consumption itself, but the consumer’s mind-set that will change permanently. Both operations and output will have to adapt to a new normal – these behavioural shifts will fundamentally change the way we think about the spaces we inhabit. For furniture manufacturers that means it’s not just their client’s home space that will require pieces with new functionalities, but also – if not more – the contract projects they contribute to.

'We are living in a changing time not just for our system but for the world. We are well aware that our historic approach to clients, architects and designers must change and adapt itself to the new needs,’ says Carlo Molteni, managing director of UniFor. He believes technologies like 3D and AR are going to play an important role, and that the work-from-home lifestyle will continue to win ground, increasing the demand for flexible furniture solutions. ‘We must keep developing products that can adapt to [consumers’] environments and enable the creation of a comfortable, clean and health-focused workstation at home. Last year we launched Touch Down Unit, a nomadic, autonomous workstation (pictured in this article’s header image). It’s gaining interest because it’s highly portable while adapting itself to different layouts, spatial configurations and preferred work postures.’ Sustainability and durability seem to become even more important, too. ‘We notice an increasing popularity in two archival products – LessLess and Secretello,’ says Molteni. Manufactures can tap into this renewed interest in their existing product portfolios even more by shifting from a product-orientated to a service-orientated model, and think about repair support to (re)connect with their customer base.

When it comes to future production, the goal of Fast is to focus on increasingly sustainable production and harmonious design that supports the philosophy of slow living. Alberto Lievore’s die-cast and extruded aluminum Ria armchair is designed with the user’s wellbeing in mind. Photo: Courtesy of Fast

Marco Levrangi, CEO of Fast, believes 'design will no longer be only about form and aesthetics, and it will have to learn from the current situation and the lifestyle that has arose from it. What we are mostly looking for is contact with nature. Our goal is to focus on increasingly sustainable production and harmonious design that invites one to a slow-living philosophy. Slow living may become the new mantra in design.’

While it is understandable that Italian manufacturers are eager to recommence production, they would be wise to take this time to redefine their business models and, by doing so, make sure they remain relevant and leading in the global furniture market.

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