Malaysia as the new Milan

When you can’t compete on price, focus on design. That was the message directed to exhibitors at the 13th annual Malaysian International Furniture Fair, in Kuala Lumpur, this past spring.

Yang Berbahagia Dato’ Noharuddin Nordin, CEO of the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE), explained the philosophy; “We can no longer compete in the lower end market compared to China and Vietnam, which offer lower labour costs and hence we have no choice but to move to the premium end of furniture manufacturing.”

He said since China is improving its furniture exports in quality, manufacturers should no longer aspire to be compared to China for price but rather to Italy in terms of quality. He also suggested that manufacturers should focus on Malaysian design, marketing that design by building brands. However, he advised that rather than targeting the U.S. market, where the cost of branding is expensive, more can be achieved by going after growing middle-class markets in India and South Africa.

Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Peter Chin said furniture exports in 2006 placed the country among the top 10 furniture exporting countries in the world, exporting RM7.25 billion (about $2.2 billion Cdn), with 30 per cent of export deals taking place during the five-day MIFF fair.

This year MIFF expanded its exhibition space, adding a third venue, the new MATRADE Exhibition and Convention Centre, to space already reserved at the Putra World Trade Centre and the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. A shuttle bus service, braving the heavy downtown traffic, connected the three locations that provided more than 75,000 square feet of exhibition space for the more than 480 exhibitors. About 14,000 visitors attended, that number almost evenly divided between foreign and local buyers.

What they saw were both large and smaller manufacturers who were getting the “improve your design” message with varied levels of success.

At the best, products featured:

clean, simple universal designs;

multi-functional uses adaptable to a variety of settings;

products that could be transformed (i.e. sofas with adjustable arms or moveable backs);

environmentally friendly materials;

varied and interesting use of new raw materials, such as coconut wood.

On the downside, there was little Malaysian design identity and few products that reflected Malaysian culture. Individual designers were rarely named, a situation that will no doubt change as design takes on more importance.

A panel of international judges selected winning products in six different furniture categories: sofa, dining, office, bedroom and bedding, outdoor, and occasional. An aluminum and glass entertainment unit by Zhaplin Work, of Selangor, Malaysia, was chosen as best of show. The judges called the Zhaplin shelving system “world class in both quality of design and execution.”

New this year was the MIECO Designer’s Choice Awards, introduced to promote the use of particleboard as an eco-friendly wood panel for furniture designs. Winners were named in kitchen, home and office furniture categories, as well as in a special student category.

The next MIFF will be held March 4 to 8, in Kuala Lumpur. cI