How do you like your furniture?
With the unorganised furniture retail market in India touching approximately $20 billion, early bird online furniture retailers (e-commerce, mostly) as well as organised furniture retailers have been busy tightening their supply chain, product designs and quality to capture a fair share of this huge market. Ready-to-assemble furniture giant IKEA’s phased-out entry over the next two years will signal the second wave of this market consolidation.
To the common homemaker, while this adds the much-needed choice of furniture and ease of purchase, it brings with it a dilemma - whether to build the furniture or to buy it outright.
The question we are trying to answer in this article today is whether the good old days of the ‘family carpenter’ shaving the wood away for months to get the home ready for the family really numbered? Are furniture pieces that are available from organised furniture vendors good enough in terms of quality, will they last? What things are best bought ready-made from the market and what are best bought online? And finally, how does the role of an interior designer change with impending organisation and consolidation in this space - can a customer just do the designing and decoration on her own using the online tools that are available? So, here goes….
The question of quality
Can you really trust the mass market and organised furniture retailers to use good quality material that will last?
The answer is both yes and no. If you look at the scope of what is included in household furniture, you can classify the pieces into two distinct segments-
l Movable furniture: These comprise sofa sets, side and centre tables, dining sets etc.
The movable furniture segment has always been ‘buy’ heavy because it’s rare for an onsite carpenter to match factory finish. In addition, movable furniture allows for a decent amount of flexibility as it does not need to fit perfectly into the space provided - compare this with a wardrobe that ideally needs to be customised to fit the space available.
For this reason, the movable furniture segment has been topping sales for all organised furniture retailers - be it brick and mortar, or online. In addition, by now, the organised vendors have more or less perfected the balance between material quality and cost to build products that offer both a good finish and a reasonable price. Therefore, the obvious verdict here is ‘buy’.
l Fixed furniture: These are really not fixed, just semi-fixed, as everything can ultimately be moved – objects like cots, headboards, crockery units, modular kitchens and wardrobes come under this.
Fixed furniture is a bit of a mixed bag. The initial organised retailers in this segment were really modular furniture factories whose primary objective was to bring costs down. Hence, items that they sold, be it wardrobes, crockery units or cots were made from particle board or low-cost medium density fibreboard (MDF).
Today, there are some modular vendors who offer a choice of material and have differential pricing depending on the base material used. However, the cost differential between stuff made from low-quality and high-quality material is substantial. Since high-quality stuff is expensive, it is uncompetitive. This leads to low sales, resulting in a vicious circle (since quality stuff is expensive, it is not mass market. The lack of economies of scale keeps the prices high due to which it is not mass market).
In addition to the above, the lack of a custom fit makes fixed furniture not the best candidate for a ‘buy’ decision. For example, a bedroom with a custom-made cot having an upholstered headrest and the electrical switches fixed on a seamless wooden panel above the side tables has a much better feel to it than the same bedroom containing a readymade cot purchased online.
That said, if one is able to find specific items (say wardrobes or crockery units) in good quality material from niche vendors at a good prices (during a promotion or a sale) and is able to manage the custom sizing constraint via innovative decor - say keeping a vase or a lamp in the free space next to the unit due to the unit availability in fixed size only (more on this in the design section later) then this may be a viable option to consider.
Within fixed furniture, modular kitchens is a category in itself as it has a fairly large and mature vendor base. These vendors offer a custom fit and a wide variety of designs in different materials and quality based on the client’s budget. This makes modular kitchens an easy ‘buy’ candidate. Ready-made modular kitchens are, however, not the best option in specific circumstances - say when the builder has given a platform under the counter top or when fixed countertops have been provided by the builder and customers don’t want to remove or replace the same.
Changing role of the designer
For long, interior designing in India has been seen as glorified carpentry. Carpenters have been self-designating themselves as interior designers and the fact that even trained interior designers in the country have been ‘woodwork’-focused rather than lifestyle-focused. I am of the firm belief that customers looking for pure carpentry do not really need an interior designer and that an interior design discussion is really a discussion about bolstering one’s life, lifestyle, and taste.
With quality ‘woodwork’ becoming available ready-made from organised furniture vendors, on-site carpentry is sure to take a hit, at the same time, interior designers will need to cultivate skills to design homes around product catalogues of established furniture vendors, to make build versus buy decisions based on site needs, and focus heavily on the holistic look and feel of the home (not just the woodwork) and the lifestyle of the residing family.
As the interior design fraternity learns these new tricks, technology savvy customers looking for just the woodwork and basic space visualisation will be able to get this at the click of a button…maybe more like fifty clicks and some gliding on the touchpad!
(The author is an interior designer &