Situating Design in the Canadian Household Furniture Industry

Article excerpt

Introduction

In recent years, the emergence of a so-called 'design economy' has garnered a great deal of attention in the media, as well as in academia (Molotch 1996; Gibney and Luscombe 2000; Hutton 2000; Scott 2000). Julier (2000, 1), for example, suggests that 'few industries in the West have grown in terms of economic presence and cultural import as design has in the past two decades'. Prominent industrial designers have become the objects of extensive interest, while consumers are being targeted with an increasing array of goods tied to processes of distinction (Bourdieu 1984). The U.S. mass market retailer, Target, has hired international designers such as Philippe Starck and Michael Graves to design housewares for them. In the UK, the Labour Government has accorded special priority to design and has engaged in the 'rebranding' of the nation as 'Creative Britain' or 'Cool Britannia' (McRobbie 1998). Design is also a key component in the rise of what commentators have variously called the 'information' or 'knowledge-based economy' or what Florida (2002) calls the 'creative economy'. Florida (2002) argues that creativity has surpassed traditional factors such as land and resources in bolstering competitive advantage.

This paper explores the importance of design to the Canadian furniture industry. Our research into the state of the Canadian furniture industry has led us to identify a weakness in design as one of the key problems confronting this sector. Until recently, Canadian manufacturers have adopted a 'low road' economic strategy, whereby companies compete mainly on the basis of price (Scott 1996). Rather than embracing a model of high value-added knowledge intensive production, producers have tended to rely on external sources, especially the U.S., for design inspiration (Industry Canada 2001, 2). This historical weakness in Canadian furniture manufacturing has left the industry vulnerable to the growing power of retailers who exert pressure on producers to lower profits. This phenomenon, alongside heightened international competition, currency fluctuations, and tariff reductions, has prompted instability in the sector.

Despite this overall pattern however, we discern a significant strategy divide in the Canadian industry, with a growing number of producers beginning to rework the configuration of their production chains in order to facilitate enhanced design. The presence of this group of firms indicates that the 'low-road' imagery is perhaps too unequivocal to capture current developments in the industry. While both low-end and design-oriented producers have been successful in exporting to the U.S. we argue that the long-term viability of the industry depends on an ability to rework creative networks and to invest in original and geographically distinct design.

Organized into six main parts, the paper begins by exploring the nature of design as an interactive process that takes place across a broader cultural field. The second section presents an overview of the structure, location, and external pressures confronting the Canadian household furniture industry in order to elucidate the context within which investments in design are made. The third section interrogates relationships between manufacturers and other actors within the commodity network in an effort to understand the design process and to identify the factors contributing to a lack of design intensity in the mass production segment of the industry. Finally, the corporate behaviour and network configurations of innovative producers are highlighted in order to suggest a way forward for the industry.

The paper draws upon an analysis of government statistics and commentaries on the industry found in trade journals, newspapers and market research reports. In addition, 90 interviews were conducted with Canadian furniture manufacturers, retailers, designers, educators, associations, magazines, consumers and union representatives. …