Room for improvement: Innovative furniture designers flourish in exhibit vacuum

The cancellation of foreign shows has forced the exhibition industry to seek more creativity in the domestic market.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By ZENG Xiaolin


The Milan Furniture Fair, the largest trade fair of its kind, was canceled at the end of March, setting in motion a succession of cancellations including Hannover, Moscow, and Chicago. This is the second time Milan decided to cancel the exhibition due to the pandemic.

The effect of these cancellations is now becoming clear. Exhibition promoters lost badly in 2020 as orders disappeared. A-share listers exhibitioner Meoriant lost 65 million yuan (US$10 million) last year and Zhenwei Exhibitions lost 45 million yuan.

The cancellation of foreign shows has forced the exhibition industry to seek more creativity in the domestic market.

Look homeward

As a senior Chinese executive in charge of overseas exhibitions, David said his company was hit hard too.

"The pandemic took away all of our overseas orders," David said. He had no choice but to look inward and began chasing business at home. After a year, he was relieved to finally get some orders.

Just like David, LI Chen, who works for a medium-sized exhibition company said: "We lost a lot last year. Although domestic projects recommenced in June, half a year's work can only balance the other half’s losses."

Those enterprises most engaged overseas were hit hardest by the epidemic. “Since we did not have too many overseas orders at first when exhibitions were canceled, we simply stopped doing that part of our business," Li said.

With the domestic epidemic under control, hope was found at home. Responsible for overseas markets, David had no hesitation in adjusting his gaze. “Orders have increased a lot this year, so much so that we haven't had a break since Spring Festival," he said.

MOU Jie is an exhibition agent with many years of exhibition experience. The exhibition agency business is not common in China, but since the mass cancellation overseas, the business has been looking up. 

“In the beginning, our company provided agency services for customers whose visas had been refused by the United States. But now, travel is much more complicated, where it is possible at all, so exhibitors need help in getting their goods to shows in Europe, Japan and South Korea.

"We have been very successful, but it would be better for everyone if customers could participate in exhibitions themselves," she said.

For the industry at large, the idea of hiring a professional team for around 2,500 yuan a day to exhibit on your behalf remains an unorthodox one. It’s common practice to ask local students, translators, or guides to help in exhibitions and online or on-the-spot training can only do so much and comes at a cost. Every new product contains core technology, and exhibitors cannot become experts in a company's products overnight, so local temps can’t possibly manage the whole process. At present, agencies mainly provide services such as reception and marketing.

Fostering originality

The Milan cancellation caused many to suspect that "the originality of Chinese furniture may be directly affected," a shorthand way of saying that Chinese designers copied the ideas of their overseas counterparts.

PAN Jiahong, general manager of a factory in Guangzhou, believes that almost everything there is to know is widely available online in any case. “We have our own R&D team who launch many new products every year. Orders have not decreased as a result of the pandemic, but delivery time has increased,” he said.

But Pan admits that Milan does indeed have a wide influence on the creative processes of domestic enterprises, many of whom rely on overseas ideas for more than half of their references. In the design field, there is no clear distinction between "plagiarism" and "reference."

The power of originality has risen in recent years. China has revised its laws on competition, copyright, patents, trademarks, and unfair competition while raising the bar on intellectual property rights through the civil code, which came into effect this year.

ZHANG Biao owns a sanitary ware company in Foshan, Guangdong Province. He hasn't been to Milan for years and thinks that the impact of the cancellations is overestimated. 

"All the information is on the internet. You don't have to go overseas to learn from overseas,” she said. “Of course, we learn from the work of others and integrate the good elements into our own products. We have our own designers and wholly original products now comprise 80 percent of our output."