The gradual lifting of tariffs from the late 1980s encouraged cheap furniture imports from Asia, which had a detrimental impact on local cabinetmakers. Between 2007 and 2011 the number of people employed in the furniture industry fell from 8,500 to 6,000, while the number of firms dropped from 1,800 to 1,300. The large manufacturing warehouse waned as furniture stores imported products or outsourced production to local contractors. Style became more international than ever, with identical but rebranded furnishings available through large outlets across the western world. Australian chain stores such as Harvey Norman and Freedom Furniture increased competition among local retailers such as Big Save Furniture and The Warehouse.
Seat of choice
During the early 2000s the Wellington firm Formway Furniture became an export success story. It designed and manufactured office furniture; its 2002 ergonomic LIFE chair became the seat of choice for US President Bill Clinton and Apple Computer’s founder Steve Jobs. In 2008 Formway employed 200 people and was a $50 million company. In 2009 the global recession forced it to outsource its production and it split into small and separate design and distribution companies.
Some furniture makers survived the upheaval by moving production offshore. In 2007 Morgan Furniture (makers of La-Z-Boy chairs) closed its Auckland factory after 60 years and shifted its operations to Thailand and China. Others, such as New Zealand Comfort Group (makers of Sleepyhead beds), shed staff and consolidated operations at particular sites to develop exports to Australia. Still others grew by developing niche markets, such as Design Mobel, which made beds, mattresses and bedroom furniture using natural and sustainably sourced materials.
Most remaining New Zealand furniture-makers had fewer than 10 employees and, unlike big Asian suppliers, could adjust individual items to customer requests at short notice. The use of cheap, accurately compressed resin and fibre boards replaced much timber, lowering manufacturing costs by reducing machining time. Computer-aided design (CAD), polyvinyl glues and hot-melt resins, along with pneumatic nail guns, high-speed self-tapping screws, fixing brackets, drawer slides and quick-fit hinges, all sped up construction.
Christchurch’s 2010 and 2011 earthquakes were a boon for Auckland furniture-makers. The demolition company Nikau Contractors sent four truckloads of native timber salvaged from quake-damaged buildings north. While it cost $3,500 to transport a load, recycled rimu fetched between $2,500 and $3,500 per cubic metre, making the investment well worthwhile.
The demand for bespoke or custom-made furniture remained relatively small, but workshops serving this market continued to operate throughout the country. Of note was Englishman David Trubridge’s iconic series of slat -imber Raft, Rocking and Nananu chairs, a clear nod to an immigrant view of Polynesian culture. In 2011 some training institutions, such as Nelson’s Centre for Fine Woodworking, offered short and full-time courses in traditional woodworking.