De La Espada’s collective agenda

June 21, 2011

In spite of its global presence, Portuguese furniture brand De La Espada is embracing an alternative business model based around local design and manufacture.

Sponsored by Portuguese luxury furniture company De La Espada, The Tramshed event took a former power-generating station and transformed it into a creative hub housing the work of 25 international brands and designers for the duration of the 2010 London Design Festival. A series of daily seminars under the heading ‘New Directions for Design’ generated heated and interesting discussions, and looked at, among other things, the reinvention of traditional relationships between design, manufacturing and the market.

It turns out De La Espada – and its unique business model – is central to this timely debate. And its model may just offer a possible vision for the future of design and manufacturing.

De La Espada was founded in 1993 by, as company director Luis de Oliveira puts it, “three men in a barn” (it ain’t quite Silicon Valley, but it’s not bad as founding anecdotes go). Though it also has its own line of furniture, the company is essentially a design brand management firm. What this means in practice is that De la Espada works with several very different designers and design studios around the world, each of which appeals to a particular niche in the market, but they centralise anything to do with organisation, production and promotion. “This approach goes against the established belief in a single monolithic brand with a clear message,” explains de Oliveira. “Many people would argue we are being confusing. I would argue we are being incredibly efficient at linking the creative process with the consumer of design.”

The challenge for De La Espada, which is committed to quality and craftsmanship over volume, is “to grow without becoming big,” says de Oliveira. In the future, he would like the company to remain decentralised and to engage in local production, small runs and frequent innovation, allowing De La Espada not to be tied to a particular product forever, says de Oliveira. By his own admission, the local production part of this business model is a good decade away in some cases, but “we are already walking the talk when it comes to constant innovation and making quality small-batch runs with the right people”. He continues excitedly, “It helps to know where you’re heading, even if it isn’t immediately relevant.” Most people would define that as a sense of direction and, for the designers that have jumped on board with Oliveira, the confidence is quite clear.

Moving on to the current nature of our industry today, he brings up a few other issues that will be of great relevance to all design companies and manufacturers in the coming years: first, the rising cost of transport (he believes local production remains the only answer to resolving the transport problem over time) and second, the end of a cheap labour era in China.

“The rise of China as a great manufacturer may be coming to an end,” he says. His colleague, UK designer Matthew Hilton, echoes this sentiment, and is currently one of the championing figures of De La Espada’s collective agenda. “I know that lots of people in Europe are starting to shift manufacturing back, because the cost of shipping has gone up so much,” he says. “And because people in China are demanding higher wages. So the costs have gone up.” He looks around and warms to his theme. “I’ve been to trade fairs in China recently, so I also know there are people there starting to produce branded goods of their own. And there are a lot of people who are getting out of very high volume production and scaling down in numbers, but improving in quality, which will push the price up.” This is what always happens with developing countries, he concludes. And eventually, in the next 10 years he posits, we won’t be able to make things cheaply in China anymore.

Someone else who is quick to confirm that the term ‘Made in China’ no longer means what it used to is Theo Williams, the creative director of the UK’s best-known furniture retailer, Habitat. First off, he explains, there’s the distance factor. Designers can only go to the plants once or twice a year, which is an issue because it’s only possible to develop the product when the designers can actually spend some time with the manufacturers (emails, phone calls and Skype just don’t cut it when it comes to proper design manufacturing). Then there’s the huge carbon footprint. If products can be made closer to home, it’s good for the designers and allows retailers like Habitat to be more flexible. The problem with manufacturing products in China, he explains, is that there are restrictions on minimum orders, lengthy delivery times and shipping containers have to be full, so orders have to be massive. “All our upholstery is made in Italy for that very reason,” he says. “It’s cheaper than shipping from China and we only need three weeks’ lead time.” Similarly, Habitat’s glass products are made in Poland, its terracotta pieces are from Portugal and it imports teak furniture from Indonesia.

So maybe it isn’t all made in China any more, or soon won’t be. In all honesty Matthew Hilton admits that he isn’t so much interested in where our furniture and products will be made, but what that means for the quality of all these items in the long run. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing if we couldn’t make them that cheaply anywhere,” he muses in his trademark humble and affable style. “The appreciation of quality and things lasting longer is a good thing. If we can’t manufacture things terribly cheaply, perhaps we’ll start to be a bit more discerning in our choices and the products we buy, don’t you think?”

The point of his observations – and one that de Oliveira espouses – is that the future of manufacturing can be (and simply should be) more sustainable, and therefore more local. These are two ideas that are also central to London-based Israeli-born designer Assa Ashuach’s future vision for the world of design. Ashuach is one of the co-founders behind the development of an online platform that allows consumers to ‘co-design’ or customise lifestyle products. “Openness and user-input has been the biggest topic for me in the last few years,” says Ashuach.

The platform will eventually be available to the public via the website UCODO (User Co-Designed Object), which will store a library of digital models of household objects designed by professional designers. Users (or consumers) can pick one and then – using a series of online tools – tweak the designs to their own personal taste; changing the size, material, pattern or colour of the item, stretching or twisting the items, to create a unique product. The team behind the software speak rather grandly about the ‘democratisation’ of personal objects, though it seems clear that real designers will still need to come up with the core design. As Hilton plainly puts it: “I can’t imagine having somebody who knows absolutely nothing about designing a kettle being able to design a kettle!” Quite. “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” More interesting possibly than the consumer or customer’s input into the design of the object is what would happen next with a program like UCODO. Once you’ve modified your chosen object – a lamp, say – the information will be fed (digitally) to a series of rapid prototyping manufacturing facilities across the country. And though it may have been an unplanned benefit, this decentralises the manufacturing system – what Ashuach calls ‘postcode production’. Producing something only when someone wants it, and not far from where you live? It’s an interesting concept.

Curator of the Tramshed talks series, Aidan Walker, says, “It points to the breakdown of big monolithic manufacturing companies, and that is I think really the way it’s going.” And it points to a future where the designer gains greater control, over production and distribution (to a fair extent at least).

A form of democratic design that has already taken off allows consumers to get involved in the process of what gets made in the first place. UK website made.com launched in 2010 and showcases furniture designs by a handful of up-and-coming designers. A public vote is held to decide which pieces are put into production. Orders can be placed for several weeks and then the pieces are made to order and sold at wholesale prices. In this case, the middleman is cut out of the process, waste is reduced (only ordered items are produced) and the consumer has a say in what is made. Not to mention the young designers, who are given a chance to break into the often-closed world of design. We might note that anyone can send in their designs (wink).

If one thing is clear at the start of this new decade, it’s that rapidly evolving technology and the growing transport and labour costs (in countries like China and others in the emerging global economy) are changing the way we design, make, buy and produce – the way we move and sell product. It looks like many designers and companies will increasingly try and do just what de Oliveira is attempting to do at De la Espada: ‘grow without becoming big’. In other words, target the global market, while remaining local.

As de Oliveira says, the mass market continues to exist and designers will continue to work with big industry, but people also love local things. People love quality in what surrounds them. “In the end, even the most hardened, globalised person is still a product of their society, their city, their nation state or their region. So rather than hiding behind the walls, why not go out and celebrate this diversity and build a business that embraces it?”


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