The Be Original fellows are wrapping up an exciting summer touring leading design companies and Be Original Americas members across the U.S. Our final update from them follows, courtesy of Sara Ahart.
These past two weeks have been nothing short of amazing. Every new place I visit continues to inspire and teach me new things that change my perception of the furniture industry. We rounded out our manufacturing leg of the summer by visiting Bernhardt’s manufacturing facilities in North Carolina, followed by Design Within Reach, Ligne Roset, and Herman Miller who showed us the ropes in the marketing and sales side of things.
As our fourth manufacturer visit, I wasn’t expecting to learn many new things at Bernhardt, but as soon as I got there I could tell that I was wrong. North Carolina used to be the furniture capital of the world, being home to many large names in furniture. Through the years, most of these companies have closed, but Bernhardt has stayed strong. This family-owned business has prided itself in fine woodworking and upholstery since 1889. The factories that we visited were some of the original Bernhardt buildings.
We started our time with Bernhardt by getting an overall tour of the facilities to see all of the different areas that worked together to complete one piece of furniture. As we were touring, I realized how many people are a part of the furniture-making process, and how important craft and quality are to Bernhardt. The majority of the pieces of fabric are hand cut, making sure that the patterns and repeats in the fabric will match up flawlessly when all of the individual pieces are sewn together. Then these fabric pieces go over to the sewists who carefully line them up with their half-inch seam and sew all the pieces together in perfectly straight lines, creating the covering for a piece of furniture. These sewists are extremely talented and do this at lightning speed. It was amazing to watch.
The fabric coverings then get sent over to the upholsterers who were just as mesmerizing to watch. They are given a pile of materials that make up the finished piece of furniture, including a plywood frame, multiple pieces of cut foam, a fabric cover, and a few other materials depending on the model. They fit all of these pieces over the frame kind of like a big puzzle. All of the foam is glued on to the frame by hand, making sure that the edges and corners will sit smoothly under the cover which is put on next. The upholsterers use a staple gun to keep the fabric on tightly, pulling at the fabric the perfect amount so the seams line up with the edges of the foam. They work so quickly it is almost hard to follow their steps.
We then went to the woodshop where the wooden frames are made and stained. We talked with some of the people who develop the stain colors for all of the furniture about their process. I always thought stain was just one layer that coated a piece of wood, but at Bernhardt it is a combination of many different layers, sometimes more than seven, that all combine together to make the perfect color and finish. These guys get to experiment with different combinations of colors in order to match custom stains that are desired by the customer as well as figure out how to make a stain look the same on a dark wood as it will a lighter wood. The only way to do this is through years of experience and a lot of trial and error.
We met with the product development team and prototyping team to discuss the development of a product from initial sketches to the final designs. Each piece of furniture has to be designed to a high enough standard to pass all of the BIFMA testing, which is done in-house in Bernhardt’s test lab. BIFMA standards are put in place to ensure that furniture is strong enough to survive daily wear and tear without getting damaged. All of Bernhardt’s furniture passes these tests with flying colors by the time they are put on the market.
Once furniture is ready to go on the market, a different team takes over to help these new products become successful. As our first stop in the marketing and sales leg of our fellowship, we visited Design Within Reach. After receiving an overview of what the marketing and merchandising teams do, and how they decide which new products to choose and promote, Karina and I got put to work! We received a brief for a new product that DWR wants to bring in to their collection. With this is mind, we conducted a competitor analysis which consists of seeing what similar products are already being sold by our competitors. This is an extremely important step in the process because it makes us aware of what the current trends are and lets us know what we have to compete with.
After becoming more aware of what our competitors were doing, we went in search for a product that is “off the shelf” that DWR could take into their collection. We searched for existing furniture that would fit in the DWR collection while still bringing something new and unique. By completing this project and talking with the marketing and merchandising teams, I gained a much stronger understanding of the process that goes behind creating a collection as well as the thought that goes in to making sure that each new piece brought in upholds the values of the brand.
We took this project even further by creating a social media campaign for the new product as well as figuring out what channels we wanted to market it through in order to reach the largest number of potential customers. DWR taught me that in order to have a successful marketing campaign, one of the most important aspects is being able to tell the story behind the product. You must get in the mind of the designer and learn about why they made their design decisions, then figure out a way to portray this to the customer in a compelling story that reflects the values of the customer.
We continued to learn about branding and marketing at our next stop, Ligne Roset. This family owned French company has been dedicated to their brand values of luxury, creativity, livability, loyalty, and non-conformism since their beginnings in 1860. They strive to be readily available to their customers, and one way of doing this is by having a US-based customer service office for all of their US showrooms. We spent a few hours with the account managers learning about how they input orders and handle customer service. In the end, everything that they do is about making the goods more successful for their clients. They pride themselves on being proactive rather than reactive, trying to solve potential problems before they even happen.
Ligne Roset has a strong media presence to help promote their brand values. One of the ways in which they do this is holding ‘Brand Value’ events in which each showroom has the freedom to come up with their own way of portraying the brand value. One of the examples that we saw was the Los Angeles showroom promoting the value of Loyalty by having a dog on all of the furniture in their photographs.
The use of social media is important, but should be combined with other marketing strategies in order to be the most successful. We learned more about this when we met with Herman Miller’s branding and marketing team in New York and discussed with them some of the other avenues in which they brand their company. The main topic of discussion was Herman Miller’s publication WHY. In WHY, they take a very different approach to marketing and branding than I had experienced elsewhere. Instead of trying to sell a product with all of their posts, they are trying to tell the story of Herman Miller. Some stories may be highlighting a belief of the company while another may be a designer spotlight. Although the end goal of marketing and branding is to attract buyers, Herman Miller does this by creating an ecosystem that will drive interest in the brand as a whole which allows the customer to have a more meaningful relationship with the company.
Along with their publication, Herman Miller is also active on social media and asked us to help them with a social media project. While they are strong users of Instagram and Facebook, they want to continue improving their use of Pinterest. With some help from the social media team, Karina and I developed a Herman Miller Pinterest board under the title of “Instagram Inspiration” that promotes Herman Miller’s dedication to original design and authenticity. On this board, we included a compilation of posts from Instagram that highlight Herman Miller products in people’s homes.
Now that I have experienced the entire process from designing to manufacturing and selling, I have a much stronger appreciation for all of the work that goes in to bringing a product to market. My eyes have been opened to the wide variety of teams and people that work together in order to make a company successful. This broader understanding of the entire process will make me stronger as a designer as well as help me as I continue to figure out what career path I want to take.