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Thomas Russell

Materials, Designs Make the Case

Mark Smith, president of high-end case goods and upholstery importer Emerson et Cie, uses a simple analogy when trying to describe his take on luxury furniture.
     If a fine restaurant draws people because of its food, then luxury means the ingredients that make that food stand out. The same holds true for furniture, Smith says. If fine, luxury furniture is about the quality of the product, then what makes that product distinctive is the materials that ultimately go into the furniture.
     "We don't cut corners with the ingredients in terms of how we make our furniture," he said. Emerson et Cie's ingredients range from fancy face veneers and fine metal castings on case goods to fine silks and Belgian linens in upholstery.
     The company once imported its line from Europe, but in the mid-1990s shifted to the Philippines and Vietnam, while maintaining the same quality.
     Luxury in home furnishings also is about great design, particularly for the company's client base of interior designers and their customers.
     "The designer is still the core connection between us and the consumer," he said. "High-end retail space has evaporated in the U.S. in the past five years or so, but that doesn't mean the amount of qualified designers has gone away."
     High-end consumers, he said, are used to fine dining and traveling abroad and thus have acquired certain tastes in furniture.
     "They will demand that their homes reflect the taste level they have acquired," he said.
     Austin Rothba
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rd, president of Baker Furniture, said he believes that luxury starts with design and then incorsporates the type of materials that best complement those designs.
     Calvins Klein Home, whose line includes furniture, has been involved in the luxury household goods since 1995. Th e company defines luxury as "timeless designs with a marked attention to detail, employing only the highest qua lity materials."
      "All of our home products are designed under the brand's sophisticated aesthetic and high level of craftsmanship, which is especially evident in our subtly detailed, luxurious Calvin Klein Curator collection and its unique pairing of materials and finishes," said Bentley Hardwick, vice president and managing director of Calvin Klein Home.
      He added that the company distributes its products around the world, which creates significant growth opportunities.
     Tom Powell, president and CEO of high-end furniture manufacturer Ferguson Copeland, said his company's ability to manufacturer custom furniture sets it apart as a luxury brand in the marketplace.
     "Being nimble today is what it is all about," he said. "If you are going to be doing custom work and be able to satisfy your customer, you have to be nimble."
     Commenting on the DNA of luxury, Alex Shuford III, vice president of sales and marketing for Century Furniture, said, "When a customer decides the look, feel, quality and emotional connection exceeds an item's utilitarian purpose, that's where you find luxury."
     Shuford noted that while price is certainly an important element to luxury goods, price alone should not be the determining factor. "Luxury is about so much more than price. It's about the connection of the best materials to the best designs," he explained.
    He also believes that consumers gravitate toward luxury items due to their ability to convey a story of customization, a
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rtisanship and unique designs.
     "For us, we succeed selling a luxury item whenever we get beyond the customer's logic and get into their gut," Shuford added.
     Some manufacturers and importers interviewed for this story said they had seen a drop in business during the recession. High-end case goods and upholstery manufacturer Harden Furniture, for example, said its business fell nearly 50% due to the financial crisis.
     However, the company has regained a good portion of that and sees bright times ahead.
     "Where the economy stands right now and with the economy being the big variable, I think we should have some pretty good years ahead of us," said Greg Harden, president and CEO. "Higher income Americans are getting more wealthy, not less wealthy. That is clearly a demographic trend that is helping us."
     He added that improvements in the housing market also are helping the industry.
     Aminy Audi, chairman and CEO of Stickley Furniture, said her company also was affected by the recession. However, it did not have any layoffs and used the experience to cut other costs and gain various efficiencies.
     "The high-end consumers are also investors in Wall Street, so until recently, when there have been gains in the stock market, they had felt the pinch," she said. "When they are losing money, they are not in a spending mood. With the gains in the stock market, we have seen more traffic in our showrooms."
     Today, she believes the outlook is good for luxury furniture - which she believes only increases in value due to the quality of the finish and craftsmanship involved.
Harden FurnitureHarden Furniture

     "It is heirloom furniture that you pass down from generation to generation," she said. "That staying power is something that (consumers) relate to. When they invest in something beautiful, they want it to last."
     Jeff Young, CEO of Schnadig and its Caracole brand of upholstery and case goods, said Caracole, launched in April 2010, has high-end luxury styling but not luxury pricing.
     "We make jewelry for the home," he said, noting that many customers in the marketplace have commented on the feminine approach of the line, as seen in its lighter and brighter forms, finishes and hardware, which have gained in popularity among the design community.
     "Everyone likes the black dress, but the black dress comes alive when the female adorns it with jewelry.... We feel we have hit a niche there, and we feel people have responded to that."
     Despite some uncertainties in the economy and about the future demand for luxury goods in the U.S., Young said he is optimistic about the future of the premium brands such as Caracole.
     "In the U.S., I don't know that the demand for luxury goods is growing, but the sophistication level for what people want has grown and is more and more refined," he said. "They are saying, ‘Here is my budget. Now how can I get this look?'"

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