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Office Furniture: a Tough Design Challenge in Hungary

Setting up a business and keeping it in the black, or simply making ends meet, by solely designing office furniture is still a long shot for most Hungarian designers. Indeed, it remains very difficult even if you omit the word “office” and broaden your scope to design furniture for any purpose.

“This is not a specificity of the Hungarian market. It applies basically to the rest of the world,” says Dániel Lakos, a designer for Planbureau. Typically, designers here receive orders for individual pieces, and sometimes collections, through interior design works. Lakos designed the interior for advertisement agency Benedict and Helfer, a project for which he was given much leeway and could incorporate unique furniture designed exclusively for that space.

Another way to get closer to a market is applying for design competitions. Planbureau’s Alba collection, which consists of a chair, a writing desk, and a large shelf unit, was originally designed for a Japanese International Furniture Design Competition and was available for sale in that country and also in Switzerland. The international jury awarded a Grand Prix for the shelf unit, and three years later, the chairs were among the shortlisted entries at another international design competition that drew more than 1,000 entries. 

The reason larger production runs cannot be made and placed with stockists either in Hungary or abroad, is high manufacturing costs. The demise of manufacturing industry here makes it really costly to have anything made in a factory, and that affects mass production or smaller runs. Unlike in Italy, say, where furniture manufacturers abound and, as a result, prices are competitive, in Hungary, having something made on a small scale is simply not worth it. Yet working with such limitations has its advantages too. Since complicated attachments and technology would just further hike the price, designers are forced to come up with pieces that are easier to assemble, have fewer parts, and/or are multifunctional.

The Y-system of Lehel Juhos, an industrial designer who runs his own studio, is a good example – the pieces are sturdy enough to endure the demands of an office environment but are also simple enough for anyone to assemble for their home office. The Y-system set comprises a stool, tables, and shelves made of beech plywood, and powder coated steel sheet. The metal manufacturing enables the transformation of the laser-cut flat patterns into stable structures. The powder coated legs and the various plywood shapes are easy to assemble, while the characteristic  Y parts are similar in design, lending unity to the collection. Juhos, like many of his peers, does not exclusively design furniture; he has more industrial design-related jobs, which, from a pure design viewpoint, does at least have the advantage of adding variety to the job. 

Simplicity and efficient design are required when working for large players as well. Shapes and molds must be individually created for each and every part of the furniture, such as the seat pan, so it may take several months to finalize the plans. Once they go into production, you cannot change them, says furniture designer András Kerékgyártó. He recently started working with a Vesprém-based plywood element manufacturer that wished to enter a new market. Relying on its former network of clients and manufacturing capacities, the firm teamed up with Kerékgyártó to create and launch a new line of contract furniture under the name Plydesign.

The company appears to be on something of a mission, to judge from its publicity. “For a long period – over ten years – there hasn’t been any successful attempts to develop and manufacture a new chair design in quantities in Hungary. This armchair is our contribution to the goal of reeastablishing Hungary’s furniture industry,” it says in its catalogue.

“I started off small, designing universal legs that could hold several sizes of table tops. When we saw it worked, we expanded the line with more pieces,” Kerékgyártó said. His “Flagship” armchair won the “Design Without Borders Award” at the “Madeinhungary 2016” exhibition.

At the time of writing, the team is at the Stockholm Furniture Fair (February 7-11) to forge new ties and find local distributors. The type and style of furniture – the range incudes stacking chairs, armchairs, barstools, coffee tables and dining tables – make the line a good fit for the Scandinavian market, hence the choice of this event, and the equally costly Milan Furniture Fair. The overall cost of participation may amount to more than EUR 6,000, and it is not enough to attend once. “Consistency is the key to be taken seriously by international players,” said Kerékgyártó.