How Do You Get Into Furniture Design?

I have been looking for information on how to break into the furniture design market and have come up empty-handed. Is there someone here who is in the industry and who can give me some pointers? I’m a self-trained designer and I also design modern houses. I’m not a craftsman, though, so I have no prototypes of my chairs and tables, as yet. Just 3D models/CAD. Ideally, I am looking for a connection with a manufacturer, not a job.


Furniture design really isn’t the best place to be at the moment. That was my area of work until I got laid off last November. The industry as a whole has been suffering since 9/11 and the whole shift to importing from China isn’t helping either. Most manufacturers are laying off people right now, not hiring.

Furniture design in the US is basically broken down into home furinshings and contract fruniture. Home furnishings in the US is governed by what happens at the big trade show in High Point, NC in the spring and fall. Contract furnishings looks to the Neocon trade show in Chicago every summer for the latest trends.

My experience has been that the home furnishings market is more style driven rather than by design. If you have any kind of background in ID and enjoy problem solving rather than “style research”, you’re better off looking for opportunities in the contract furniture market and paying a visit to the Chicago Merchandise Market next month for Neocon 2004.

Thanks, but, as I stated above, I’m not looking for a job with a manufacturer; I am looking for any opportunities to sell my designs to them, as in being an independent design boutique. The industry segment you describe is definitely not where I want to be. I am interested in selling my designs, which are modernist in “style,” and nothing else. I have no interest whatsoever in being a staff designer for a company that cranks out schlock for tasetless housewives, and thus, North Carolina is not my market. If there is a U.S. market for what I do, it’s more likely in Zeeland, Michigan or in Los Angeles or New York, but I am certainly not limiting myself to the U.S. market when most of what is produced, in the area I’m interested in, comes from Europe (notably Italy and Scandinavia). Currently, there is a surge of interest in mid-century modernism and modern classics have become very popular, thus creating opportunities for designers of new modernist furniture. I am interested in working with (not for) companies like Della Robbia, Roche Bobois, Poliform, Luminaire, Ferlea, et al. Perhaps I should have been this specific in my original question, but I guess I was assuming an audience of designers who are more interested in modernism than in turning out faux 18th century knockoffs for backward slobs who have more money than tastes. Thanks for your input, though.



In his repsonse to a very oblique post, nydesignguy did a good job of preliminarily outlining the current state of affairs. The contract industry is in terrible shape, and the residential industry has it’s own challenges as well.

The best advice remains to go to Neocon (or ICFF or maybe Ambiente…or whatever furniture fair you can find in Scandinavia via a google search) and actually talk to the people who procure design.

There is no shortcut to actually doing client development work yourself. If you’re smart enough, as a self-trained designer, to know who you want to work for…then put down last month’s issue of Metropolis and make some phone calls.

You managed to slam ‘tasteless housewives’, North Carolina furniture designers and ‘backward slobs’ all in one post. I guess you deserve some sort of applause for that, but it’s not coming from me.

The assumptions you had about your post’s audience are pretty skewed, perhaps the by-product of self-training. I’ve found that the people who take the time to post meaningful replies on this board are a relatively sophisticated subset of the design population at large. However, ‘sophisticated’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘modern design fan’.

Good luck in your pursuit of cashing in on the design flavor-of-the-month.

And thanks for posting!


You are in for a rude awakening.

My insight on the furniture market as a whole is that people could care less about “modern classics” and the group that does is so small that even with a 5-10% royalty from a manufacturer who likes and wants to manufacture your design, you’re surely not going to make a living at it.

If you look closely at the market, all the stuff you want to do is already being done by companies like IKEA and even Target at a very low cost. Companies like DWR and Topdeq could care less about some Joe Schmoe who isn’t a big name established designer either.

One of the designers I worked with came from the area of furniture design you speak of. He took a corporate gig because there was no market for what he had been doing previously in Chicago.

You are better off trying to explore a market opportunity where you are solving a problem through your furniture and have a story for its existence. Designing for a current design fad just doesn’t cut it anymore is is the main reason for the furniture industry in this country to be in the state its in. Consumers are tired of it.,

First of all, my apologies to anyone who felt I stepped on some toes. It was not my intent to offend anyone, and, yes, I suppose I was expecting to find an audience of designers who understand the difference between design and aping the styles of 200 years ago. There is a big difference between creating something fresh and original, that is of our time, on the on hand, and on other hand, functioning as a draftsman for the likes of Drexel Heritage, who recycle our ancestors ideas, complete with “distressed” finish to make it look 150 years old. That the market for modernism is a small one only reflects the fact that most Americans have little to no appreciation of design.

NYDesignGuy, let me clarify further; I have a job already. I’ve made my living in architecture for the last 27 years, and I don’t need to make a living from my furniture design, which has been a hobby for the last 30 years or so. I would be delighted to see just one of my designs go into production, frankly, and the income from it is of no importance, though I certainly wouldn’t complain if it sold well. Perhaps I should have addressed this topic in a new thread; one in which there aren’t people desperately seeking employment in an industry that, as you portray it, is in bad shape.

Your characterization of modernism as a “current design fad” shows me that I’m definitely not in the right place for an intelligent discussion of design. By the way, I don’t blame consumers for being tired of what the American furniture industry has been cranking out in recent years. The faux 19th century look that has paralleled builders’ cranking out of ill-proportioned copies of English manor houses is a trend I’m sure many will be glad to see come to an end.


First you tell us that you want to contact funiture design companies.
Then you mention companies: Della Robbia, Roche Bobois, Poliform,
Luminaire, Ferlea.

Why don’t you contact these companies with the arrogant attitude you display on this page.

I’m sure they’ll be getting back to you soon!

There’s more to understanding modernism than just being a snob.

PS I’d love to see some of your designs!

I might ad that consumers 9from whatever that of the globe) buy retail furnishings that they are comfortable with. That determination, is a function of their culture.

Industrial Design is a function of manufacturing. If your design work is a hobby perhaps you should elevate it to the next level, which would be prototype development. Many preliminary designs fail when they get to this stage and if you are offering “unproven” work you won’t be finding too many companies interested in spending their resources to develop YOUR ideas.

Afterall, to THEM it isn’t a hobby, and it IS about money. Put more succintly it’s about profit, which in manufacturing is driven by the economy of scale, and in the specialized niche that you envision the “scale” is not large.

It’s obvious, to me, that you need to completely develop your own designs, spend your own capital to start your own furniture manufacturing company, and do your own marketing and sales.

Yup, it’s time to become a craftsman, like it or not, you’re going to have to do your own work.

If money isn’t the object or a consideration of your pursuit then consider applying to display at the Milan Salon Satelite Exhibition. I was showing there 2 years ago as a student and I spoke to two guys who had produced prototypes and came over with the hope of selling their designs to someone. Overall their expenses were in the realm of $5,000 (not sure if that was with prototypes or not) and they got a great deal of exposure. Nobody I spoke to actually sold their design, but it’s possible. The person that had probably the strongest piece out of our display was solicited by a few different European companies, but nothing materialized out of that.

Ok, obviously you are a die hard modernist. Great, my personal design taste also lean toward the modernist side of things. However any interior/furniture design research conducted post 911 will show an ever-increasing desire for the late 20 something’s and up to “Create a warm, inviting, and the loving home, were I can come home and for get the turmoil in the world”. Quote taken from a consumer focus group we conducted in 6 cities (New York, Washington DC, Chicago, St Louis, Las Angeles, and San Francisco) and slightly over 1000 participants ranging from 18-55 yrs. Conducted for one of the main lighting and fan manufactures to determine why there was such a decline in their contemporary lighting and ceiling fan lines.

Our research showed that 95% of the participations liked the modernistic style but would prefer to purchase the more traditional designs for their homes. So by all fairness to the designers at the furniture companies they are designing the items in the styles that the customers want…that is just common sense.

Yep, as much as I wanted to be innovative with my work, I had to add to the sea of cherry and oak…

Hi, interesting thread. When I was a student I had a piece at a trade show that was picked up for production by one of the companies you mentioned. Lucky for me they are a decent, respectable company and did not knock me off…production was OK for a couple of years and then dropped off - not a huge success but totally within the norm.

It is extremely difficult to make a living in the US doing the kind of work you describe. Royalties for designers without a “name” are usually in the 3-5% range of the wholesale price. If you receive, say, $15 for each chair sold, imagine how many chairs would need to sell for you to make good money! The industry is all about volume, which in turn allows products to be produced more cheaply - and the problem (for designers, anyway) is that the bulk of the US population does not purchase contemporary, design-oriented furniture. And if they do, they buy at IKEA.

The “no name” designers I know who are doing the kind of work you describe are young and doing it by their bootstraps. If they are more established and/or not doing the manufacturing themselves, they often work on a range of design projects - some are plums and others pay the bills. Some designers teach. Incidentally, there is a much bigger market for innovative, design-oriented accessories (gift, lighting, tabletop, etc), and so there is accompanying work to be found there.

Anyway, I agree with a previous poster that the best thing for you to do is to create prototypes of your work - either by yourself, by hiring someone, or a little bit of each. Luckily, since you are employed, you have the resources to do this. Then shop them around, either by exhibiting at trade shows or networking to get the right phone numbers to get you an appointment with a company. Manufacturers are looking for good work - it’s hard to resist a product that already has some of the kinks worked out and that they think will sell (very important, unless your name is driving the product). The key is hooking up with the right manufacturer. Get to know their product line, target market, and learn what does well for them.

And, believe it or not, the mainstream furniture industry is not as much of a dead end as you might think. If we agree that design as a human activity is fundamentally about problem solving, there is a lot of designing going on in this area. There are innovations in manufacturing, finishing, and a constant search for new approaches to existing market challenges. Many of the designers working for the big companies are talented and well-educated, and itchin’ to do contemporary work just like you and I, but they have chosen to work in the marketplace - and the marketplace is a reality which must be factored into a design brief as clearly as the comfortable ratio of a chair seat to a chair back.

Finally, you are in a good position in at least one aspect. As an architect I would imagine you have connections with interior designers - they & their clients are a subset of people who by definition are interested in good design (although not always contemporary) and have the resources to purchase it. You could start a company and rent yourself a space at a designer show room. All it takes is money.

Good luck!


Maybe i can help you out. I know many companies here run by ppl from all over the globe, (most of them is from Europe, but some from U.S), some ppl i know personally. Mainly they are on Garden Furniture and Interior furniture field, which develop their design on regular basic. I do have some friends, works for them as furniture designer, phisically or “remotely” inter-city via internet, and seems its a promissing biz, at least in here. I dont know the reason why they hire native designer, but i think its because of the salary standard.

Anyway, if you still want to give your self a try, pvmsg me, ill introduce you to them. But just to remind you, you have to be familiar with the nature of teak wood, with all its habit, which will affect 100% on the design it self.

It’s exactly this sort of atitude of the original poster that keeps ensuring contemporary furniture design remains, not only in the obscenely stratospheric price brackets of Roche-Bobois and Co., but also the singular playground of the typical hollier-than-thou, precious characters patronizing this sort of outlets.

Gary here could use a healthy dose of modesty and some minimum empathy for the common folk whose life our mission as designers is to help improve, not berate. North-Americans are generally more value-conscious and pragmatic buyers than Europeans, meaning $5,000 dining tables consisting of two colored glass panels attached to four lowly aluminum extrusions aren’t likely to endear “modern” design to the average buyer.

Perhaps Gary (and architects generally) need to stop hovering above the daily ordinariness of humanity and come down to mother Earth in an attempt to make a real difference where it is most difficult, that is providing quality product thinking that is at least honest to the materials and manufacturing techniques used, even if it means alienating the few snobs always equating price with exclusivity.

Or keep contemporary furniture design on a par with modern art, i.e. in the galleries.

Amen! :smiley: