More US furniture companies look overseas for high-quality work, and they're finding it. They're also saving a lot of money.
By Susan Diesenhouse,
October 23, 2004
Custom-designed imported furniture was once an exclusive realm.
Now, it's the economical alternative for commercial developers and designers needing everything from seats to beds to desks for their projects.
They're buying it through top domestic furniture makers that are increasingly partnering with Chinese factories. There, US managers are fusing American design, engineering, and quality control with the low-wage Chinese labor. The result: custom armoires that cost $800 instead of $1,800, for savings of 30 to 50 percent on a dcor that may be almost 10 percent of the total project cost, said Mark Anthony Oliva, senior vice president for Cresset Development Group LLC, which last month opened Boston's Bulfinch Hotel, filled with Chinese-made furnishings.
"This was an opportunity for us to create a unique product: a boutique hotel dcor at a moderate price," Oliva said.
Bulfinch interior designer Campion Platt of New York said this was the first time he used Chinese imports.
"It finally has the quality," he said. "Before the wood was too green and would crack."
With China's seven-day work week, a time difference that allows for a 24-hour production cycle, the Bulfinch project took nine months rather than 18, at about 40 percent lower cost with higher-quality workmanship, Platt said.
"We were able to have master craftsmen build many pieces in solid stock."
The trend can be seen all over the city.
This week, Boston University is installing 6,200 seats custom made in China by the Hussey Seating Co. of North Berwick, Maine, for its new Agganis Arena, centerpiece of a $230 million, 1 million-square-foot recreation complex designed by The Stubbins Associates Inc.
"After competitive bids based on quality and cost, this was the best alternative from a major manufacturer," said BU senior vice president Richard Towle.
Custom Chinese imports also adorn the new Waterfront Hotel Suites in Salem, Jurys Boston Hotel, in the Back Bay, and a 360-seat theater in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion that opened this month at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End.
"Before, we used seats from Germany and Finland," said the theater's interior architect, Scott Wilson, principal at Wilson Butler Architects of Boston.
Hussey, a family-run company with about $100 million in annual revenue, is cementing ties in China to stay competitive, said Ron Bilodeau, product manager for the company, whose seats fill Gillette Stadium, the FleetCenter, and scores of other US arenas, churches, and schools.
"We need to be in China to stay at the top of our game," Bilodeau said.
Even many interior designers expect much of their custom work to come from China.
"Now, every major US manufacturer has a factory in China and 75 percent of our work is sourced through Chinese suppliers," said Jeffrey Ornstein, president of J/Brice Design International Inc. in Boston.
Each year, J/Brice designs furniture for 2,500 luxury hotel rooms nationwide.
Since 2003, Bulfinch Hotel furniture supplier Mark David Inc. of High Point, N.C., also has been manufacturing in China and every week reserves space on ships to ensure prompt delivery. Now, 70 percent of its employees are Chinese who earn about 20 cents an hour plus benefits compared to about $9.50 for those in High Point, said chief executive Mark Norcross.
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