Established & Sons, the hip UK-based design brand, is always much talked-about during the Milan Salone. And perhaps never more so than this year: the company, known for producing limited-edition pieces by star designers at celestial prices, launched...gasp...a range of almost Ikea-simple accessories costing as little as £75 (Dh407) for the Dip vase, under the moniker Estd. In doing so the company is tapping into the current climate of downsizing - be it smaller homes, more modest holidays and compact cars. If people can't splash out on that big corner sofa, spending on objects that will give pleasure on a daily basis - while making a mini-design statement - has to be the next best thing.
Cash-strapped consumers, tight credit, and higher manufacturing and shipping costs are forcing the world's furniture producers and retailers to rethink. Tracking the ways consumers change their shopping behaviour during a recession, the McKinsey Global Institute research unit found that with people curtailing spending and replacing items only when absolutely necessary, companies that deal in big-ticket items, such as furniture, can best respond by offering accessories or "enhancements" that help stretch the life of corresponding products.
Many of the big players in furniture manufacturing are cottoning on to our desire for more accessibly priced gratification - taking their cue from the fashion houses' sunglasses and perfume strategies, to expand their collections into accessories. Niche companies specialising in homewares - ranging from Alessi to Christofle - may have developed particular expertise, but this hasn't stopped the big brands from getting in on the act.
While not a new phenomenon, it has gained considerable momentum since the banking meltdown - and, perhaps, since other brands have seen how well the pioneers of this "going small" approach have done out of it. A case in point is Ligne Roset, which advocates that home accessories can be changed seasonally to reflect design and fashion trends. Having introduced 20 small-scale products to its range in 1998, it now has 64 products in the collection - which account for 15 per cent of the company's turnover.
While insisting on the same "function, design, technology and beautiful materials" embodied in its furniture, Ligne Roset says it can be more adventurous with smaller products. As it states on its website, "Like a classic watch or a beautiful handbag, furniture accessories won't draw attention away from the entire picture - they add to it, subtly, almost imperceptibly... everything fits." Working with sculptors, fine artists and interior designers, it produces a mix of hand-crafted pieces and interesting, quirky designs, which its customers are known to collect. Offerings for 2010 include organically shaped ceramics, such as the Roseau vase by Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance, the sinuous glass Origami vases by Peter Maly, the quirky bathtub-shaped Long Pot planter by Inga Sempé, and sculptural lighting.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Roche Bobois also introduced accessories in 1998. Seeing them as a good introduction to the brand's bold, relaxed style and level of quality, it now launches two new collections a year, comprising 400 items - spanning lighting, linens, rugs, ceramics and decorative items - which account for 10 per cent of its turnover. Current items include Aqua, a mirror resembling bubbles by Sophie Larger, the lacquered-glass Bowii vases by Marianne Guedin and a leather-upholstered wall clock, Monte Carlo by Carlo Zerbaro.
In Italy, Cappellini started producing small objects even earlier, in 1992, when Jasper Morrison and James Irvine developed its Progetto Oggetto collection, consisting of small "necessary and not so necessary" items for everyday use - some of which have become mini-design classics in their own right. The idea was to re-design traditional objects, stripping them down to their very essence, collaborating with such designers as Tom Dixon - who designed some copper candelabra - and Konstantin Grcic. Also in the collection are lamps by Inge Sempé, the Bouroullec brothers and Marcel Wanders; François Azambourg's manga-inspired table accessories; and a ceramic bowl by Lorenzo Damiani that appears to be made of crumpled paper.
Starting with 15 objects in 2005, B&B Italia Objects became a fully-fledged collection of complementary items, including lighting, vessels, cushions and signature pieces by star names, many of whom also designed major furniture items for the brand. Thus, from Naoto Fukasawa, we have the Grand Papilio chair (from Dh14,700) and Tetra candlesticks (Dh446), while Jean-Marie Massaud's signature is on the sinuous Terminal One chaise longue (Dh48,464) and a collection of pebble-shaped oil lamps and oversized candles (from Dh1,165). The idea was that candlesticks and crockery could serve as an entry point to B&B Italia - from which customers would work their way up to armchairs, sofas and storage units - as well as encouraging more impulse buys. However, perhaps recognising that this needs a dedicated marketing and sales drive, the company recently announced that it would re-focus on its furniture collections instead. (That said, with a 50 per cent stake in the Dutch design company, Moooi, the B&B group has clearly not abandoned smaller items.)
Skitsch is a new contender that has blazed a trail since launching at last year's Salone. Described by The New York Times' T-Style blog as a cross between Ikea and Moss, this multi-purpose Italian brand chose to go both big and small, with a collection of playful yet practical items ranging from storage and lighting to tabletop accessories and textiles. Providing an injection of fun among the rather more serious Italian heritage brands, Skitsch is bucking the trend for playing it safe during these troubled times. Debut pieces include Maarten Baas's Haphazard Harmony table set, the Woodfloor lamps by the Campana Brothers and a series of drinking glasses by Front.
Its founder and chief executive Renato Preti (who, incidentally, founded the Italian private equity fund Opera, which invests in furniture companies such as B&B Italia and Moooi) expects most products to be ordered online, which partly explains why Skitsch introduced accessories from the outset. "The products provide a more integrated and varied offering," explains Preti, "and they help make the shopping experience more exciting ."
Is there is a common thread between the furniture and accessories? "Yes - quality, creativity and function," he responds. "Every Skitsch product must have an element of 'emotional inspiration'." But let us make one thing absolutely clear: all of these items , from all of the brands mentioned, still represent high-end design - which means relatively high prices to match. According to Preti, Skitch's top sellers so far include the Cardboard Vase, designed by Paolo Ulian (from $495; Dh1,818), Antoine candle holders designed by Dovetusai Studio (from $215) and Puddle vase by Front (from $125). Why? "Because they are innovative and surprising [in their design and materials] and represent the perfect balance of price and quality."
And so to Established & Sons, which launched a lighting range created by designers such as Konstantin Grcic and the Bouroullec brothers in collaboration with the Venetian glassmaker, Venini, as well as the new Estd collection of everyday items (the designers of which are anonymous). "The [Estd] items derive their value not from the reputation or the celebrity of their designer, but from the articulation of Established & Sons' truthfulness to excellent and accomplished industrial design," says the company's co-founder and chief executive, Alasdhair Willis. "Anonymity allows our designers more freedom to experiment and work in an area they hadn't worked in before."
The collection - which includes blankets, dishes and vases, storage jars and even coat-hooks - is sold online through yoox.com to "sustain accessible prices" (if you can call a £350-£550 blanket accessible). Willis evidently believes, like Preti, that this is the way of the future, saying that the move to online selling isn't driven by business panic but, rather, follows the way consumers are buying.
He describes the new collection as "price sensitive", reiterating Established & Sons' core philosophy that "design is about design regardless of the price point". Meanwhile, one of Established & Sons' co-founders, Mark Holmes, has moved on to launch a new brand called Minimalux, which produces pared-down desk accessories and dinnerware in solid brass and gold plating. Holmes is counting on austerity and luxury being a potent pairing for today's troubled times. Time will tell.
London's respected furniture manufacturer and retailer, SCP, has responded to the downturn by developing a range called SCP Boxed - a collection of affordable pieces that are boxed and ready to take away. "We decided to try out some smaller pieces that wouldn't mean having to make a major investment," said the founder, Sheridan Coakley, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. Most of the items - among them a simple ash stool by Alex Hallum and Peter Marigold's cherry shelf units, based on his wonky Split Boxes shelving range - cost less than £220. "I'm excited about what we're doing," added Coakley, "We're designing our way through the recession... We're not going to make things cheap for the sake of it. First and foremost we're going make things that are good enough for people to want to keep."
He makes an important point. As consumers become more design savvy and visually clued-up, there has been an explosion of demand for smaller products - a sure sign that people are keen to buy design. But they won't buy a home accessory just because it's cheaper than a sofa; they'll buy it because it's a good way to give a fresh and sophisticated new look to a room. Especially if it offers long-lasting, functional design.