Trend Report: Design Brands Cope With COVID-19

Trend Report: Design Brands Cope With COVID-19

By Sheila Kim
With manufacturing paused and major industry events canceled, the design industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus. We checked in with some prominent brands to ask how they plan to (cautiously) move forward.

When it comes to the coronavirus’s effect on the United States, no industry has been spared. This includes the design industry, which, according to a recent special report from the AIA, is experiencing an unfathomable decline in revenue and business. New architectural projects were down an estimated 50% in March, and 57% of firms are expecting revenues falloff of at least 10%. 

This is incredibly disheartening news. Still, like previous recessions, this too shall pass—and when it does, it’s natural to wonder (or worry) if manufacturers will be ready to respond to the flood of orders that are likely to come in. We touched base with a dozen leading product manufacturers (including Cosentino, Crossville, Wilsonart, Formica, Vitra, Carl Hansen & Søn, and Shaw) to gauge the current temperature of the industry, gain insight into how they’re protecting their employees, and learn whether or not they’ll have product on-hand once the virus is under control.

Vitra unveiled the 1941 Jean Prouvé Chaise Tout Bois chair, produced for the first time by the company. Though the big in-person marketing moments at Salone del Mobile have been canceled, the company plans to roll out new products digitally throughout the rest of the year.  

Due to orders from federal and state governments, brands that manufacture for both the residential and commercial markets have been deemed essential and have been able to keep their facilities running. The challenge has been how to keep producing while keeping employees safe. Several companies we interviewed had already manufactured stock items prior to the pandemic and are still producing their goods, though in a limited capacity, as they’ve implemented the six-foot rule and stricter hygiene and safety practices. Several of these brands supply product for projects such as medical hubs to treat COVID-19 patients — projects that are too vital to postpone. 

"Construction is considered essential in most states, and we supply that industry. So, we’re still working. About 75% of employees are working from home, and our production lines have been modified to support the health and safety of our onsite team members according to OSHA and CDC guidelines." — Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing at Crossville

Flooring brand Shaw, which runs 40 manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, took a similar approach "Where necessary, we made physical changes inside our facilities and in how our associates perform their job functions," explains company president Tim Baucom. In addition to stepping up disinfecting and providing face masks to all frontline employees, Shaw is staggering suspension of facilities depending on each plant region’s COVID-19 status and market demand.

In a statement to the press, Poltrona Frau says: "The trend of the number of cases of infection is finally giving some positive and encouraging signs. The time has therefore come to start thinking about a new phase that foresees Italians returning to their social and productive life while respecting all the countermeasures that will have to be taken due to COVID-19."

While much of Europe is still paralyzed in a state of lockdown, particularly in hard-hit Italy, the situation is starting to improve incrementally. A recently as April 21, a coalition of Italian furnishing and fixture brands (including Poltrona Frau, Flexform, Cassina, B&B Italia, Boffi, Giorgetti, and Cappellini) have come together to coordinate a safe reopening of production facilities across the country. Flexform and Flos announced the reopening of their facilities on April 28, assuring designers that appropriate worker safety measures would be put in place, such as social distancing and increased access to hand sanitation stations.

Many brands are doing what they can to avoid furloughs and layoffs. "We’ve made an agreement between the Danish Industry Federation, the unions, and the Danish government that enables a number of our employees to work from home and still remain employed," says Knud Erik Hansen, president of Danish furniture company Carl Hansen & Son. "The government compensates up to 70% of wages, and the remaining percentage is paid by us. That way, the employment terms can continue unchanged all through the pandemic."

The BM1771 and BM1871 are part of the new outdoor collection from Carl Hansen & Søn, slated to be shown at Salone del Mobile but now available online. They are made of FSC-certified teak and foldable for easy storage.

The cancellation of the Salone del Mobile, New York's NYCxDesign and ICFF fairs, and many other events have meant that the industry needed to find other solutions for introducing new offerings during what is normally its busiest marketing season. These fairs serve as a major product launch outlets; without them, many have been left to wonder how brands will get the word out about new furnishings, fixtures, colorways, and collaborations. Turns out, Zoom and Facetime aren't the only digital means of making connections.

"When we learned that Salone would be canceled, we took the opportunity to question a long-standing launch model and pivot that into an experimental digital launch strategy," explains Melissa Shelton, president of Vitra North America. That move has enabled Vitra to stay on track with official launch dates, ranging from June to October 2020, for new product. Cosentino also offers virtual visits to any of their showrooms in the United States, with time slots that can be reserved online to see and discuss product. Manufacturers have directed designers to online tools, as well. "We’ve been offering a floor visualizer tool to help our clients work from home and keep their design projects on track," says Dayna Prepis, North American marketing manager of wood flooring company Havwoods.

A shot of Formica's VR Showroom, which went live in April 2020. Designers are able to access the showroom on mobile, desktop, and laptop devices.

Others have been optimizing their digital platforms for altruistic reasons, too. Laminate giant Formica encourages architects and designers to attend its online Lunch & Learns to support a cause: For every view of its Lunch & Learn videos, Formica is donating 10 meals—up to a maximum of 500,000—to Feeding America. This is the result of the manufacturer redirecting funds that would have gone toward in-person Lunch & Learn events.

Although the situation is undoubtedly bad right now, all of the interviewees expressed some positivity for the future and, in the meantime, have learned new ways of conducting business during this unprecedented situation. Shaw’s Baucom says, "The pandemic has already begun to influence our thinking about future product and service offerings: What’s the new expectation for cleanability? How do we balance a desire for intense disinfecting with human health and environmental impacts? How do we create comfortable, productive workspaces in our homes if working at home becomes the norm?" 

Related Reading:

Architects and Designers Weigh In on the Future of Work

Life After COVID-19: How the Pandemic May Reshape the World as We Know It

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