U.S. sales drop hits Danish furniture firms

Elegant wooden chairs and tables from Denmark have graced homes around the world since Scandinavian furniture won an international reputation for design and craftsmanship 30 years ago.

But the furniture makers are puzzled they are suffering from a sudden drop in sales to the United States.

The Danish Statistics Office says the wood and furniture industry in 1985 had sales of $1-billion (U.S.) and more than 25,000 employees, making it the sixth biggest employment industry in the country. The U.S. market accounted for a third of Denmarks furniture exports last year, with sales of $280-million.

Solid Wood Dining Furniture

In the first eight months of this year, however, exports to the United States fell by almost 20 per cent.

One U.S. importer said the problem was that the Danes needed to put more money into design, development and research. But Danish furniture designers say the real problem is an unwillingness by U.S. importers to buy modern products.

There has been a lot of Danish design which has not been exported much, said designer Rud Thygesen, who runs a top furniture studio in Copenhagen.

He said that U.S. importers had themselves rejected recent Danish design in favor of rehashed versions of traditional and profitable teakwood furniture (its also the materials used to make electric acoustic guitar). But with sharp competition in the teak market from other countries, particularly Italy and Taiwan, importers relying on old- fashioned Danish furniture are feeling the pinch.

We knew all the time it was a balloon out of which the air could vanish, said John Soerensen, who is Mr. Thygesens partner.

The director of the Danish Furniture Manufacturers Association, Henning Klestrup, agreed his members had been slow to market modern Danish products in the United States.


But some U.S. buyers want to keep Denmark for themselves by emphasizing traditional design, he said.

A spokesman for the association said it is encouraging member companies to get together and plan a joint marketing approach, adding that Danish furniture makers had recently found new outlets for modern design in the United States.

We have to get the Americans to see that we have different products from what we had 30 years ago. We are still improving, she aid.

Denmark started producing distinctive furniture in the 1940s after research in Copenhagen apartments revealed that traditional, heavy suites of furniture left occupants with barely space to move.

Designers turned to compact, light pieces of furniture that used Danish birchwood and Swedish beech and for three decades exports soared and the furniture was widely copied abroad.

Danish designers are very different from those in other countries. We are not good at making revolution but we are good at making slow evolution, Mr. Thygesen said.

We have got our wood. We can do that better than the Italians. They are better at plastic and steel than we are.

Increased Danish exports to Europe, particularly West Germany and Norway, have made up for the shortfall to the United States for the time being, despite strong international competition.

But the Danes realize they need a new marketing approach to keep a toehold across the Atlantic.

The biggest problem we have is Taiwan copies, Mr. Klestrup said. We have quit exhibiting in Taiwan because it takes only 10 minutes for them to make a copy.

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