There are plenty of Western design companies who manufacture in China. But the German company Lasfera has gone a step further, by basing its operations in Beijing. It’s headed by Henri Garbers, a designer who studied carpentry in Germany and interior and furniture design in Italy. For him, China has been the land of opportunity. He received commissions within two weeks of arriving in the country and has since had steady work designing for China’s exploding upper class.
Lasfera’s furniture line is mainly aimed at high-end Chinese customers, but for Beijing Design Week, it launched Tai, a more affordable furniture collection targeted at the European and North American markets–its first for the West.
The new line leverages China’s role as the world’s leading producer of bamboo products, Garbers says. It includes Xoo, a modular shelving system that was designed to be shippable by mail and assembled by the consumer without tools, as well as a line of furniture and lighting made from bent bamboo, a material considered by most Chinese to be inexpensive and common.
The Tai stool, for example, is made of bamboo strips that are bent using a traditional Chinese technique. Although each is made by hand, they can be mass produced in small villages with little manufacturing infrastructure. “They need hot water, they need fire, they need bamboo,” Garbers says.
But designing Tai was a challenge. Most bamboo manufacturers have prohibitively high minimum orders and aren’t willing to create prototypes. “They see immediately it’s a foreign company, so they think of huge export amounts,” Garber says. The key was finding a craftsman willing to work in small quantities. Garbers ultimately found one in Beijing.
China’s craftsmen, Garbers says, are among the world’s best. “We’re working with carpenters here who can do things which no German carpenter would be able to do.” But convincing them to apply traditional techniques to new designs can take time. “You have to build up a lot of trust until they start to cooperate with you in a way you’re used to in Europe,” he says.
Ironically, the cost of producing each Tai stool with the master craftsmen is so high, it makes the product too pricey for a Western market. But now that the stool is designed, it can be brought to another producer to be made less expensively. “You have to bring in prototypes, and they are able to copy your own design,” he says. “This they do perfectly.”
Taking a risk to develop something new can be difficult for Chinese companies, says Garbers. “This is something which is missing in the culture.” But if Lasfera’s line takes off, it could help change that attitude.
The products will be available in Europe later this year, with introductions in North America in early 2012.