Being friends with a new kind of furniture


We all know (at least roughly) who Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe are.

But in case you’ve only recently returned from a long stay on Mars or Jupiter, they’re characters in the New York sitcom Friends.

The series, which seemed to run for about 50 years, charted their oh-so-lovable antics as they fell in and out of love, and did a lot of other stuff.

Never mind that the series was in fact filmed in darkest Los Angeles. The question on everybody’s lips was “how could they afford to live in such fantastic Greenwich Village apartments?”

After all, Joey and Chandler were a semi-failed actor and lowly office worker, and Craigslist helpfully suggests that an apartment such as theirs would cost around $14,000 per month to rent.

Which? Mortgage Advisors suggests that Monica’s apartment, with its fine views of the Manhattan skyline, would cost a whopping $3 million.

But, I suppose, film sets need to have a bit of space.  Actors need to be able to move around without tripping over coffee tables and getting in each other’s way.  There also has to be space left over for the film crew, cameras and whatever else film crews need.

All of which does have a roundabout point.  In London, the average price of a flat is over £600,000.  In New York, an average Manhattan apartment will set you back over $2 million.

According to the UN, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and, by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in towns and cities.

The current level of urbanisation ranges from 82% of the population in North America to 40% in Africa, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Every day, over 187,000 people become city dwellers.   In 1950, New York was the world’s first megacity, defined as having a population of more than 10 million people.

Now there are more than 20 megacities and, by 2025, New York is likely to have dropped to sixth on the list – behind Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Mexico City.

All that urban living has enormous implications not only for infrastructure but for the size of homes that we live in.  For example, in 1920, average homes in the UK measured about 1,647 square feet.  Now they measure 925 square feet, according to the Institution of British Architects.

Research has also found that the average one bedroom flat is now the same size as a London Underground tube carriage.

That does therefore have implications for the kind of furniture we buy and, by extension, the kind of furniture designers should be making.

At the Chippendale school, we teach all aspects of design, making and restoration, and our graduates go onto woodworking careers throughout the world.

But the market for fine furniture is changing.  Buyers have, I suppose, always been the relatively affluent, and that segment of society always used to live in larger homes.

Nowadays, the affluent in, say, London, are living in an underground carriage.  They might still want to commission pieces of fine furniture, but space and practicality dictate a new kind of buying dynamic.

As furniture designers, we have to recognise how our markets have changed and make furniture that is fit for purpose for the 21st century – markets that involve real people living in smaller spaces, but wanting creative solutions for their everyday needs.

For example, we recently had a student whose big idea was to make fabulous bespoke furniture that could be easily dismantled.  She had rightly identified that over 50% of people aged under 25 have already lived in three or more homes.  On average, they’ll typically move three more times before they are 45 – and moving large pieces of furniture is a hassle.

Another student made a beautiful coffee table that, with clever hinges, folded out and upwards to become a dining table – with the chairs hidden inside.  In other words, if you’re living in a small space, why buy a coffee table and a dining table?

A lot of furniture designers instinctively still design only for a more mature market: older people who have moved up the property market, and have both the living space and disposable income to commission an heirloom piece of furniture.

Well, okay, but a lot of older people will over the years have already bought a lot of furniture.  In other words, they may have the space, but not necessarily the need.

It’s therefore a mindset that excludes younger people, or those still living in smaller spaces.

The average UK salary is currently about £27,500.  In the City of London it’s close to £50,000, roughly double the UK median.  Other UK cities have the same disparity, if not on the scale of London.  That means that an average couple living together in wealthy inner-city areas are likely to be cash rich but property space poor.

To me, it suggests that woodworkers should be looking again at the market, and perhaps challenging their creativity to offer living solutions rather than just furniture.

It’s about identifying buying markets and designing for them – real people in the real world, with very real needs and expectations.

Unlike the cast of Friends who were paid $75,000 per episode in season three, $85,000 in season four, $100,000 in season five, $125,000 in season six, $750,000 in seasons seven and eight, and $1 million in seasons nine and ten.

There again, in the real world, none of them actually existed.

Anselm Fraser is principal of the Chippendale International School of Furniture.

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