Furniture manufacturers in Northern Ireland were encouraged to invest in design at a special briefing on the latest Italian trends in Lisburn last week.

Important design trends from the recent Milan Furniture Fair, the industry’s most important event, were among a number of key issues considered by a panel of experts and senior managers from local companies at a one-day Invest Northern Ireland organised workshop in Lisburn Civic Centre.

Information on the latest design trends in furniture, interiors, fabrics and colour was provided in a number of interactive and highly visual presentations.

The presentation on the Milan Furniture Show was provided by Mark McConnell, Managing Director of OCO Consulting, a company which provides expert advice on business expansion and marketing strategy in this sector.

Terri Scott, Managing Director of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise at Invest NI, commenting on the seminar, said: “By focusing on design Northern Ireland furniture companies can successfully differentiate themselves and their products in key markets, such as Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, despite the competitive pressures posed from increasing volumes of imported products of steadily improving quality from lower cost economies.

“In a similar way to other traditional industries such as clothing and textiles, most companies in the domestic furniture sector will see growth come from the development of value-added, innovative products and further development of export markets, particularly Great Britain, a market currently worth £7.5 billion with annual growth of 3.5 per cent.

“We want more companies to recognise that adding value through design can have a very positive impact on profitability. Through our Accelerating Entrepreneurship strategy and our Principles for Business Support, we aim to encourage our companies to position design at the core of their business and thereby strengthen their overall competitiveness,” she added.

The seminar, the first of its type for the local furniture industry, also drew from the experience of Invest NI’s Design Group. The group’s Therese Kieran provided valuable insights into the impact of lifestyle trends, changing consumer tastes on design and how local furniture companies can benefit from a greater understanding of these issues.

In addition, Richard Bell, of Invest NI’s Design Group, demonstrated how design adds value and differentiates products and services in a competitive market and emphasised the importance of effective management of the product development process.

The workshop also heard how two Invest NI client companies, Tretzo of Armagh City and Crane Furniture Ltd of Newry, have benefited significantly from participating in Invest NI’s Design Development Programme (DDP) using external designers to help develop products and improve marketing.

Tretzo, a manufacturer of quality bathroom furniture, used DDP to develop an in-house design process that created three contemporary bathroom concepts. These formed the basis of ranges sold to Jacuzzi and Qualquam Shires. A third range is being marketed under the Tretzo brand.

Crane Furniture, a specialist joinery manufacturer, produces wooden fireplaces which are marketed throughout Ireland. Since the fireplace business tends to be seasonal in nature, the company turned to DDP for help in diversifying into high quality garden furniture. This led to the creation of the ‘Atlantic’ brand and associated marketing material.

“Today’s seminar is a clear demonstration of Invest NI’s ongoing commitment to the development of the furniture sector. We have identified improved design and an increased focus on retailers’ needs as critical to the industry’s future. Underlying this is the concept of total lifestyle and the important overlaps that exist between furniture and other lifestyle activities such as fashion, and these need to be increasingly understood and applied by our companies,” added Prof. Scott.