I am one of those people who visit a lot of fairs. I have for a long while been very curious about the Chinese design fair in Guangzhou, simply called Canton Fair. This fall I got the opportunity to visit this together with Svensk Kinesiska Resebyrån. And there were many, many impressions after this visit. Compared to any other design week or design fair we look at nice objects, fall in love and reason about the stories behind these objects. Canton Fair is all about money. Also opportunities, but it is all about the money. And I came to think – why don’t more people go here? It is so easy. Start your own brand, have a Chinese factory produce it and you’re all set. Easy peasy.
I will of course talk a lot more about the fair and how it works but going here showed me the money driven side of this industry. Here noone cares about stories or about the designer. Basically noone needs designers here. I did some interviews with European buyers and they showed me how you do it. You go to the fair, browse, find a nice flower pot or a sauce pan, ask them to alter it so you have a unique product (colour, size…) and you have your collection. Nor sure what colour or size to go for – ask for instance a trendhunter or a colour expert who knows what colours are coming the following years. Sounds shallow? I am not done yet.
This world where we don’t need designers is both an opportunity and a threat. It has never been so easy to start a brand. I will show below how easy it is. But it is also challenging because we are are drowning in stuff, unecessary stuff. You could easily start and become a new Hay, but do we need that?
So a quick budget.
Let’s say you go to the Canton fair (registration is free but you need to travel). A round trip Europe – HongKong is about 600 euros. Hotel for two nights 200 euros. Buying 30 dining sets (yes, kitchen table with six chairs) à 55 euros per set. Or 165 bread baskets for 10 euros each. Total purchasing 1650 euros. Then shipping to Europe from HongKong in a shipping container by boat. You can fill 12 square meters for 2700 euros.
So your budget would be:
800 travel and hotel + 1650 purchase + 2700 transport = 5150 euros
So to cover your expenses and make a bit of money you need to sell those table sets for 200 euros per set. Or your bread baskets for 40 euros each. You can choose to sell them yourself or as a distributor. You can choose to brand the items or not.
And you can choose to be a no brand distributor or for instance Hay. It is so easy. Why don’t more people do this? I am not sure we need more stuff, but there is an opportunity here. Bored of seeing the same stuff over and over again. You can easily go to China and start your own brand. I am not saying 5000 euros will be all you have to invest – but it’s not a lot. It’s not like 50 000 euros.
So. Lets talk about the fair.
Canton Fair is strange in many ways. The fair happens over three periods and changes themes. The first section is all about electrical devices. People like Steamery attends this first fair. And just as I described they go to a stand with steamers, ask for an alteration and get a product they bring back to Europe. No designer, just branding. So here you find electrical devices for kitchen (sous vide, etc). Second period is home with everything from kitchen to furniture. Third period is fashion and stationary.
The fair happens twice per year, and attracts 25 000 exhibitors and close to 200 000 visitors.
I was so puzzled by this fair. It really have changed a lot of how I see design now. Do we need designers in the future or should we go to a fair and point at things?
Everyone comes here. The exhibitors are not necessarily building stands to give a story, an ambience or anything. It is all about money. It is more important to talk about who you supply to than how it is made. Many exhibitors talked with pride how they supply non branded stuff to Costco or IKEA.
This is a more open part of the fair, but otherwise extremely generic.
This is not for inspiration – this is for making money.
Every now and then you would see business being made straight on the floor. You pick, choose, alter and make it your own. Ever wonder how come several brands all of a sudden have the same objects? It’s because they went here and shopped. Look at House Doctor, Nordal, ByOn, etc, etc…
And it is so easy. I want to endorse that. You could also be the next House Doctor. Anyone can.
And you see the look in people’s eyes. They aren’t looking for the nice things – they are looking for stuff that sells. People were walking two by two. Talking profit.
I did an interview with a Swedish design brand (supplier to for instance Åhlens and IKEA). And one doesn’t book meetings. You just walk the ailes up and down. Looking for stuff that seem commercial. And then you stop, talk to the Chinese producer and make a slight alteration and all of a sudden IKEA has a unique product. No designers needed.
“Did you see that? Should we go back and buy it?”
It was a whole new audience…
So this is a typical stand at the glass section. It’s so much… Overload of stuff.
And of course you see things that has a resemblance of other products (is it too similar to Vista Alegre or Iittala?)
Which one to buy and which one to alter?
A new Stelton thermos? Absolutely not a copy but the same idea. Perhaps soon at Target?
These rattin flower pots and side tables are nice – but only if the price is right. And again, no designer behind this.
Too similar to the Tom Dixon vase? Well maybe he didn’t design it. Maybe he went here and just bought it…
The wine carafe – is it too similar to Riedel?
And of course we see hands on copies at Canton fair.
The Jaime Hayon masks for Bosa.
Stools by Staffan Holm for Swedese
It was really a strange fair. It really made me think. On so many levels. Like the badge. It had my name and the word “buyer” but not the company. As if it wasn’t interesting to know if I was representing a small gallery or IKEA. As long as you are a buyer you are welcome.
I had the opportunity to walk along two buyers. I am extremely thankful for their insights. Åsa talked about how they plan their visit. They are here for many days and of course visit production sites that might not have representatives at the fair. She talked about how she works with the Chinese companies. The santa in the background for instance. Perhaps make it 2 cm shorter or taller, the bear a bit longer. She gets her samples straight after this fair. All sent to Sweden, where she shows it to clients and they book this for next Christmas.
The second person I got to hang out with was Filip. He would look for furniture pieces. He explained that he needed to have a “test person” in China before this was sent to Europe. Testing quality etc. He would look for products where the price was interesting – like the dining set we talked about in the beginning. He would look for storage and easy chairs to ship home.
Both Åsa and Filip would be “shopping by browsing”, so mainly just walking without any prebooked meetings.
So to conclusion. Canton fair is an absolute must for anyone who wants to get an insight in the business side of the industry. Everyone is here. Wikipedia says that 30 billion USD is dealt with here per fair.
I want to emphasize that it has never been so easy to start and deal with your own design business with this as a platform. I am not saying we need more stuff, but perhaps a new generation of design business developer? As for sustainability, you would think that all this stuff were bad, but it isn’t necessarily. You will absolutely find interesting sustainable products here as well.
But no designer names. In this world the designer means nothing.