Interior designers, furniture makers adapting to new socially distant norms

For first time in nearly 80 years, High Point Furniture Market cancellation forces industry to explore new paths and partnerships

“Some of my clients say they need to redecorate these rooms because they may be logged in to a Zoom meeting with their boss and all you can see in the background is their child’s pink Polly Princess tent.” — David Farris, owner Barnes Custom Upholstery

HIGH POINT, N.C. — As if the state’s economy hadn’t taken enough of a hit from COVID-19, local officials were forced to cancel what would have been the High Point Furniture Market, originally set for this past weekend. The internationally acclaimed gathering takes place twice a year and is the largest home furnishings industry trade show in the world where manufacturers introduce new products and the industry connects through continuing education and collaboration. The only other time in history it was canceled was a back in 1942, during the height of WWII. “Market” as it is commonly referred to by members of the trade, occupies over 10 million square feet of space throughout 180 buildings and accommodates 2000 exhibitors, and has an impact of over $6 billion, making it the largest single economic event in the state each year.

“This week was supposed to be one of the biggest weeks of the year for our industry with High Point Furniture Market, but the industry has found ways to connect by introducing new product lines through webinars and video,” said Vicky Serany, founder and principal of Southern Studio Interior Design in Cary. “It’s certainly not the same, but it’s a way to stay in touch with our peers.”

Like Serany, decorators and furniture manufacturers across the country are being forced to change how they normally do business. Social distancing orders have for the most part removed the ability for designers to visit their clients’ homes or go into an office, so they are coming up with creative ways to host staff meetings, turning to e-design and various online platforms instead.

“The personal relationship is so important in our industry, so it’s mandatory that we find ways to continue to add extra-special touches in our new virtual world,” Serany says. Using video consultations, her firm connects with clients in their homes and is able to keep working on projects that may be simpler than their normal full-service design offerings but are also really fun.

Serany says her team has adapted to having video conference calls with office colleagues twice a day. “It’s an entirely new way of doing business, but during this time, over-communication is the priority,” she says.

So much of what interior designers do requires seeing, touching and interacting with various materials and textiles in person. While this has been one big hurdle to overcome, Serany says her team is accustomed to executing long-distance projects for clients on the coast in which they are required to ship presentations back and forth. Now, they are applying these same practices to local clients as well.

The design industry, which includes furniture manufacturing, interior decorating, and residential construction has a multibillion-dollar impact on the U.S. economy. To say there is a lot at stake right now is an understatement, so manufacturers and designers are also turning to online product sourcing as a way to stay relevant.

Steelyard, the largest digital product sourcing platform for the industry, is the leading resource furniture makers and designers use to connect with each other. The site has seen a tremendous uptick in business as Americans rush to better equip their homes to accommodate their new telecommuting, self-quarantined lifestyles. In essence, the coronavirus has forced Americans to change how they live and where they work.

“The work from home experiment has yielded some fascinating results,” said David Farris, owner of Barnes Custom Upholstery in High Point. “Employees are happier and more relaxed, and employers are realizing that they don’t need to spend as much money on big office buildings to have an engaged and productive work force. Our homes today are not really designed for productive work-at-home scenarios, so that is going to be a major shift in design moving forward.”

Farris says he is seeing clients order furniture to convert spare bedrooms into home offices. “Some of my clients say they need to redecorate these rooms because they may be logged in to a Zoom meeting with their boss and all you can see in the background is their child’s pink Polly Princess tent.”

Intriguingly, Farris says he saw the same home repurposing trends occur in 2008, when the financial crisis forced many college graduates to move back in with their parents. Per the Governor’s current coronavirus mandate, Barnes Upholstery can continue operating because it is deemed an essential business based on the fact that it manufactures supplies for home offices.

While Barnes Custom Upholstery and Southern Studio have been able to retain all of their staff, their owners agree the coronavirus will certainly have a long-term impact and introduce permanent changes to the design industry. Serany says she believes everyone will now be more open to remote operations and virtual presentations by their sales representatives. Farris says he expects to see a handful of manufacturers shut down because of the pandemic and that the combination of a labor shortage, import tariffs, and the early rise of the pandemic in the Pacific Rim created sustained financial hardship.

As the weather turns nicer designers say they are happy they can be bright spots for many of their clients as they seek to build kids’ recreation rooms and outdoor oases ripe for backyard barbecues with loved ones. “We’ve tackled the new challenges that families are facing in terms of repurposing rooms, but we’re also addressing projects that bring great joy, which is a really special opportunity during this tough time,” Serany said.